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Doug Clark: Sweet Old Bob’s no more, but the memories live on
Mon., Aug. 29, 2016
Bob and Marlene Nordby in their Spokane restuarant, Sweet Old Bob’s, on Thursday. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)Buy a print of this photo
The weekly Saturday karaoke crowd warbled their final notes, a little after midnight.
The bartender served a last call. And the doors of this mom-and-pop restaurant at 3234 E. Trent Ave. closed for the last time.
Crushed by progress. That’d be the official cause of death for Sweet Old Bob’s if autopsies were conducted on businesses.
The building and its 31,000-square-foot land parcel are inconveniently in the way of a southbound off-ramp that is part of the ongoing soap opera we know as the north-south freeway project.
Bob and Marlene Nordby can’t claim they weren’t warned.
The restaurant’s owners say they first received the news from the state Department of Transportation in 1997, after just a year in operation.
Back then the word was that the end could come in five years. Politics and funding issues sure stretched that estimate out a ways.
Such a revelation “takes all your potential away,” Bob told me with a sigh when I dropped into Sweet Old Bob’s for breakfast a few days before the closure.
“You just lose interest.”
Selling their business was out, naturally. Who’d pay a fair price for property with a freeway off-ramp hanging over it?
So the Nordbys soldiered on, making the best of their situation.
Sweet Old Bob’s delighted its loyal customer base with simple but expertly prepared food.
In its heyday the square beige and rock-bordered restaurant went through a weekly half-ton of potatoes and 17 gallons of gravy.
Fresh ingredients. Fluffy hash browns made the right way. Fabulous.
A true family affair, daughter Teri Dawley served as manager for decades. Everybody took a part: Husbands, the Nordbys’ parents, children …
When the kids were little they played in a playpen set up in the kitchen. In later years they did their homework out on the tables.
“They were our support and our pinch hitters,” said Marlene of her clan.
But everything, alas, has an end game.
The Nordbys hired a lawyer who, they say, is close to reaching a settlement with the state. Bob, 78, said a family meeting was organized a month ago and the decision to hang it up was reached.
It made sense. In November, they say, the expensive licenses for Sweet Old Bob’s will be due for renewal. There’s no economic sense in paying for another year when the days are now truly numbered.
Even so, Marlene, 75, was the final holdout.
“I always told my family that nobody would shut my front door on us,” she said, adding with a sigh, “but it was time to be just a grandma.”
And great-grandma. The Nordbys, married 57 years, have nine grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.
Plus who knows how many fans?
Some of them poured their hearts out on the restaurant’s white walls via felt pen.
“Thank you for the great meals & singing with the love of my life …” offered one.
“You are the most beautiful people with the most caring hearts …” wrote another.
While I was there, enjoying my delicious Bob’s Scramble, an older guy named Larry walked up and gave both Marlene and Bob a farewell hug.
“It’s been a good run and I’ve got a wonderful partner,” said Bob.
It was Marlene who caught the restaurant bug. That was something she wanted to do ever since waiting tables as a 14-year-old at the cafe at Felts Field.
Bob, who had other jobs, finally gave in. The couple opened Marlene’s, a smaller restaurant a bit farther east on Trent.
On opening day, with customers pouring in, the cook quit. A reluctant Marlene had to dive in to feed the rush.
“I’d never cooked for the public,” she said. “It was horrifying. Horrifying. I never cried so much.”
The Nordbys ran Marlene’s 14 years before looking for a larger location. The roomier current site, which was originally Jim’s Steak House, looked ideal.
Both Bob and Marlene admit that there’s a certain relief in having the stress finally gone.
Running a restaurant requires constant attention, said Bob. “It’s like being a dairy farmer.”
True, except cows aren’t nearly so picky about the quality of their grub.
The Nordbys put their own stamp on Sweet Old Bob’s.
They filled the place with antiques and historic photographs of the Spokane area. A self-confessed “frustrated musician,” guitar-strumming Bob hosted informal jam sessions.
And the restaurant’s name?
Bob said it came from back when he was in a management position for a Portland enterprise.
During a presentation, a promotional speaker referred to Nordby as “that SOB sitting over in the corner.”
Shocked and somewhat offended, Nordby managed to utter a startled “What?”
“You know,” the speaker glibly replied. “Sweet Old Bob.”
The nickname stuck. “Whenever I call somebody now I just say it’s Sweet Old Bob and they know exactly who it is.”
There was no advertisement or fanfare for the restaurant’s adios.
The family, said Marlene, wanted the news to spread by “word of mouth” to the friends and regulars who had always been there.
“We didn’t want a big blowout. We just wanted to drift off.”
After spending an hour with these wonderful people, I couldn’t help but notice the handwritten sign on the wall behind the cash register as I settled my bill.
“We wish to thank all patrons, family, friends who have been such a great part of our lives the last 30-plus years,” it read.
“Memories are forever. God bless, Bob & Marlene.”
Doug Clark can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or email@example.com.