The Malt Shop’s first big rush started when late Minneapolis Tribune entertainment writer Will Jones reviewed the restaurant with a comparison to the 1950s nostalgia of the show “Happy Days,” which aired that week.
The article published less than a year after Richard Henke’s friends, Patrick O’Brien and John Dimunation, opened the restaurant in 1973, with Henke joining shortly after.
“Yes, folks, at the Malt Shop they actually concoct and mix the malts with real ice cream, instead of presenting you with the extruded chemical foam that passes for malts almost everywhere in the 70s,” Jones wrote.
Henke didn’t think much of the article before it ran.
“We had people telling us we better be ready and we thought ‘oh that’s nice,’” he said.
After the story printed, Henke remembers looking out the window of the Malt Shop an hour before opening and seeing a line down the sidewalk.
They ran out of food at 6 p.m. that day, he said. The next day they made it until 7 p.m. Then they bought another fridge, which allowed them to serve food until the store closed.
Henke said that rush lasted years.
“We had lines almost every day,” he said.
Henke sold the Malt Shop in late December after relinquishing most operations to his son in 2016. The building is currently under renovations under Rebecca Illingworth Penichot’s ownership and will reopen in late May.
Henke’s son, Will, grew up in the restaurant and remembers sitting in its booths for hours every day. He said that back in the day, it was for “young people” and “hippies.”
“They called the managers bozos to try and knock them down so it didn’t seem like they were above other people,” he said.
The senior Henke claims that the restaurant offered the first veggie burger in the area and offered several vegetarian options in its early days. The vegetarian menu was a continued source of pride for the Henkes that continued until it closed.
“They had these old veggie burgers that are like a Woodstock-era recipe that’s made up of chickpeas, and rice, and peanut butter and cashews,” Will said. “I remember eating that a lot as a kid.”
When Richard and his friends bought the other half of the restaurant in 1976, they spent six months remodeling it with the help of regular customers and scavenged everything from woodwork to stained glass from barns and other buildings that closed.
Over time, his partners left the Malt Shop to pursue other interests and the business transitioned into a family restaurant.
Many servers stuck around for years, even decades, while entire families of high school-age kids rotated in and out. Assistant manager Julian Stavrou’s older brother recruited him to work at the Malt Shop when he was 15. Now 40, Stavrou will return to the restaurant when it reopens.
“It was a good starter job to get my feet wet in the service industry,” he said. “Obviously I enjoyed it because I’m still there.”
Will also started working at the Malt Shop in high school, initially in customer-facing roles and eventually cooking, before the elder Henke turned over management of the restaurant to his son instead of selling it.
Making positive changes in the business was rewarding to Will, and he worked hard to revamp the digital aspect of the Malt Shop during the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when restaurants relied on take-out orders.
He updated the website, made online ordering possible and started an email newsletter to keep the business going during the early pandemic days.
“We were lucky because we are in a neighborhood where a lot of people were looking for to-go only stuff and our food worked as something that people would want to get to-go,” Will said.
Still, he said that he had to let go of many employees until they were down to a skeleton crew. The few staff who remained worked extra hard to fill takeout orders, and others worked just a few hours a week to get government assistance.
“It was a lot of work, but honestly the world was feeling uncertain and it was just nice to have a job and I was going to work in a building with barely any people in it,” he said.
Eventually, managing the Malt Shop became less enjoyable for Will and he told his dad that he was done.
“It was time to step away,” he said. “It seemed like a good time.”
The senior Henke, who had seriously considered selling the restaurant in 2016, met Steve Young at a neighborhood business association meeting. He sold the building to him at the beginning of 2022.
Longtime employee Stavrou said he knew that Henke had been thinking of selling for a few years, but was still surprised and worried when he eventually did.
“Having worked there so long, it was kind of shocking to know that big changes were coming,” he said. “As far as we knew the business could have been sold and the place could have been torn down and turned into apartment buildings.”
Illingworth Penichot, who owns Tinto Kitchen on Penn Avenue, bought the business and is remodeling it to be an “elevated pub.” While she said she’d keep some vintage items in the store, she’s adding a bar and working on acquiring a hard liquor license in addition to the beer and wine license that she already secured.
Kevin Stammer of Grand Catch and Lake and Irving Restaurant is slated to be the chef, and Illingworth Penichot said that her goal is to “serve the best burger in the Twin Cities.”
Her main priority when taking over the restaurant was keeping the staff and supplying them with health insurance for the first time. Staff have been working at Tinto while the Malt Shop undergoes renovations, but will return when the restaurant reopens.
Stavrou said that Illingworth Penichot quelled his concerns about the changes.
“It was pretty painless of a transition,” he said. “Rebecca came in and made us all feel pretty comfortable that we all were still going to have jobs and that positive changes were going to be coming to the Malt Shop.”
Stavrou hopes that the new management will put some new life into the restaurant.
“I’m hoping we can just bring a new spark of life into it,” he said. “Over all the years I’ve worked there, and I love the place, I really think it needs a little something to freshen it up a little bit.”
Illingworth Penichot said that despite the changes, she will maintain the family aspect of the restaurant as well as continue to provide vegetarian options and the classic malts and shakes. The restaurant will close at 9 p.m. because according to her, “nothing good happens after 9 o’clock.”
“I’m glad that we’re going to be able to revitalize the restaurant,” she said. “I think that the love for it went away by the previous owners and we’re excited to put it back into the neighborhood with a lot of love and care and great food.”
The Malt Shop is located at 809 W. 50th Street and will reopen in late May.