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Restaurateur Kim Holmes: 'I would do it all over again'

Kim Holmes typically stayed in one place for five years before moving on to his next venture. Then he moved in 1981 to Grand Forks, where he took over the popular downtown restaurant Sanders 1907. The plan was to stick with the restaurant for thr...

Kim Holmes, former owner of Grand Forks' downtown restaurant Sanders 1907, stands Thursday in the Alley of Love, an alley behind his restaurant known for attracting lovers. Holmes now enjoys retirement with his wife, Beth. (April Baumgarten/Grand Forks Herald)
Kim Holmes, former owner of Grand Forks' downtown restaurant Sanders 1907, stands Thursday in the Alley of Love, an alley behind his restaurant known for attracting lovers. Holmes now enjoys retirement with his wife, Beth. (April Baumgarten/Grand Forks Herald)
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Kim Holmes typically stayed in one place for five years before moving on to his next venture.

Then he moved in 1981 to Grand Forks, where he took over the popular downtown restaurant Sanders 1907. The plan was to stick with the restaurant for three years and then move on.

But something about Grand Forks and its people kept him there. For more than 30 years, he owned and operated the restaurant, calling the Red River of the North his home.

"I love it here. This is the longest place I've stayed in my life," he said of Grand Forks. "This town has been good to me."

The 62-year-old retired from his five-decade career in the restaurant industry in 2014 after he sold Sanders to John "Sky" Manske, who worked as a manager at the restaurant for 15 years. The restaurant has since moved to the second floor of Edgewood Corporate Plaza at 322 DeMers Ave., where it was renamed Sky's.

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Holmes said he is enjoying retirement with his wife, Beth, but in an interview with the Herald for its "Where are they now" series, he couldn't say enough-though not from lack of trying-how much he appreciated the city and its people welcoming him.

"They just embraced me, and I embraced them," he said.

Culinary life

Holmes, a native of Hagerstown, Md., about 75 miles northwest of Baltimore, grew up with the culinary arts. He said he was enamored with cooking because of his grandmothers. He remembers picking herbs for one grandmother in New Jersey as a 12-year-old, tasting and talking about food and going to various restaurants, adding, "That's how I got my chops."

"This has been my life," he said. "My grandmother was a food editor for Ladies' Home Journal."

He said his first job came when he was in high school. He was a dishwasher, which kicked off more than 50 years of cooking and opening restaurants across the country and even in Europe.

He went to a hotel and restaurant management school in Washington, D.C., before he left the U.S. for Europe in 1970, where he worked in Italy and Switzerland. Holmes tried his hand at helping friends open businesses, including a bakery in Washington state. He also opened several businesses of his own.

He recalled working with Bob Evanson of Grand Forks in a hotel in the Alps before moving back to the states. Evanson had opened Sanders in 1982 at 312 Kittson Ave. prior to it moving to 22 S. Third St.

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"(Evanson) said, 'If you come back, I'll give you a place to live upstairs,' " Holmes said. "'If you help me run the restaurant, I'll give you half the business. We'll run it for three years, then we'll sell it, split the money and do whatever we want to do.'

"After three years, I said, 'Man, I like this town, and this town likes me,'" Holmes added.

Holmes took over ownership of Sanders in 1989. Everyone was happy to have the restaurant, he said, adding that people really accepted him.

He refused to give up during the 1997 flood when it wrecked his downtown restaurant. He could have moved to another city with better offers, but he temporarily moved Sanders to South Washington Street.

"This is my home now," he said.

Fond memories

Over the years, he doubled the seating in Sanders from 50 to 100 seats. The downtown restaurant was known for its less formal but welcoming atmosphere.

"The three components that make a restaurant: food, service and atmosphere," he said.

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He took the opportunity to redesign the restaurant to make it as comfortable and inviting as possible. It apparently worked, because "people just gravitated" to the restaurant, he said.

"I worked the room, greeted them and acknowledged them, even if I didn't know them," he said, adding consistent food, great service and a comfortable atmosphere was his goal. "Any restaurant worth its salt must have those three components."

He said there are a lot of fond memories from the restaurant. He mentioned the Alley of Love, the alley behind his restaurant he and Jon Bonzer, owner of Bonzer's Sandwich Pub named for its peculiar feature.

"We would walk back and forth to each other's places after we got done with our main shifts," he said. "In the spring, that's when I started noticing that every nook and cranny had people making out."

In July 2015, the alley was formally named by the city the Kim Holmes Alley of Love.

Holmes said he also knows how to throw a party, whether it was street dances or his New Year's Eve extravaganzas, which were always sold out, he said.

He recalled how Evanson gave him a 30-pound bear coat, saying it was so hot he couldn't wear it unless it was below zero. Holmes said he got the idea one year to dress up as the New Year's baby. Just before midnight, he climbed onto the bar, wearing the bear coat and holding a three-liter bottle of champagne.

As the clock rang in the new year, he threw the coat off, wearing a sash, booties and cloth diaper as he sprayed the champagne bottle over the crowd.

"Half the people wet their pants, they laughed so hard," he said. "The other half were so terrified they paid their bills and left."

Looking back

In retirement, Holmes is focusing on leather work, including making and stitching bags from scratch.

He noted his wife used to work days while he worked nights at Sanders.

"Now that I'm retired, we're dating again," he said with a smile. "We do movies, just hang out together."

One thing he aspired to do during his career was present great food and take care of his employees. He noted paying double the minimum wage and providing health insurance for full-time employees when he could.

Though he is proud of the food he served and his restaurant's mark on Grand Forks, he said he is most proud of the former employees he mentored, adding everyone who worked for him either became chefs, restaurant owners or excelled in their fields. He noted some became lawyers and doctors.

He said he is also proud of those who made Sky's a success, adding it is a fantastic restaurant that Grand Forks needs more of.

"I know the food is good, and it's an absolutely gorgeous place to eat in," he said. "We need that restaurant in this town. We need that energy, that fun place."

Holmes said he misses the people he met in his restaurant, especially his crew, but asked if he would change anything he did in his life, he said, "I would do it all over again."

"The people are just so great," he said. "What a cool town."

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