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Bonzer's: The Aura of Old School

Bonzer’s needs no permanent address. The long-running sandwich pub has earned the ability to simply exist in the world by name alone. Infused from day one with a charm and atmosphere business owners from any industry would be enviable of, the establishment known for its old-school wood inspired booths and bar, frosty scooner mugs paired with precision made sandwiches, and Jon, the owner, donning those white aprons as he floats throughout his home-away-from-home like a living legend, has become a pillar in the region that draws a daily crowd ranging in age from 21 to 81.

This is a place for everyone.

We sat down with Jon, along with the other Bonzers Cindy, Matt and Melissa, to learn about it all: the keys to running an old-school sandwich pub in North Dakota that was inspired (and still is) by a small business in California, how the Bonzer vision will evolve in the future, and of course, about the elements required to maintaining a memorable pub and the not-so secret secrets of making the perfect sandwich.

In the beginning, there was Joe Jost’s. It was a small joint in Long Beach, California, that counted sausages, pickled eggs and beer as its staple offerings. The food was simple, like the people and the atmosphere and the vibe. They offered what they offered, you got what you got and every moment there, Jon recalls, felt like time well spent that in many ways, reminded him of the place he has always considered home base: North Dakota. Jost’s was always just comfortable, like a home-away-from home, he explains. Jon remembers the image of his own father sitting at the bar there after moving West to find work, enjoying a sausage link and an egg, grinning at Jon as he ate. When Jon moved back to North Dakota to attend the University of North Dakota after living with his parents in California, he opened Bonzer’s and mimicked everything he could after the memory he had of Jost’s (which is still running and is the oldest bar in Long Beach).

Bonzer’s is about knowing who you are, what you are going to get and partaking in the comfort and atmosphere of the moment.

After establishing the sandwich pub in downtown Grand Forks, encountering, dealing with, surviving and overcoming the historic flood of ’97, Jon and his family have supplanted their current rendition of Bonzer’s on Fourth Street and Demers in Grand Forks. The newest version is complete with dark wood, breweriana décor ranging from signs to bottles, real trees, light posts and a small fireplace. They serve simple foods as best as you can serve them, hot and fresh and right. It has a Cheers bar aura to it, or maybe it is the other way around. Behind the bar, a sandwich making station includes bins for ingredients, loaves of bread, bags of cheese popcorn and a cutting board. It is the type of set-up, design and feel that existing pub owners would like to copy, and new startups will try too. The Bonzer’s apparel line has an extensive following. People are serious about their Bonzer’s hats and shirts and sweatshirts.

Making random groups of people happy throughout the day is our biggest challenge. But that is what we do.

As we sit in a large room that overlooks the downtown sidewalk and Demers Avenue, the family talks about Jost’s and the early days and the memories that go with them today. It is nearly impossible to take notes. Each of the four has something to say, all of it mesmerizing, all of it coming at once. Matt and Melissa recall their days spent hanging out there, playing darts, eating pretzels and cheese popcorn. After the ’97 flood, they were paid a dime per brick to scrub off mud from each stone so that once rebuilt, the new Bonzer’s could keep part of the old. That same brick is present in the current locale, along with an old sign that is hung in the back by the pool table. All of it feels authentic. At the table, Jon talks about his parents, the image of his father eating and the loving conversations his father and mother had. He recalls earlier days and the people that made his dream come true. Cindy is all smiles, remembering details of her kids and her husband and the people that have left Bonzer’s but still come back to visit to this day. She is proud of a low employee turnover number. She really smiles when her kids say Bonzer’s is still a cool place to be at.

Although the devastation of the ’97 flood (the burning buildings you see in videos are of Bonzer’s original location) is certainly part of the Bonzer’s story, everyone in the room is quick to explain why it is only a small part now. “This place has always been about connection and about family,” Jon says. “It is a place for everyone.” Jon remembers many moments when people told him they chose Bonzer’s as their spot to go celebrate an important time in life, he says, and that in many ways, the success of Bonzer’s is linked to the support from its customers. Engagments happen all the time there. Dogs are named after the sign on the front. There is something about the booths and the height of them that put people at ease. The coat hangers on the booths are well used and worn. Both the front and back doors could be replaced after so much use.

“People always recognize our last name,” Melissa says. “It has always been that way and I’m proud of that now.”

Matt remembers college professors using Bonzer’s as a hypothetical backdrop for course work discussions.

We still get customers coming in that came in the first day we opened.

After talking about the art of making the perfect sandwich, how to pour a drink and the fine art of turning a sandwhich pub into a community staple, the conversation turns and creates a different vibe. Outside the room, the clock is nearing happy hour. Laughter, music and commotion is picking up. Just another Thursday at Bonzer’s. Inside the room, the four have gotten quiet, as if things need to be said or spoken about and none of them want to say a word. We are talking about the future.

Bonzer’s, Matt says, is an experience in and of itself. He knows that now. After earning an undergrad and law degree from UND, Matt traveled the world and practiced law in Lima, Peru, and could have been a big-time lawyer in L.A. But he, like his sister (also a world traveler), couldn’t shed the experience and pull that Jon and Cindy created with their family-owned pub. Recently, Matt and Melissa have both decided to take on the family business and continue on with the vision and work of their parents. It’s at that point, when the future of Bonzer’s is revealed to be linked to Matt and Melissa and not some outside investor or new owner, that the room goes quiet. Cindy looks at the ceiling and repositions the neck line of her shirt. Melissa is eyeing the table in front of her. Matt stares towards Demers and then to his father before leaning back in his chair as if his body is bracing for something it isn’t sure is good or bad. Jon literally says out loud that he can only look at me because he’ll breakdown if he looks in the direction of his family. “I’m proud of the longevity of this place. I’m proud of this town. I’m proud of our staff,” Jon says with that throat quivering noise in his voice we all know is hardest to control when the extreme joy we experience in life is guiding our words. The lights are off in the room. On the far side of the large table there are still chairs hoisted on the table top. Then, everyone just naturally looks to Jon, who is looking at me. I’m just trying not to get in the way of anything important because it seems like something memorable is happening. Matt seems caught off guard, but in a good way. It’s hard to tell, but there could have been a few moist eyes besides Jon’s at the table. “But the proudest day of my life,” Jon says, before finally turning his eyes off of me and onto the person they are meant for, “was when Matt told me he wanted to take over the business. We went out and celebrated that night.” G

// To view the full story, check out the digital issue here

From Issue 1, 2020

PHOTOS BY: Manstrom Photography


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