Bites Grill & Bar has been a lakes area dining destination for years, and locals will be happy to know that new owners Roger and Wendy Hoplin intend for it to stay that way.
Though it may not have been widely known, John and Mary Zesbaugh have been quietly marketing the business for sale to new owners for years.
“Doug Zaske’s been after us for two years,” Wendy said.
“It was on the market, but I think with a lot of businesses the last thing you want to do is put a great big ‘for sale’ sign out front, because people are hesitant to stop in with things like that,” Roger said.
In spite of the change in ownership, the Hoplins say they do not intend to make many changes to the business, though they plan to make small additions.
“We have some unique experiences in our background that I think are really going to help us,” Roger said.
Roger and Wendy are both from Pine River, though they have moved from state to state over the years. Roger worked at the Cenex in Pine River, and Wendy has worked with different restaurants in the lakes area since age 16.
“I started in fast food when I was 16. I progressed into management, then I worked several different restaurants. I cooked, I waitressed. At one I did both. I waitressed in the day and cooked in the evenings,” Wendy said.
After their youngest child graduated in 1999, Roger transferred to Iowa for work and Wendy followed. Between then and now they changed jobs and states multiple times. Wendy went from restaurant work to become a journeyman electrician, and then to run a small cake baking business from her home. Roger got a degree in business and worked for Ecolab, a company that sells cleaning chemicals and dishwashing machines to dining facilities.
They moved back to the lakes area in the fall of 2012.
“My mom had had some health challenges and we were just ready to come back home,” Roger said.
Coming back to Minnesota gave Wendy the opportunity to pursue her baking career further.
“My love for baking has never stopped. I always loved it,” Wendy said. “Our daughter was getting married and I didn’t want to spend the big dollars for a wedding cake so I learned to make a wedding cake, and from there I started my own small business on the side making wedding cakes, anniversary, birthday desserts. That was when we were living in Joplin.”
She finishes her education with Le Cordon Bleu in Minneapolis/St. Paul in October. Until that time she is completing an externship with Grand View Lodge.
Roger retired from Ecolab on May 31, and he and his wife closed the deal on Bites on June 3.
“Really, it’s a no brainer. It’s an established restaurant, and I worked here back in '99 with Bob Cadwell. It was a fun time learning from him,” Wendy said.
“Who would have thought we’d eventually end up coming back here and buying it?” Roger said. “The opportunity here is amazing.”
Wendy plans to use her training and education in baking to add more fresh baked breads and desserts to the Bites menu. Roger plans to use his years of experience with Ecolabs to ensure that the safety and sanitary conditions of the restaurant remain a top priority.
“I’d like to see the breads. I know, as a niche, one of our favorite places was the Riverhouse in Hackensack when they had the popovers. They were known for that,” Roger said. “I would like to see this become known for some of the fresh breads and desserts as we come into that.”
Though Wendy and Roger are looking for extra help for the summer, with the exception of the owners, all the former staff will remain with the business. This is a good thing considering the culinary reputation of head cook Jeff Carbert.
“He’s got a good reputation and we’re thankful he’s staying on,” Roger said. “We have some good accolades, so we just want to build on that.”
“I feel that God had his hands in this from the very get-go, and I thank him for it that we will be able to see his hand in this,” Wendy said. “And it’s fantastic to be back home again.”