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New Sunlite Bar and Grill owners ready for the next 20 years in Detroit Lakes

After 22 and a half years, the Sunlite Bar and Grill in Detroit Lakes transitioned to new ownership on Jan. 3, 2022. The new owners, long-time employee H.J. Gerdes and his wife, Margo, said they've been preparing to take the reins of the local burger and beer mainstay for more than a year and hope to shepherd the restaurant for the next 20 years.

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H.J. Gerdes, left, and his wife, Margo, smile behind the bar at Sunlite Bar and Grill on County Road 21 in Detroit Lakes on Jan. 10, 2022. The couple purchased the bar from the longtime owners and took control of the local burger and beer mainstay in January 2022.(Michael Achterling / Detroit Lakes Tribune)

New ownership has come to the 2021 Best of the Lakes Best Burger joint as the Sunlite Bar and Grill, located on County Road 21 in Detroit Lakes, transitioned to new owners in January.

On Jan. 3, longtime Sunlite employee H.J. Gerdes, and his wife, Margo, became the owners of the best burger restaurant in Detroit Lakes. H.J. said watching the community support for their little burger bar during the toughest part of the pandemic made purchasing the mainstay an easy decision.

"The community was my huge deciding factor (for buying Sunlite)," said Gerdes.

During the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns, Gerdes noticed the community's support for the restaurant in the volume of to-go orders, which kept Sunlite from having to lay off staff members and weather storm until indoor services resumed.

"I've never seen anything like it before," he said. "It was huge."

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Gerdes said his dad has been friends with the Crawford family, the old owners, since he was a kid, so he's known them for most of his life and they have been longtime family friends.

"Wayne (Crawford) asked me right out of high school, asked me if I'd be interested helping him out one fall and I've worked here ever since," he said. "I never pictured myself being in the restaurant industry at all … but, after the first couple of months, I'm like, 'oh, I kinda like this,' and then after the first year, I enjoyed it a lot more and then two to three years into it, I jokingly said, 'if you ever decided to sell the place, let me know,' and ever since, it kind of just fit."

Gerdes said Wayne had hinted his family was thinking about retiring in the last couple years, so, over the course of 2021, H.J. began running the day-to-day operations to prepare him to take over and to ensure there were no surprises that he couldn't deal with when he assumed control on Jan. 3.

"It was obviously a very emotional week and even the week before was pretty emotional because (the Crawfords) have been here for 22 and a half years," he said. "All the staff stayed, and it was a very easy transition."

He also admitted the Sunlite's small staff is very much like a family and sometime includes actual family.

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Ron Crawford, a cook at the Sunlite Bar and Grill for more than 20 years, places a finished double cheeseburger into a serving basket on Jan. 10, 2022 during the first month of the restaurant's new ownership. The Sunlite Bar and Grill was bought by a longtime employee, H.J. Gerdes, and his wife, Margo, in January 2022. (Michael Achterling / Detroit Lakes Tribune)

Ron Crawford, Sunlite cook and brother of longtime owner Wayne Crawford, said he's worked at the Sunlite since his brother bought the place 22.5 years ago and he'll continue working there under the Gerdes' ownership.

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Gerdes said he's amazed by the retention of the bar's employee and estimates about 90% of the staff has worked their for over a year.

"We have kids that go to college and get out of college they'll come on Christmas break, 'hey, you need help? Let me know. I'll be in town and I can work Christmas break,'" he said. "I mean, you haven't seen them in a year, or a year and a half, and all of a sudden they are like, 'can I come and help out and work?' So that's cool."

Bob Meyer, a Sunlite Bar and Grill regular, said he's been coming to the bar for years because its close to his home.

"It's close to home and great food," said Meyer. "I've known H.J. for probably five years, I suppose, and he'll do just fine. It'll be a great transition."

The Crawford family also posted a touching farewell on the restaurant's Facebook page and thanked all the customers, staff, family and friends for letting them take part in "something so wonderful."

"We want to wish HJ and Margo all the best as new owners and many successful years to come in the community," the post stated. "We will forever cherish the friendships and memories we have made at Sunlite."

The future of the famed local dining spot will consist of more of the same, said Gerdes. But, he hopes to work in a new happy hour and a late-night kitchen menu in the future.

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A pair of Sunlite Bar and Grill bacon cheeseburger baskets sit ready to be run out to patrons on Jan. 10, 2022. The Sunlite Bar and Grill on County Road 21 in Detroit Lakes has come under new ownership as a long-time employee and his wife bought the bar in January. (Michael Achterling / Detroit Lakes Tribune)

Margo Gerdes said her and H.J. pattied about 60 pounds of Hoffman's ground beef in almost an hour on Monday morning, which is something the famed burger joint does everyday.

She also said she will be in charge of the bookwork and will be ready to assist on the floor, if any problems arise.

"None of the food will be changing at all, it will always stay the same, it is definitely our staple," said Gerdes. "It's all fresh-ground, hand-pattied."

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Ron Crawford, a cook at the Sunlite Bar and Grill for more than 20 years, finishes a double cheeseburger basket and prepares it to be run on Jan. 10, 2022 during the first month of the restaurant's new ownership. The Sunlite Bar and Grill was bought by a longtime employee, H.J. Gerdes, and his wife, Margo, in January 2022. (Michael Achterling / Detroit Lakes Tribune)

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