Flint, MI—It takes a few seconds for your eyes to adjust to the dim lighting inside of White Horse Tavern, but there’s a reward for the momentary blindness between daylight and the faint glow of the windowless bar: one of the warmest welcomes in Flint.

“Sometimes I just say hi back before I can see,” said Lisa Costello, a White Horse server. She pointed to a table nearest one of the tavern’s bright red entryway doors and smiled. “Regulars will be sitting there, saying hello, and I won’t even know who I’m talking to when I first get in.”

White Horse Tavern, or just “the White Horse” to its regulars, was opened by the Poulos family—John, Chris, and Steve—in September of 1973.

“Being a Greek family, our dad was the boss,” said Chris Poulos of his father, John, with a laugh. “There’s no question about it.”

Janith Poulos poses for a portrait next to a picture of her uncle, John Poulos, a patriarch in the family who built the original White Horse Tavern, in one of the tavern’s dining rooms on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022. Janith Poulous said she didn’t recall exactly where the picture was taken, but she believes it captures a moment while John Poulous was working at one of his many kitchen jobs before opening the White Horse. (Michael Indriolo | Flint Beat)
A picture of the gas station that once stood where the White Horse Tavern now does adorns a wall in one of the tavern’s dining rooms on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022. (Michael Indriolo | Flint Beat)

Poulos said back then he and his brother Steve worked at the family’s vending business by day and took turns at the restaurant each night.

Their dad would sit at the round wood table staff still call “Table One,” Poulos recalled, holding court with patrons, local attorneys, and politicians as he slowly relinquished his management duties to his two boys.

But now, nearly 50 years later, the two brothers are also ready to relinquish their duties, and they’ve hired Flint-area broker, John ‘Biff’ Snyder, to manage the sale of their legacy.

“It’s just that they’re looking to retire,” Snyder said of why the pair decided to list the restaurant. “That’s pretty much the story. You’ve put 49 years in. Maybe it’s time to move on.”

Poulos agreed, though not because he has lost any love for the bar over the decades.

 “The biggest thing is both my brother and I are in our seventies now, and you just can’t possibly put in the hours and do the things you did when you were in your forties and fifties,” Poulos said. “And it’s time to pass the baton, so-to-speak, because as hard as I try, I know that a younger person could do a little bit better—or a lot better.”

Longtime friends Rhonda Brall (left) and Cookie (right) pose for a portrait during dinner at the White Horse Tavern on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022. Although Brall has been coming to the White Horse Tavern since she was in her early twenties, she said, she spends most of her time now taking care of her children. That doesn’t leave her much time to go out, she said, so she was excited when Cookie asked her to go for a pizza. (Michael Indriolo | Flint Beat)

The White Horse is listed at $800,000, which Poulos said will include not just the building and licensing, but all its history and decor. 

“Everything is going to stay,” Poulos said. “I’m not going to take anything down.”

That includes a diver’s helmet that Poulos turned into a lamp, the “smoke eater” machines still hanging on the walls from when cigarettes were allowed indoors, and the pizza ovens that were replaced just a couple of years ago.

The White Horse Tavern’s bar is reflected in glass frame holding antique woodcuts on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022. (Michael Indriolo | Flint Beat)
An antique diver helmet retrofitted as a lamp adorns the bar at the White Horse Tavern on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022. (Michael Indriolo | Flint Beat)
Hooves hold up and antique rifle above the bar at the White Horse Tavern on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022. (Michael Indriolo | Flint Beat)

But even if the new owner doesn’t keep all of the White Horse’s memorabilia, Poulos said, he does hope they will keep his team.

“My staff is part of the White Horse every bit as much as I am,” Poulos said, beginning to list everyone by name. Mercedes, who works nights, has been with us for 45, maybe 46 years, he said, and Lisa and Tammy always know what’s going on in the bar.

“So it would be silly for a guy to come in and say ‘okay, you’re all done,’” Poulos concluded. “Because [my staff] know the people, they know the systems.”

A fresh pizza rests on the counter in the White Horse Tavern’s kitchen on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022. (Michael Indriolo | Flint Beat)
Cassy Gipson, one of the tavern’s cooks, pours fresh french fries onto a plate in the White Horse Tavern’s kitchen on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022. She started working at the White Horse a few weeks back, she said. Having worked in plenty of kitchens throughout her life, she said the White Horse is her favorite so far. (Michael Indriolo | Flint Beat)

Snyder said there isn’t yet a clear buyer for the White Horse, though he’s received promising interest since listing the sale publicly in April.

“We have our hope that it’s just a smooth transition,” Snyder said of the future deal. “Why change a winning way of doing things?”

The White Horse Tavern’s bar is reflected in a lottery ticket machine on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022. (Michael Indriolo | Flint Beat)
Zachary Ritter (left) and Adrian (right), both born and raised in Flint, Mich., hang out at the White Horse Tavern’s bar on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022. (Michael Indriolo | Flint Beat)
Patrons celebrate the release of poet Brandon Rushton’s new book “The Air in the Air Behind it” at the White Horse Tavern on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022. (Michael Indriolo | Flint Beat)

Kate Stockrahm

Kate is Flint Beat's business and nonprofit reporter. She joins the team as a corps member of Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered...

One reply on “‘It’s time to pass the baton.’ After nearly 50 years, Flint’s White Horse Tavern owners look to sell”

  1. When I was a student at U of M Flint, we had a choir concert on my 21st birthday (1992). A bunch of us from the choir went out after for a bite and went to the White Horse. Janith Poulos was my voice instructor, and joined us. I had no idea her family owned the establishment. When Janith found out it was my 21st birthday, she turned to the bar and yelled “Hey Uncle John, I need two shots of jagermeister over here!” Janith and I clinked glasses, and I swallowed it down. My first shot…

    I will never forgive her :-).

    All kidding aside, just one of my great memories from there. Congrats to the Poulos family on a well-deserved retirement!!

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