New owner takes the helm at Thirsty Whale in Norway

Business showcase

PAULA PIEROPON, BACK, welcomes Regina “Gina” Freudinger as the new owners of the Thirsty Whale Bar & Grill in Norway. All the bar favorites, including their famous burgers, will remain the same, they said. (Terri Castelaz/Daily News photo)

NORWAY — After 41 years, a new captain has taken charge of the Thirsty Whale Bar & Grill in Norway.

On June 6, Paula Pieropon handed over her hat to its new owner, Regina “Gina” Freudinger.

The “tale” of how Pieropon landed the Thirsty Whale is highlighted for patrons to enjoy on their food menus.

In 1978, the then-20-year-old Spalding native was working for Amtrak in Chicago.

“I was so homesick, missing my mom and sister so much, I decided I was going to buy myself a job,” Pieropon said.

PAULA PIEROPON, RIGHT, has handed over control of the Thirsty Whale Bar & Grill in Norway to Regina “Gina” Freudinger. Pieropon purchased the bar from Bert Sharkey in 1978. The structure was built around the turn of the 20th century and operated for 45 years as a general store and mercantile by Fred and Cecilia Vermulen before being sold to Sharkey in 1945. (Terri Castelaz/Daily News photo)

So with the help of her mother, Marvel, she purchased the business from Bert and Jean Sharkey that same year.

The structure, rich with history, was built around the turn of the 20th century and operated for 45 years as a general store and mercantile by Fred and Cecilia Vermulen. They sold everything from clothes and food to diamond rings. The store also was a popular gathering place for town residents.

When Sharkey purchased it in 1945, he changed the name to Bert’s Bar.

The original storefront remained much as it appeared when it was operated by the Vermulens, with the only major exterior change being the size of the front windows.

“When I purchased the bar, I decided to go with a nautical theme and thought the Thirsty Whale was a catchy name,” Pieropon said.

The Thirsty Whale soon became famous for its half-pound burgers — winning her many awards, including “Best Burger in the State” from onlyinyourstate.com website and The Daily News People’s Choice Best Burger on several occasions.

The Whale also earned mention in the New York Times, as well as becoming one of the 109 establishments featured in the book, “Yooper Bars.”

Other popular items on the menu include her fish frys, as well as homemade soups and chili.

Pieropon also continued to serve Bert’s famous Tom and Jerry’s, a favorite holiday drink.

Freudinger, who started working at the Whale in 2007, stressed the things customers have grown to love over the years will remain the same. But there maybe a few new additions in the future that regulars will grow to love as well, Freudinger said.

“Patrons can be confident that the traditions — including our burgers — will not change,” Pieropon added.

Pieropon credits fun events — such as annual outdoor dance, winter trivia, the largest volleyball league in the area and the candy dish — contributing to the continuing success over the years.

“All these activities will go on, as well as the outdoor dance returning next year,” Freudinger said.

What’s even more important to Pieropon than the great-tasting food is the relationships she built with her customers over the years.

“You may walk into this place as a stranger but always leave as friends,” she said.

“I have always made the place a family-friendly atmosphere.”

Running the Whale was a great fit for Pieropon, but she said it was time to move on to the next chapter in her life.

When Pieropon made the decision it was time, she approach Freudinger first about taking over ownership.

“I told Paula I had to think about it, but the thought of potentially someone else having the Whale didn’t sit well with me,” Freudinger said. “I knew I had to be the one to have it.”

Pieropon said she feels blessed to have such a hard-working, people-pleasing person come in behind her. “When you spend 41 years of your life building a bar and restaurant business, it becomes a large part of you,” she said. “As much as you tell yourself it doesn’t matter who purchases it and what they do with it as long as you get paid, but for me it did matter.”

Pieropon will enjoy her retirement knowing she left the Whale in extremely capable hands.

“I am so happy to be going out on on such a high note — it’s just awesome and I have no seller’s remorse,” she said.

Pierpon will be around to lend a hand to Freudinger well until winter rolls around.

“I will be spending my winters in Florida and I am going to become a golfer — well, at least I look the part with my golf skirts,” she said with a laugh.

One of the things Pieropon will miss the most is “hounding the kids who come to see me for hugs and giving them candy bars.”

As in the past, the Whale will continue to stay involved in the community, supporting fundraising events and sponsoring several activities.

Freudinger has worked at Wells Fargo Bank in Iron Mountain and Powers since 2001. She resides in Norway with her husband, Scott; and children, Jada, 13; Mark, 6; and Olivia, 3. She grew up on a farm in Hardwood and her grandparents, Ted and Nancy Broeders, owned the Labranche Tavern in LaBranche, Mich.

“I am passionate about food, entertaining and I love people,” Freudinger said. “I am looking forward to this new adventure.”

The Whale is open at 11 a.m. Monday through Saturday, serving meals until closing. Patrons also are welcome to enjoy their outdoor patio during the summer months.