This week, I'm excited to welcome Tony Koebel, owner of The Norbert and The Orville restaurants in downtown West Bend, Wisconsin. Tony joins me to discuss how his restaurants adapted during the pandemic, the recent renovation of The Norbert during the Main Street reconstruction project, and the importance of keeping things fresh in order to stay successful. Despite numerous external challenges, Tony's passion for bringing delicious food and amazing dining experiences to West Bend has led to two awesome dining establishments in our community. This is one of my favorite interviews in the first 94 episodes of the show!
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Fuzz Martin 0:00
Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy. Oh boy. I've been waiting for this one for a while. Hello everybody, I'm Fuzz Martin and this is Fifteen Minutes with Fuzz last year, or it could have been the year before time. You know how it goes. It's all melding together. Anyway, I reached out to a gentleman named Tony Koebel, you may know him. He's the owner of The Norbert and The Orville restaurants in West Bend. And I asked if he would join me on this show. And this week, I'm happy to tell you, we finally been able to make it happen. He's here. His restaurants have seen their share of challenges due to the pandemic and the road construction bots. He has constantly been finding ways to adapt and improve. It's a super inspirational story. I'm glad that you get to experience it with me. And with that, here are 15 minutes on The Norbert and The Orville with Tony Koebel on Fifteen Minutes with Fuzz.
Fuzz Martin 1:13
All right, Tony, first off, how did you get started in the restaurant business was what was your first restaurant? And what inspired you to get into this?
Tony Koebel 1:24
Well, that was a time back in the early 2000s When my dad and my mom were picking up some real estate. And their office was actually buy right over here by Dineen and what used to be the Brown Dog Pub, the owners came to my parents, and they said, Would you be interested in buying the building? My dad, and I talked about it with some other folks, and we decided to buy it. And next thing you know, we're in the restaurant business. And that's a whole nother story. But it was quite an adventure. It has been quite an adventure. And but I wouldn't have been able to do this at my parents. They were so important. And all of this. What was your first restaurant? Well, it would have been the Poplar and Okay, so when we that was July of 2007, we took over the Brown Dog Pub, we renamed it. And shortly after that, we we brought in some incredible people to help us with it, a service from the area and we are fortunate enough to have James Jones come. And he's a pretty well celebrated chef in the area. Who had been outed. Oh my gosh, I can't think of the name of the restaurant and I'm not sure live in Oh, geez. And he had also had time over at the old courthouse in wood, which was the building at 518 poplar Street, the one we're talking about. And once we had some of those, those key people in place, it just kind of took off and
Fuzz Martin 2:54
it was a lot of fun. So then when did you purchase the Norbert
Tony Koebel 2:57
Norbert happened in December, I'm sorry. It kind of started in December of 2013. Okay. Someone had come to me and said that Janelle Louise might be looking to sell. And that was the start of some conversations. I actually went down there. And I had a bowl of clam chowder on a Friday night. Because I hadn't been engineering the years, but I knew it was busy. And I know people loved it. And, and we still hear that people love Juno's, which is really a testament to what they all did with that business. And in March, they called back and they said, you know, we're, we're really considering selling this and it was a more lucrative offer. And at that point, I had spent seven years up at the Poplar and, and I really kind of wanted to broaden the market a little bit and open things up, I wanted to serve more casual food, you see the Poplar and had been known for more of a finer dining. So that's, that's when we got in and then we opened September of 2014.
Fuzz Martin 4:04
Awesome. So you now have two popular restaurants here in West Bend, which can be a tough market, what would you say is the key to creating a successful restaurant experience here in West Bend?
Tony Koebel 4:16
We are so focused on hospitality. Now. Obviously, the food and the drink and the ambience are are a big part of it, but that falls under the big umbrella of hospitality. So I think the biggest thing for me on my side as a former remodeler, carpenter, homebuilder would be the ambiance. And so that's been my focus. The last several years is creating these really interesting spaces. Now I'm very blessed for a lot of reasons. But in terms of the space itself, I would say part of the success of these businesses has been the gorgeous settings that they're in, they're there. For one, the Poplar and is a historic building. But when you walk into the Norbert, and you see that tin ceiling, it just immediately takes it back. Yeah, in fact, we've got a picture right by the host, Stan now of what the building used to look like back in 1918. And the tin ceiling that everyone kind of fawns at now, when they walk in, is in that picture from 1918. It's the exact same ceiling really,
Fuzz Martin 5:20
Okay, well, that's awesome. You've obviously everybody here in in, I guess the world had some challenges during the pandemic, but specifically to restaurants over the last few years, you dealt with the pandemic, and then again, with the downtown Main Street renovation, how do you take on challenges or take on those challenges and adapt that? Well,
Tony Koebel 5:41
a lot of ways. I'm so again, so blessed to have some really key people, you know, that first, we'll talk about the downtown in a second, but during the pandemic, it was that first two or three weeks where it was, it seems so far away now. Yeah, it was so distant, but the support that we had all the restaurants in the area had, from, you know, this, what was happening on Facebook and social media and, and supporting these restaurants, and being out there to Friday night fish fries. And we were all just obviously I will admit, the first week of the pandemic, I was just living in la la land, and then, and then the fear and the anxiety started to set in week two, but, but the support of the community in West Bend in Washington County, where we're bringing us up and everyone up, it was really a miraculous time. So, so incredibly blessed. And then as far as the downtown, you know, we found out about that in, I think I found out in April or May of 2022. And so almost a full year before the construction started. And the day we found out, we went back and we had a meeting that day. And I remember being in the dining room that day. And we were my key people, which would be you know, fairly well known folks in my company know Amber rockin Colin Reigel and a few others. We were discussing what the plan of action is not to make a kind of a long story even longer, but I'll tell you back in it was 07, 08 and highway 32 in Port Washington got ripped up. And I remember going to visit a restaurant there that I'd heard a lot about is called the wind rose that time. And he did a phenomenal job there. But I remember having to park so far away to get there. Yeah. And I walk through, you know, all the stone and gravel and pipe and everything. And I'll never forget that. And so immediately, that was my reaction to when I heard that they were going to rip up downtown. And for us it it was how do we make lemonade out of this? And it was it was some tough decisions. And obviously, we made some tough decisions on the fate and the destiny of the direction of the business. Now we're going so but I think we've accomplished it.
Fuzz Martin 8:05
Yeah. So during the pandemic, you took the opportunity to remodel and rename the poplar into the Orville direct. What all went into to that update?
Tony Koebel 8:18
Sure, when we when we bought the poplar in 2007, there were a lot of things that were out of date, okay. And the building and the business, the kitchen, the hood, specifically was not designed to maintain the the types of numbers that we had built it to. I was a very slow restaurant when we bought it. And by year four year five of the poplar, and it was just a zoo, it was crazy. We put in the patio, the numbers were way up. We had we had built a really great business, we were very proud of what we've done. But we we still had, you know, to live within the confines of what the engine of the restaurant, which is the kitchen could produce. So on April 27, so about a month and a half into the pandemic, I sat down with my parents in the dining room at at the poplar Inn, which had been closed, we were operating out of there during the first month and a half of the pandemic, we moved operations back down to the Norbert because we did some real quick remodeling there. Sure. And then I told my parents, I think maybe it's time to shut this down. And let's do what we should have done right away. And so we, we basically got it and you know, the bar is still there, most of the walls stayed in place. But there were some second parts of the building. The kitchen floor was completely out of level. So we we really went to work and I buried myself in that building for about a year and a half. Obviously, it was during the pandemic. We weren't making a ton of money. Sure. Yeah, so I was scrounging at one point I was renting out my house in Milwaukee, which I bought in '06 and I told my staff and my parents I'm like, well I think it's time to sell the house, let's, let's throw the money into the business. And now we've got a new hood. We've got all this beautiful new equipment, we redid all the floors, painted all the walls, we did all these updates, we put a massive prep kitchen in the basement. And now we have all these wonderful things that we can use to produce food more efficiently and effectively. So yeah, very proud of the work that we did over there. And we were able to maintain the historic look of the building outside, we're still going to do some work with the windows and the roof in the near future and probably do some tuckpointing. But yeah, I have another opportunity to make lemonade.
Fuzz Martin 10:40
Yeah. Well, then, when the farmer's market moved to this area, you also pivoted, I think at at the Orville as well, right and started doing some brunch things. And so yeah,
Tony Koebel 10:49
yeah, I actually love cooking brunch, which now makes me kind of a weird person. Because it's a very early morning. For those of you listening, poaching 120 eggs does not happen by snapping your fingers. So we, we saw this as an opportunity again, and I have to say how beautiful it was to have the Farmers Market in front of the Orville, it was just gorgeous out there. And everyone seemed to have a good time it was picturesque. I loved having the tower. You know, the old courthouse right in the middle of it. It just felt like such a town square kind of feel. So we said, well, let's let's open up for brunch. Of course, this is all part of the master plan that started when we found out that downtown was going to be closed. So in order to maintain about 55 employees between the two restaurants, we had to decide, well, let's move everyone up the streets will open up for more hours, we'll do Monday nights, we'll do Sunday nights, we'll do Saturday brunch, just to keep everyone employed because I knew how difficult it was to get folks that we had. Yeah. And I've got great folks, I've got the best staff in the world. So I didn't want to lose any of them. We had to open up opportunity for them to make money somewhere else instead of go to other restaurants, for sure.
Fuzz Martin 12:05
And then during that time, you remodeled the Norbert Yep. Right. So what what all went into the lead model there.
Tony Koebel 12:12
So that was another that was different in that I had about a year and a half to do the poplar in this time, we had a set deadline. And that was October 27, the city had told us that that's when the street was going to be reopening. So to say that it was a difficult summer would be an understatement. I had to raise a lot of money very quickly. And then also, I had to do an absolute ton of work. That was that was so much I'm still kind of my buddies somehow compress from at all sure I'm running a marathon. Yeah, and I'm still just trying to get a grip. You know, the funny thing is, you can't because now we're open. And now is the time that you really have to invest in the business. I just, it's just a box. Granted, it's a gorgeous box with this beautiful tin ceiling. But the business side of things is filling the space with customers, I should say people and getting the staff ready to go in this completely new environment with a completely new menu, which has drawn the ire of some folks. But I'm actually excited about it. Good. Yeah, it was a great opportunity.
Fuzz Martin 13:18
So you're constantly innovating both your businesses, what, you know, what's the driver behind that?
Tony Koebel 13:24
Yeah. Believe it or not, I'm, I'm a person that somehow in my crazy head thinks that whatever works for you, like today, or yesterday, well don't do it again. And I know that restaurants fail if they're inconsistent. Well, why can't a restaurant be consistently good at creating new things all the time, and be progressive, and changing and, you know, West Bend is an interesting market. They're very supportive market, but they also like what they like, and they want things to sometimes stay the same. And I'm, I'm challenging that thought. And I am proud of my staff for being there with me to do it, because they're doing it too. We are constantly trying to raise the stakes of, of dining in West Bend and bring something new, and some of the big city feel and big city character and new flavors and trending things. That's that's what we're trying to do. Yeah.
Fuzz Martin 14:32
Obviously, you talk a lot about your team and your staff at both locations. And obviously getting it right and that that experience that you have when it comes to a restaurant is of the utmost important. What do you look for when you're hiring somebody at the Orville or the neural, Norbert?
Tony Koebel 14:49
Likable people. Okay. Obviously, a great resume. Looks good, you know, is it is the person within budget. Can we bring on really talented folks. And so much of it is, can we be inspired by them? And can we inspire them? I've got a great core of people. And there's there's really no tears in the company. Forgive me, but I used to think there were tears of employees that, but it's not. It's everyone's really, we all need each other to complete a great service. And yeah, likeability is the biggest thing. And then somehow, people come to me in the street, or in the grocery store, or wherever, and they say, your staff is so kind, they're so likable, and you have to believe me, you won't, but you have to believe, Fuzz, that there's not a lot of training that goes into that. There's some training on the, you know, the specifics of how to handle a table or put silverware, dial on or wash dishes or cook certain things. Sure. But the kindness literally comes from them. And they don't give themselves enough credit for that. I I have very little to do with how kind and wonderful my staff is, that's just who they are. I'm very blessed
Fuzz Martin 16:08
In one sentence each. How would you describe the Norbert and the Orville and what makes them unique from one another.
Tony Koebel 16:19
Oh boy. The Norbert right now is a very progressive, urban setting. small plates restaurant, we do focus on shareable meals. The Orville would be more of a cozy old school Steakhouse, Mr. pod.com on that sentence, and say that we do make our own pasta. Oh, make our own bread. And that goes a long way. I think that's been that's that's really fueling and right now. One is very fast paced and chaotic and crazy. Not that the Orville can't be and some nights, but the Orville is more of a relaxed atmosphere where, you know, a lot of couples come or special occasions, they're going to spend a little bit more money. The Norbert is just a rocket ship. It's just crazy. I love it.
Fuzz Martin 17:13
Strap in. So we're heading into the busy holiday season. Do you have any advice for those who are looking to dine at your restaurants?
Tony Koebel 17:21
Oh, if if they could please be patient, I would really, really appreciate that. Both restaurants are seeing quite an uptick right now on reservations, which people probably should make. It's it just helps us and actually it helps any restaurant out. If they take them. It's good for a kitchen staff or for the front of the house to know what's coming. And to help prepare to to make a better experience. We do have our our annual gift cards special coming up which has just grown and grown and grown and that is that starts on Thanksgiving. That's real quickly. You know, you buy $100 gift card, you get a $50 and when you buy a 50 you get a 25 and you buy 25 and you get a 10 for free. So okay, it's, it's more or less. People are always buying gifts for each and well. We'd like to give you a gift for giving us some some money. And let's let's get you back in because I I'd like you to enjoy the space. Yeah. Well,
Fuzz Martin 18:19
Tony, I love what you're doing with the restaurants here. It's great to have in our community. Again, if you're if you listening would like to check out the Norbert it's thenorbert.com then 115 South Main Street and the Orville is at 518 Poplar Street. That's theorvillewb.com I really appreciate you coming in. We've been wanting to talk for a while that I know you've been super nice appreciate you haven't
Tony Koebel 18:42
you mentioned this a few years ago and this is really exciting. I'm very proud of everything. Obviously you're doing for the community too. And like and this I found out about this and I I've been listening to these. These are fantastic. Thank you everybody. And you've got great questions. You do a nice job.
Fuzz Martin 18:59
Thanks, Tony. I appreciate it. Thank you again so much to Tony cable of the Norbert and the Orville restaurants in West Bend for joining me on this week's episode of Fifteen Minutes with Fuzz. Again, you can find more about the Norbert at thenorbert.com or the Orville at theorvillewb.com You'll enjoy them both. I promise you. Treat yourself.
Fuzz Martin 19:22
That will do it for this week's show. If you ever have an idea for a guest reach out, you can email me firstname.lastname@example.org That is 15 spelled out with fuzz @gmail.com or use the form that's on my website you can go to fuzz.cc/guest that is fuzz dot c c slash guest new episodes drop on Tuesdays. Hit the little Follow button or the plus symbol in your podcast player right now to make sure you're getting notified when new episodes of Fifteen Minutes with Fuzz air. And I'll drop in again with you next week. Right here on Fifteen Minutes