New owners freshening up Bellingham’s 129-year-old Horseshoe Café

A downtown restaurant landmark is going to be freshened up, but it should still remind some longtime customers of the good old days.

That’s the goal of the new owners of the Horseshoe Café, who took over operations of the 129-year-old restaurant on 113 E. Holly St. last week. The ownership group is a family with strong local ties. Brian Waller, Barb Groen, Kate Groen, Joe Russell and Adam Groen are all familiar with the downtown Bellingham scene, with Waller and Barb Groen operators of The Beaver Inn bar next door.

Their goal is to restore ‘The Shoe’ to what it was in the 1960s, with a few other eras mixed in, said Barb Groen. The eatery is currently closed until May while they clean up and make some changes to the Bellingham landmark. They are trying not to change the “funkiness” of the decor that the Horseshoe is known for, said Kate Groen, Barb’s daughter and Waller’s step-daughter.

“We are really focusing on the menu and customer service,” said Kate Groen, adding that the menu will focus on comfort food. “We are a big breakfast family, so that that will be served all day along with a lunch and a dinner menu. We want to be family friendly, but also be a place to go after the bars close at night.”

The group is currently tinkering with the hours of operation. Once the restaurant is ready in May, the current plan is to be open seven days a week and 24 hours on weekends.

Travis and Alisha Holland have operated the Horseshoe since 2001, but decided to pursue other business interests. Travis Holland said they had three interested parties in the Horseshoe, but decided to go with this group because of their expertise in Bellingham.

“I’m grateful to have been a part of the downtown scene for so long,” said Travis Holland, who also operated Casa Que Pasa before buying the Horseshoe.

The new owners are viewing this as a huge family project, with each pitching in on the cleanup. Once the Horseshoe is open, Barb and Kate Groen will handle much of the day-to-day operations. They are mindful of the reputation the Horseshoe has had as a trouble spot and want to change that perception. They believe things have improved overall in downtown Bellingham recently and will try to do their part as well, whether its enforcing the no loitering rules in front of the Horseshoe or calling the police when needed.

Barb Groen said she’s been impressed with the Bellingham police of late, particularly the ones on bicycles who regularly patrol downtown.

“The city is really working on it,” she said.

Having first opened in 1886, the Horseshoe Café has a storied history in Bellingham. According to newspaper archives, it started out as the Horse Shoe Saloon and was known for serving cheap whiskey at cheap prices to the workers of the mills and fish canning operations that were popping up in the city. It was originally closer to what is now N. State Street, having moved to its current spot in 1959.

Through the years, the interior of the Horseshoe acquired an eclectic country western theme, particularly in the bar known as the Ranch Room. The bar area has plenty of local western artwork, some of which, as the story Barb Groen has heard, was done by a customer working off a bar tab.

The Shoe, as it is typically called, was very much a workingman’s place throughout much of its history, said former owner Jack Kahn in 1986 in an article about the 100th anniversary. Kahn and Julian Berenstain were longtime operators of the Horseshoe, operating it together from 1948 until Berernstain died in 1992. Kahn continued to operate the Horseshoe until 2000. He died in 2004.