It was 2011. John Weber and his wife, Jennifer, were living in Virginia when he half-jokingly completed an online questionnaire to determine his “dream career.” The quiz promised to connect John with a career coach to review the results.
John was surprised when the coach indeed called, sharing that John’s answers matched him with a career in the restaurant industry.
“At the time, I was at a crossroads in my life. I had worked in restaurants throughout high school and college as a busser, server, and bartender,” said John. “I liked it, so I thought why not learn more about owning a restaurant? What did I have to lose?”
Originally from South Glens Falls, John and Jennifer are high school sweethearts who have lived all over the country. John was a corporate marketing professional, conceptualizing television commercials for brands like Geico and Walmart. But after 18 years, he and Jennifer yearned to return home.
On a family visit, John and his father were dining at The Heidelberg Inn at 352 Quaker Road in Queensbury. John shared his findings of the career assessment, questioning whether a regional business ownership opportunity existed for him.
It was longtime Heidelberg server Sherri Archer who overheard the father/son conversation and approached them. She shared that The Heidelberg was quietly for sale.
“It was totally random,” laughed John on Sherri approaching the table. “But that is what started the idea of me owning The Heidelberg.”
It All Made Sense.
As a huge fan of German cuisine and culture, The Heidelberg was one of John’s favorite restaurants. His family is of German heritage, and he gained German friends in college. This provided an opportunity for him to visit Munich and experience the biergartens there. John even chose an Oktoberfest theme for his 40th birthday, hiring The Heidelberg to cater the event years before owning it.
“In retrospect, so many steps in my life led me to the restaurant,” said John.
John is the fourth owner of The Heidelberg. Family owned since 1972, the original owners were Stock & Muellers, and in 2004, they passed ownership to Tom Collins.
It was Tom who quietly considered selling the restaurant. Once John expressed interest (and Tom remembered him from catering that Oktoberfest party!), Tom spent early morning training sessions with John and John’s father, all without The Heidelberg staff knowing.
“Tom was planning to spend more time with his family as he fought a dignified battle with cancer,” said John, “But he wasn’t going to pass the business to just anyone. He wanted to ensure the next owner would keep the legacy going.”
John earned Tom’s trust, and on December 4, 2014, John was off and running, ultimately “learning as he went.” Tom continued to help John even after the closing. Though Tom passed away in 2017, the Weber and Collins families still keep in touch.
Today, the training carries on. In addition to German delicacies like award-winning wurst (German sausages), wiener schnitzel (prime veal breaded and golden brown), and huge soft pretzels, the restaurant also has American cuisine. A variety of sandwiches, burgers, and salads round out a menu for many tastes.
After six years, John has continued to hone his skills in different areas of the business. Most recently, he’s been training with The Heidelberg chef of 25 years, Dean Dilorenzo, and chef of five years, Ryan Randle, to learn the “rhythm” of cooking for large groups.
“It’s a different experience cooking 10 different meals at the same time,” said John. “I’m definitely not a manager who sits behind a desk. I’m back there pounding the veal!”
John’s family has also grown involved with the business. John’s wife, Jennifer, is the restaurant’s “books and baking” specialist, handling accounting and making The Heidelberg’s desserts. Their son also worked as a prep cook and dishwasher at the establishment.
An (Almost) 40 Year Following
“Everything here is homemade and prepped like your grandmother would do,” said John.
The restaurant roasts their own turkey, ham, and roast beef daily, and their famous celery seed dressing, which makes their coleslaw a fan favorite, takes close to an hour to prepare.
These techniques contribute to high quality dishes, with the Reuben (oven roasted corned beef, Swiss cheese grilled on rye with homemade sauerkraut and house Russian dressing) being the most popular dish. (Hint: It’s the special layering technique that makes the sandwich so special!)
Certain dishes, like the sauerbraten entrée (prime beef marinated in the traditional German style, served in a gravy enriched with ground gingersnaps, and complemented with fresh red cabbage), are pickled for 12 days, and then slow cooked for six hours. Desserts like Bavarian cream puffs and German upside down cake are all made from scratch by John’s wife, Jennifer.
And don’t forget the beer! Offering five German beers on tap, including the world’s oldest beer, Weihenstephaner, The Heidelberg strives to share the “Biergarten feel” in upstate New York. Customers can order their favorite brew in a 1 liter mug – known as das boot – and even try them all in a beer-tasting flight. Wine and fun cocktails are also offered.
The Shock of COVID
On March 20, 2020, John decided to temporarily close the restaurant.
“I was most concerned about the safety of our staff if we remained open,” he said. “But of course, I wondered: What does this mean? Will I lose my business?”
During the first year of John’s ownership, he oversaw the construction of an outdoor biergarten, a feature which ultimately contributed to their successful summer.
When The Heidelberg reopened June 16, the socially-distanced biergarten found its seats full day after day.
“We have customers coming in since the 1970s,” said John, “And it was important they have an area in which they feel safe. The Heidelberg is also a favorite stop among tourists each summer, and with the outdoor dining, we continued to have a great season.”
With the colder weather approaching, John plans to offer family packages and hopes to expand kitchen capacity, with a goal to construct a window where customers can conveniently secure takeout meals from outside of the building.
“This isn’t just a COVID-related move, but this is to prepare for the future,” said John. “I want to create convenience. But I also know that once customers experience our high quality, they’ll come back.”
The German Experience in Queensbury
While Germany’s Oktoberfest was canceled (the first time since World War II!), The Heidelberg hopes to share the Oktoberfest experience with residents and visitors of upstate New York.
“It’s a nod to the experience,” said John. “If anyone has been to Oktoberfest, we want The Heidelberg to remind people of that feeling.”
The restaurant started launching specials October 1, and patrons receive free Schnapps shots with their entrees. Customers can also opt to purchase a commemorative .5 liter beer mug.
To support the restaurant, and stay up-to-date with all Oktoberfest announcements, follow The Heidelberg Inn’s Facebook page.
Special thanks to NBT Bank for supporting this story.
Regional Exec Marc Monahan said, “NBT understands the challenges small business owners are facing to manage these difficult times, and we gladly support our local restaurants, customers, and communities.”