Serlin’s Café for sale, future of Payne Avenue institution uncertain

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The atmosphere in Serlin’s Café on this Friday morning seems about the same as ever—lots of good food, coffee and conversation among the cramped and painted booths. But the big ‘For Sale’ sign in the window signals something different.

“We’re tired. Try working every day for years,” says co-owner Gary Halvorsen in Serlin’s prep kitchen, as he pours 2% milk over the macaroni and cheese in a well-used pan. Still, he says it with a wry grin and moves around the kitchen with the energy of a man half his fifty-nine years. “And Al [Halvorsen, Gary’s brother and co-owner] is ready to retire.”

At 62, Al Halvorsen is as old as Serlin’s Café, opened by their stepfather, Irv Serlin, in 1946 in a building that had housed another restaurant (Herman’s) and before that, was used to make horse harnesses. The Halvorsen brothers started working at the Café for their stepfather in 1965. Over the years, Serlin’s became an East Side legend, serving pie and hot sandwiches to St. Paul’s political establishment and visiting VIPs like Frank Sinatra.

Gary Halvorsen says it’s getting harder and harder to make a living running the café. He attributes that to several factors: the decline of Payne Avenue as a commercial corridor, regular customers getting older or moving to the suburbs, and, of course, skyrocketing costs of food and fuel. Newly printed menus reflect price increases to offset inflation. “But this is Payne Avenue,” he says. “We can’t charge like they do out in the suburbs.”

The For Sale sign went up in the window Saturday, August 16. A few inquiries about a purchase have come in since then, but nothing definite. The Halvorsens say they know it’s a tough time to sell a business, so they’ve tried to set the purchase price at an affordable level. The sale includes the restaurant and all equipment, plus a three-bedroom apartment upstairs and an attached garage.

In the cramped, hot galley, cook Mike O’Neill expertly handles pancakes and French toast while Al Halvorsen flips an omelet inches away. Wait- and bus-staff bustle in and out of the dining room entry just a few feet away. “I was a navy cook,” Al says, then deadpans “I liked all that room in the submarine galley.”

The dining room is lively, but only about half-full, and gray hair predominates. One customer, Howard Melco has been coming to Serlin’s since the early ‘50s. This morning he’s treating his daughter and granddaughter to breakfast. Another, Jim Ahlberg, says he’ll be sorry if the café closes, then rattles off a list of other Payne Avenue businesses that are gone. Beata Gasparre sits in the front window booth with husband Leonard and son Mark. The elder Gasparres are in town to visit family and made the trip over from Mac-Groveland just for the apple pie. As Leonard finishes off his piece, Beata considers the possibility of new owners taking over the Serlin’s tradition. “It’ll never be the same,” she shakes her head.

Pending a sale, the Halvorsen’s plan to keep Serlin’s open at least until the end of the year, says Gary Halvorsen. And if a buyer steps in, it could remain open indefinitely.

Paul Purman lives and writes from St. Paul’s Mounds Park neighborhood. Reach him at ppurman@comcast.net