Mo's-Freddies

Mohava (Mo) Niemi with her former business partner, Freddie Kent, circa 1942.

This October marks the 75th anniversary of Mo’s, the iconic Oregon clam chowder and seafood establishment.

The restaurant was opened in Newport in 1946 by an Oregon legend, my great-great-grandmother, Mohava Niemi. Although she came to be known by only two letters, Mo, there was nothing small or insignificant about her. Almost 75 years ago, when she bought out her business partner of 4 years, she began her legacy on the Newport’s Historic Bayfront, a restaurant named simply after her moniker.

In the mid-40’s, the Historic Bayfront was filled with everyone but tourists. It was the economic hub of Newport, filled with commercial fisherman, longshoreman, loggers, mill workers and crabbers. It was not a place necessarily suited for a woman to operate her own business.

Back in the good ol’ days, it was called Mo’s Cafe, and it was open 24/7. She worked around the clock because she was a single mother of two children, and Mo’s was her means for survival.

Chowder and seafood were not the focal menu items at the time. In the early days, seafood was considered to be a poor man’s food. So the fare was typical of the era — breakfast was served, and fisherman and other Bayfront workers were the main clientele. Clam chowder was only served on Fridays.

Nowadays, thousands of bowls of clam chowder are served every day, and long lines can run out the door most of the summer. The chowder is nationally famous, a staple for tourists and locals alike. 

Unlike today, the tables were packed tight, which was deliberate. Mo believed that if you sit next to somebody you don’t know and start talking to them, pretty soon you will like them. Her mantra was, “You are a stranger here but once.” 

Mo was full of life and interested in people. She was extroverted and opinionated. In the 70s, when the restaurant became frequented by what she referred to as “hippies”, she welcomed them when others passed judgements. In a 1981 interview, she said in her famous deep, smoky voice,“‘Tough s***,’ I told those who criticized them. ‘They all eat, and they’re good company.’”

Soon enough, the secret was out, and Mo’s became inundated with fanatic tourists who lined up outside and religiously returned every year. 

Before Mo had Mo’s, she worked at KNPT radio station as a receptionist. One day, when the radio personality failed to show up for work, she filled in, and the rest is history. She had a natural knack for entertainment, and her larger-than-life personality filled the airways for almost 30 years.

Her popular radio show, “Moseying Around With Mo,” was comparable to a present day gossip channel. She told a Los Angeles Times reporter in 1972, “If somebody’s sick, has an operation or dies, I get the word out. A baby is born. A divorce. Everybody and everything.”

She kept the locals up to date until she was 60 years old. She also had a show called “Best Buys,” in which she would take calls and help the callers sell their washing machines and whatnots. She had her finger on the pulse of Newport, on the people of Newport. The fishermen knew they were getting close to the bay when they could tune into KNPT and hear her voice.

Mo wasn’t just famous for her chowder. In 1971, she became friends with the cast of the film “Sometimes a Great Notion” — movie stars Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Henry Fonda and Lee Remick. In fact, Mo is in one of the scenes that takes place right next door at The Bay Haven Inn.

She made so many friends sitting with her patrons over bowls of clam chowder. She knew that food truly was the way to the heart. And it’s not just the clam chowder, it’s how Mo’s makes you feel. Mo’s is welcoming, inviting and always friendly, all attributes of Mo herself. There was not a stranger that she could not make a friend. 

Mo was matter-of-fact yet kind. Early one morning, a woman parked just outside the restaurant. Upon returning to her car, she put it in drive instead of reverse and crashed right through the front of the cafe. Far from disgruntled, Mo put her arm comfortingly around the woman and said, “Well, we’ll just put in a garage door so we can open it, and you can drive in any time, if that’s what you want to do.”

To this day there is a garage door in the dining room of the Original Mo’s, with a painting on the inside depicting a woman crashing through the wall. It is this spirit of kindness and familiarity that has made Mo’s a success.

What was most important to Mo was her family. One of the most beautiful themes of her story is her with her granddaughter, my grandmother, Cindy Dixon McEntee. They shared much more than a middle name, working side by side for almost 20 years.

Cindy started working in the restaurant as young as 10 years old. Upon graduating from high school in Portland in 1969, Cindy moved to the coast and began working full time. And just like her beloved “Granny Mo”, she did everything from cook to prep to dishes to waitressing. In her own words, “If it was something Granny did, it was something I did.”

A favorite story of Cindy’s is of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s visit to Newport during his presidential campaign in May of 1968. He was a quick fan of Mo and her clam chowder, so much so that he personally invited her to join the campaign to serve chowder on their way down to Los Angeles.

She declined, but not without making sure to load his plane with gallons of chowder. Her granddaughter and successor, Cindy, recounted Mo’s regret, saying, “That plane took off, and that opportunity would never appear again.” Unfortunately, only a few short days later Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles.

Not only was Kennedy’s campaign stop a highlight for Newport’s history, and certainly Mo’s history, it was a pivotal moment in Mo’s personal life. Cindy said, “Her feeling from that point on was, ‘When someone offers me an amazing opportunity, I am not turnin’ it down. I had to go to work the next day. Bull****.’ And that’s exactly what she said.”

From that point on, she decided to take advantage of all the opportunities that came her way. It was evident in her decision making from then on.

In 1976, Mo met a couple of guys in Mo’s Annex. One man was from the Netherlands and the other from Japan. She sat and talked with them for hours. They had a company that imported and exported international foods, and they asked Mo if she would be interested in exporting Oregon seafood, including, of course, her clam chowder.

After the long chat, the men said, “We’re headed to the International Food Show in Cologne. We’d love it if we could take Oregon foods — Dungeness crab, bay shrimp, clam chowder and chinook salmon.” Cindy recalls Mo coming into the restaurant and asking her if she would like to go to Germany. They vacuum-packed all their seafood and spent 3 and a half weeks abroad in the fall of 1976, serving their Oregon seafood and clam chowder in Cologne and Munich.

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