COVER STORY —Henning Sorensen and his daughter Susie have celebrated Danish foods and traditions in their family restaurant for 45 years.
A century ago, Danish immigrants founded Solvang on a windswept plain they dubbed “sunny fields.” Within a year, they had erected a hotel, store, barn, two houses and, serving as the symbolic heart of their venture, a two-story folk school.
There young adults learned Danish songs and dances, studied practical matters from English to bookkeeping, and sometimes even found a mate. Later the folk school served as a Lutheran church, and by 1929 it was a restaurant, where customers often helped themselves and left their money on the counter.
That venerable structure still stands on Alisal Road, a vibrant reminder of the Danish heritage that informs the culture, cuisine, and architecture of the Santa Ynez Valley. Fittingly, it is owned by the Sorensens, a Danish family with roots in the Old Country, and lives on as a friendly eatery prized for its authentic Danish food.
When Henning Sorensen bought the restaurant in 1966, he kept its evocative name, Bit O’Denmark. Despite the seller’s advice to win customers with pie, he decided not to serve a single slice.
“This was a Danish town,” Henning says, the lilt of his native language still coloring his speech, “and I thought it was much more important to fix Danish dishes and open-faced sandwiches, which you can eat anytime in Denmark.
“I put in a big smorgaasbord, built it up on ice,” he continues. “It was beautiful. From the street, that’s the first thing you saw, and that’s really when this restaurant took off. That was around 1969. We sold smorgaasbord for $2.25, and there was still money in it, if you can believe that.”
Today, Bit O’Denmark’s menu features Danish favorites, including crispy frikadeller (meatballs), medisterpolse (sausage), and pickled red cabbage, as well as American fare. For dessert, there are fresh pastries, fruit tarts, jam-topped aebleskivers and yes, even pie.
For the last two decades, Henning, 80, has relied upon his daughter Susie to handle the restaurant’s day-to-day operations. A vivacious blonde brimming with energy, she grew up working in her father’s businesses, and until the family moved to the Valley, actually commuted from their Glendale home.
“Through high school my sisters and I took the bus up every Saturday,” she says, “and we learned the business. I was the one who loved it the most, because I connected with the products, the store.
“We had to work for everything, had to save our money,” she continues. “I look at that as a blessing, because I can make a living and not have to depend on somebody else. That’s what my dad really pushed for his four daughters.”
Susie not only manages the restaurant and supervises the kitchen, she also develops the specials and keeps the menu fresh by consulting with Danish chefs.
“Every couple of years, we have someone check our recipes to make sure it’s what we want,” she explains. “Sometimes a Danish cook will come and stay for two or three months, like an apprenticeship.”
Henning praises Susie’s culinary and business skills and admits that without her, there would be no restaurant today.
He also credits her with keeping another family enterprise, Vinhus, well-stocked, running smoothly, and thriving as a local favorite. Henning opened Vinhus in 1973, loading the shelves with cheese, teas, coffee beans, and gourmet goodies. A prescient retailer, he was among the first in the area to sell wine.
Henning hatched the idea for Vinhus while contemplating childhood excursions with his grandfather, a farmer who took him to the general store in Henning’s hometown of Roslev, in northern Denmark. While the clerk fetched their list of items, he and his grandfather roamed the aisles.
“Half the stuff I didn’t know what it was,” Henning says, his pale blue eyes twinkling at the memory, “and my grandfather used to say, ‘Why is it more fun to shop for things you don’t need than for stuff you have to have?’
“I thought about that when I opened Vinhus,” he laughs, “because there’s not a thing in that store that you need. It’s like a Danish grocery store was in the old days, except we didn’t bring in flour and sugar, we just brought in luxury items.”
Because of its eclectic inventory of Danish, Scandinavian and European delicacies, Susie describes Vinhus as “a shop like no other.”
“I love the store,” she declares. “It has a special feel. When you’re there, people are happy, and it’s not about what they need but what they like.
“When we were in Denmark visiting my grandfather in the mid-70s,” she continues, “my dad’s friend had a similar store. For the six weeks we visited, I worked there some of the time, and that probably locked me into liking the whole business.”
Following in her father’s footsteps, Susie displays a natural knack for operating the family’s restaurant and retail enterprises. She also relishes her role as a community volunteer, having been a Theaterfest board member for nine years and currently serving on the board of the Solvang Conference and Visitors Bureau.
By the early 1990s, Susie had stepped in to help run Vinhus, which was selling local wines and had sparked a local trend by offering wine tasting. Building on Danish tradition, she plans to open a patio in front of the store for streetside sipping and people-watching.
“I’ve always been intrigued by the Danish people,” admits Susie, who regularly visits family in Denmark. “They’re special and fun. Overall, they look at things differently, they enjoy the moment.
“In some ways, I think Solvang is more Danish than Denmark,” she muses. “In fact, the ambassador who was here last year said he thinks the Danish heritage is more evident here and that the people are so proud of it.”
Henning reasons that Solvang retains a strong Danish flavor, in part, because its founders patterned the town on the 19th century Denmark they knew. In the late 1940s, the village enjoyed a renaissance of Danish-style architecture when builders erected half-timbered structures resembling old-style construction.
“Denmark is not that way anymore,” Henning says, “unless you go to the smaller islands. The big cities are as modern as here, sometimes even more so.
“When I grew up,” he remembers, “we had a [room] with a big kettle you could heat water in and a little tub, almost like a bathroom. Just to shave, you had to heat water on the stove.”
Henning was 15 when he left home, headed for an apprenticeship in a general store on an island called Samso. The owner of the store, who eventually helped Henning get into business school, proved to be a valuable mentor.
“He was a wonderful guy,” Henning says. “He had big hopes for me, and in some ways, I think I lived his dreams. He always said when he and his wife retired, they were going to move to California and open a little shop, which is what I did.”
Henning won a scholarship to Columbia University, where he took post-graduate courses in economics, business, and law in 1954. After visiting a friend in California, he realized he wanted to stay.
Henning’s first job in Los Angeles was with Sears and Roebuck, followed by a stint as store manager for W.T. Grant. Hungry for a career that would support his young family, Henning bought a Denny’s franchise in 1964.
In 1966, after spending a morning trying to put a Denny’s in Buellton, he heard that Bit O’Denmark was for sale and bought the restaurant that same afternoon.
Forty-five years later, Bit O’Denmark continues to draw both visitors and locals, including Dania Lodge members who gather to share stories, jokes, and songs, often entirely in Danish.
This year, as Solvang celebrates its centennial, the Sorensen family can take pride in having remained true to the Danish heart of the town. By offering authentic food, a place to gather, and tireless community service, they’ve helped to preserve a little bit of Denmark among the sunny fields of the Santa Ynez Valley.