Last week, Dan and Lori Schwefel went on a Caribbean cruise for nine days. It was the first time the two went on vacation for more than two or three days since they opened their Oconomowoc-based restaurant, Schwefel’s, in 1988.
"This is unheard of for us," says Dan. "This is a 24/7 business and we are very active owners. I love making people happy."
Today, the German restaurant and bar employs about 45 people.
The Schwefel's bought the business, formerly called The Bavarian Cottage, in the summer of 1988. At the time, Dan was the general manager of a Denny’s and Lori was a server. This was how the couple originally met.
"No matter how far we go with this business, I am always a waitress at heart," says Lori.
They opened the German-themed bar and restaurant on Nov. 30, 1988, but the first day didn’t start off very smoothly.
"We hired a chef from Chicago. He asked us to call him ‘Chef Robert.’ OK ... So we tell him to start at 11 a.m. and he shows up at 3 p.m.," says Dan.
Dan fired Chef Robert on the spot and – after he and Lori shed a few "what are we going to do now?" tears – he offered a full time job to his new part-time chef, Gary Knapp.
Knapp accepted the position and went on to serve as Schwefel’s executive chef for 26 years. Knapp was instrumental in creating the menu and many of the German foods are his grandmother’s recipes.
When he went into semi-retirement, his son, Kyle, took over the job. Today, Knapp still works a couple of days a week.
Schwefel’s signature dishes are sauerbraten – marinated beef in a sweet and sour gravy – along with other German favorites including beef rouladen and wiener schnitzel. A turkey schnitzel is also available.
The barbecue ribs, Friday night fish fry and roast duck, with a homemade raspberry sauce, are also popular menu items. And the stuffed mushroom caps are a must-try appetizer.
The entrees are served with a dumpling, German potato salad or potato pancake (try the large, firm and flavorful dumpling), hot red cabbage or sauerkraut (the cabbage is delicious) and a soup or salad.
Most of the dinner entrees are under $15 and the portions are hearty.
"The industry has been taken over by the Applebee’s of the world and it’s been hard on the little guys. But we found a way. For us, it’s the quality of the food. Most of it’s homemade. Nothing comes out of a box," says Dan.
For Dan and Lori, the true joy of the business has been the relationships they’ve made with the customers – many of which have turned into solid, lifelong friendships. Plus, The Schwefels are a community-oriented couple who are quick to bring soup and food to ailing customers.
The day we visited for dinner, the couple had attended two funerals for former customers-turned-friends. This is the down side of embracing so many people, but they have no regrets.
"You know you’re blessed when you say goodbye to two good people in the same day," Lori says.
The Schwefels have two children, Austin, 23, and Hannah, 20. Both kids grew up in the restaurant. Austin works full time at the restaurant and Hannah is a full-time college student who still helps out at the business when she is home.
"They were community children," says Lori. "They belonged to everyone here."
Lori remembers Austin, when he was a baby, getting passed around by adoring customers from one side of the restaurant to the other.
"I am waiting on people at 23 who, at 3, I was sitting on their lap while they ate dinner," says Austin.
According to both Lori and Dan, growing up in the restaurant has made their kids very empathetic and able to relate well to others.
"They’ve been around people their entire lives and it’s made them exceptionally good at it," says Dan.
Dan’s mother, Fae, is also very supportive. She is 78-years-old and still cleans the bar on her hands and knees every Saturday morning at 4:30 a.m. She also fills in as a hostess as needed.
"She is a wonderful lady," says Dan. "I wouldn’t be where I am without my family. I am here all the time. Lori is understanding of that. She knows that I love it. And yet I would not be as happy without her support."
Over the past 25 years, the Schwefels have done a fair share of remodeling to the space. Twelve years ago they added an addition to the dining area which now accommodates 160 people. Eight years ago, they expanded the bar which features numerous deer heads from Dan’s hunting high points.
"When you work most of your life in a busy restaurant – even though you love it – you also grow to appreciate peace and quiet and solitude," says Dan, who also likes to fish and golf.
At this point, the Schwefels are starting to look ahead at the next chapter of their lives. They are in no rush to leave the restaurant business, but they are taking little steps toward a slower-paced life. For now, they are very much reflecting on the rewards of their hard work.
"You can’t get a better compliment than when someone says, ‘this reminds me of my mom’s or my grandma’s food,'" says Dan. "We’ve never been here to get rich. That’s been the key to our success and happiness."
In the middle of dessert – massive and decadent strawberry schaum tortes – Lori echoes this sentiment.
"It’s always been a paycheck of the heart," she says.
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.