Weber’s, to many, is one of Washtenaw County’s most iconic landmarks. 2017 marks its 80th anniversary. We sent WEMU’s Jorge Avellan to find out how Weber’s has made it through eight decades of business and why it’s so special to many people.
“It’s like you visit family. You know every corner of the place.”
Hans Rauer describes how he feels when he walks into Weber’s. He and his wife Marianne have been customers since 1960. They hosted their wedding reception at Weber’s that year when the business was located at the previous Jackson Road site in Scio Township just north of Ann Arbor. The couple had recently arrived from Germany and hot a warm welcome from Sonja Weber, one of the owners.
“We came to Mrs. Weber, and she was so gracious and helpful and she said, ‘Marianne, don’t worry about it, I will help you. Because I come from the same town. I will help you.’ Because I had nobody here to arrange this reception. She picked out the menu, the wine, everything.”
Weber’s is celebrating its 80th anniversary this March. Ken Weber, who is now the president, shares how his father Herman got the business started.
“My father was a farmer in Chelsea, and he was farming chickens during the summer. He’d take the streetcar from Chelsea to Ann Arbor to sell his chickens to Walter Metzger from Metzger’s Restaurant downtown and then it was the end of the season, he didn’t have any more chickens and told him, ‘This is going to be my last delivery.” So Mr. Metzger said, ‘Would you like a job for the winter?’ And Dad said yes, and he ended up renting a space above the restaurant and was a dishwasher in the kitchen and that’s how he got his first taste of the restaurant business.”
From that job, Herman saved enough money to buy a car, but, instead, invested the funds to run the High Speed Inn located at Washtenaw and Platt Road in Ann Arbor. It was 1937, and Herman was only 23 years old. He operated the business with his brother who later moved away. It consisted of a grill, a few tables, and a juke box that helped pay the rent. That venture led him to moving on to other projects such as the Weber’s location where Hans and Marianne got married and later to the current location on Jackson Road.
For decades, customers have flocked to Weber’s for their favorite dishes, like the London Broil and crab cakes, but the top seller is the prime rib that’s been served since the 1950’s.
Executive chef Jeremy Caroen sizzles prime rib in the kitchen.
“We go through about 60,000 pounds,” says Caroen. That’s how much of it they cook a year.
Brian Weber, Ken’s other son, who is also vice president of the establishment, tells me he’s been reflecting on the last few decades of design inspirations in the main dining room. The goal is to give it a 1960’s feel.
“I’m currently going through all the artwork. There’s been probably ten, twelve different pieces that have been purchases 1980’s,1990’s that don’t really fit in that old school theme. I’m removing those and getting art replicated to fill the spot. We’re bringing back the old black beadboards, crème walls, and brass fixtures.”
Brian says they like to update the menu from time to time, but they avoid getting rid of favorites like the prime rib. But as much as they want to keep all of them on the menu, some are no longer listed.
“There’s actually a good story about an item that we’ve had forever. It’s called the Coconut Snowball and we’ve probably had that recipe since the sixties. And its vanilla ice cream, rolled toasted coconut on top of hot fudge with whipped cream with a cherry on top. And we wanted to make room for a new dessert that Marybeth wanted to try out, so we took it off the menu. But when we did that, we trained all the staff to let our old time guests know that we still have the Snowball. It’s not on the menu, but if you want the Coconut Snowball, we will make it for you. We’ll never really lose that recipe.”
Michael Weber says it’s those kinds of decisions that have helped them stay open for 80 years.
“We don’t have a corporate vice president in some office halfway across the country. We’re here every day, so we run the business more on the feedback we get from the guests and the quality that we feel day in and day out, and the feedback that we get from our employees, and not from a spreadsheet from an office in another state.”
The 158-guest room hotel on the property has also helped bring in customers. It’s a lot different than the six-room motel Herman Weber started off with in the 1950’s. Throughout the years, the hotel and restaurant have had many celebrity guests. There’s a Wall of Fame in the basement with photographs that are signed by some of them. Ken Weber names some of the celebrities.
“Louis Armstrong was here. Remember Jimmy Durante? He was here back in the day and it was amazing when this guy came. I wasn’t here, my parents saw him. And of course, KFC, Colonel Sanders, the King of Chicken back in the sixties when he was here. So what did he eat? Do you remember? I don’t know what he had. Was it chicken? I would doubt it.”
It seems like everyone who works at Weber’s has a good story to tell, but there is one that describes the kind of employer employee relationship that is the glue to this iconic family owned business. It’s about Herman Weber, as told by restaurant general manager Caty Dillman.
“He said, when he was a dishwasher, basically no none spoke to him because he was a dishwasher and then he said when he became a restaurant owner everybody talked to him. So he made it a point, the first person he would talk to in the restaurant were his dishwashers.”
What’s next for Weber’s? It’s more of the same; they plan to remain independent to continue serving the community that has helped them succeed for more than three-quarters of a century.
Excerpted from WEMU 89.1 Interview in 2017
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