You are currently viewing McFeely: Speak Easy closure ‘devastating’ for long-time employees – InForum

McFeely: Speak Easy closure ‘devastating’ for long-time employees – InForum

MOORHEAD — Rennitta Okerlund, Jayne Schlicht and Cindy MacLeod were wrapping up a busy evening at the Speak Easy late Thursday, just as they had wrapped up thousands of busy workdays before. They sat at a few tables not far from the bar in the dark, windowless dining room and the packed silverware.

A fork, knife and spoon wrapped in a napkin, stacked in a plastic bin, ready for the next day. Again and again. They chatted and joked over the din of the restaurant’s remaining patrons. MacLeod sipped a drink.

That night, unlike all the previous ones, their work was interrupted from time to time by a client or a colleague who stopped at the tables to offer a hug and his condolences. There were words of encouragement and thanks. There were questions about what was to come next.

The Speak Easy, a moorhead institution that opened in 1974, is closing for good this weekend. Owner Bob Kietzer told staff in a surprise announcement. It’s not a staff issue, the restaurant and lounge just don’t make enough money. The news was made public on Wednesday.

Customers flocked to the restaurant on Thursday – there was a lunch queue for the first time in ever – to get one last plate of spaghetti or a piece of lasagna at the gangster-themed 1930s Italian restaurant. In another era, the ‘Speak’ was the place to be and on Thursday many old school Moorhead locals wanted to feed on a bit of nostalgia.

The media has made their stories and by next week, it’s likely the world will have moved on. Restaurant closures are not uncommon, especially in a post-COVID world.

But for Okerlund, Schlicht, MacLeod and several others at Speak Easy, the news was, in the words of manager Jill Driscoll, “devastating”. These are not jobs they took for a few months to earn a few extra bucks. These aren’t teenagers going to college and trying to make money on beer.

Okerlund has worked at Speak Easy for 47 years.

Kent Larson, currently a cook who has held several positions at the restaurant, has been there for 40 years.

Schlicht has worked there for 36 years.

“And two months,” she said. “But who keeps track?”

MacLeod is in his 30th year.

Other employees have been at Speak Easy for 10 years, 15 years, 20 years. This place was special in that regard.

“It makes me very sad,” Okerlund said. “We are like family. Our long-time clients are also like our family. We are friends and family. Our clients would bring pictures of their children, graduation pictures, wedding pictures, christening pictures. , confirmation. Just like a family.”

Okerlund and Schlicht started working at Speak Easy on their way to what was then called Moorhead State University and never stopped. MacLeod took a part-time job for something to do when his children started school. Same thing. Never stopped.

Schlicht worked 34 years full-time for a local business and still hasn’t quit his part-time hours at the restaurant. The extra money helped, of course. But she liked it too.

“It was my social life,” MacLeod said. “That’s how we saw people.”

The business has changed a lot over the decades. Okerlund started working at Speak Easy in 1975 and at the time it was one of the few restaurants in Moorhead. Going out for dinner was not the casual, routine affair that it is now.

“It was much more fine dining. People would dress up and go out for drinks and dinner with their wives,” Okerlund said. “Before, we had a piano and we had live music. In fact, we had to stop because we weren’t turning the tables fast enough. The place was full and people were sitting down when they were done dinner and listened to the music. It cost us money.

In its heyday, the Speak Easy was the go-to place for Moorhead businessmen and politicians. It hosted graduation parties, bridal dinners, Christmas parties and company outings.

“At the time, it seemed like we were planning a Christmas party every day between Thanksgiving and Christmas,” Schlicht said. “Now there is none of that.”

There were also contacts with celebrities. Dancer Gregory Hines signed Schlicht’s ballet slippers. Actor Barry Pepper stopped in Fargo for the Roger Maris Celebrity Golf Tournament. OJ Simpson dined at the Speak.

“Once Red Skelton arrived just after closing time after playing at the comedy club and wondered if he could have something to eat. I had to tell him the kitchen was closed,” Okerlund said. . “He came in and looked around, though. He seemed to like the place.”

The restaurant looks much like it did in 1974. It is dimly lit. Red curtains and red velvet adorn the walls of the lower dining room. There are works of actors and musicians from the 1930s, photos of Moorhead from days gone by. A chandelier from the old Comstock Hotel hangs from a tin ceiling. There is a walk-in cloakroom. The cabins are of the same red imitation leather. The bar is huge.

It is, in some ways, like stepping back in time. It’s more of a supper club than a sports bar.

And, of course, the car. A red 1931 Auburn 898, the kind of car Jimmy Cagney would drive in a gangster movie, sits up front near the bar. This is the hallmark element in the Speak Easy.

“I just thought we’d be able to do it until we were done,” MacLeod said. “I guess we’ll have to find something.”

Asked about her best story in all those years as a waiter, bartender, hostess and so on at the restaurant, Okerlund looked up from the rolling silverware and smiled.

“You mean besides airline pilots?” she said.

No story of the Speak Easy would be complete without talking about it. Three Northwest Airlines pilots got drunk at a restaurant one night in 1990 and flew a 727 from Fargo to Minneapolis early the next morning. They were arrested. It was national news.

Okerlund was not working that night.

“God saved me that day,” she laughs. “It was a Wednesday night and I had church.”

Okerlund, Schlicht, and MacLeod had no crazy stories of insanity or debauchery. Just good memories of good people, many of whom were regular customers and familiar faces.

“Our clientele was so respectful. We didn’t have patrons getting drunk or fighting. It wasn’t that kind of place,” Okerlund said. “But they also knew we weren’t going to talk outside of school. What happened at Speak Easy stayed at Speak Easy.”

The employees do not know what awaits the building and all the treasures it contains. Some customers wondered Thursday if the owner was going to sell the paintings, the photos or the car. He did not communicate his plan to his staff.

For the workers who have given a good chunk of their lives to the four owners of Speak Easy over the years – Okerlund is the only employee working for all of them – most will have to find new jobs.

“I’m 70. I’m done. My husband said he wishes I was home,” Okerlund said. “But for those others? The bills don’t pay themselves. They’re going to have to find jobs elsewhere.”

The family is forced to separate.

“Why can’t Elon Musk buy the Speak Easy?” Schlicht asked. “Forget Twitter. Who wants that? That would be more fun.”

All three agreed on the best aspect of working for the Speak Easy for 47, 36 and 30 years. There was no hesitation when asked.

“My colleagues and customers,” Okerlund said. “We have an amazing clientele here. The people who work here are amazing. You haven’t seen people working in the same restaurant for so many years. But this place was family-friendly. I hope people appreciate that.”

Leave a Reply