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AADL Talks To: Ken Weber, President of Weber's Restaurant & Inn

When: November 27, 2023

Photo of Ken Weber smiling in a suit
Ken Weber

 

In this episode, AADL talks to Ken Weber. Ken is the son of Weber's restaurant and hotel founder Herman Weber. Ken tells us about the busniness' humble beginnings, Weber's connection to Metzger's, and the continual innovations that have allowed it to remain as a family business for 87 years.

Transcript

  • [00:00:09] Amy Cantu: Hi, this is Amy.
  • [00:00:10] Elizabeth Smith: This is Elizabeth. In this episode, AADL talks to Ken Weber. Ken is the son of Weber's restaurant and hotel founder Herman Weber. Ken talks about the history of his father's business ventures and some of his favorite memories from his time growing up in and running the business.
  • [00:00:33] Amy Cantu: Well, welcome, Ken. Thanks so much for coming.
  • [00:00:36] Ken Weber: I appreciate the invitation.
  • [00:00:38] Elizabeth Smith: Usually we ask people, how did you come to Ann Arbor or where did you grow up?
  • [00:00:43] Ken Weber: Well, I was born in the Old St. Joe Hospital in 1955, and I went to all the public schools. Ironically, I went to Mac, and then I opened Wines as a first grader. I opened Abbott and I opened Newport. That's elementary school. During the big expansion, I was in the middle of the baby boom.
  • [00:01:09] Amy Cantu: Now, your family -- maybe you can give us a little bit of a sketch of the history. Your father, when he came to Ann Arbor and your mother, and just provide a little bit of background for us and then we'll follow from there.
  • [00:01:21] Ken Weber: Sure. My father was born in Chelsea. He was the fourth of four boys. He grew up there and he was a farmer. Then my parents got married in around 1953, and my mother came over after World War II as a German immigrant. She was sponsored by family out on Stadium Boulevard, and they were relatives. It turned out that he was a bricklayer for one of dad's restaurants. They knew each other. Then on a Sunday afternoon, they brought my mother out to introduce them to my father at the Weber's restaurant back in the day.
  • [00:02:02] Amy Cantu: Nice. Which one was that then?
  • [00:02:04] Ken Weber: That was the one called Weber's Supper Club, which was the third one. That was in Scio Township. It's where the Toyota dealership currently is.
  • [00:02:17] Amy Cantu: I understand that you have a connection. Your father had a connection with the Metzgers, is that right?
  • [00:02:22] Ken Weber: Yes. Way back in the day, my dad would raise chickens in Chelsea and he'd put them on the street car. There was a street car between Chelsea and Ann Arbor. He would hop on the street car and he'd bring the chickens in and he'd sell them to the Metzger family, German restaurant. That's how he got to meet them. But what happened is the season was over and he had no more chickens. He told Mr. Metzger, he says, This is it. I don't have any more chickens. I won't see until next year. Mr. Metzger says, well, would you like to work here? We got a job for you. He was a dishwasher. Mr. Metzger hired him and he was a dishwasher at Metzgers and eventually he rented an apartment above the restaurant. Ironically, he ended up teaching Mr. Metzger's son how to drive the car back in the day. He was his automobile instructor. Then then he, of course, had another son called William Metzger who is my contemporary, and he currently runs the Metzger's restaurant that's out there. It's quite, quite tight. In fact, William Metzger's son was born at the hospital the day before my first son was born. We were crossing paths in the runway to the delivery room.
  • [00:03:42] Amy Cantu: That's great.
  • [00:03:44] Elizabeth Smith: What was the first restaurant that he built, and when was that?
  • [00:03:48] Ken Weber: Well, he didn't build the first one. The first one was in 1937, and it was a bankrupt diner on Washteanw and Platt Road. It was back in the day, the gasoline stations were also diners. They're diners and they pumped gas. He was able to take the lease on that and the name of the gasoline at the time was called high speed gasoline. It was called the High Speed Inn. It was a very small diner, and he leased that with his brother, and it was during the depression, and that was the time they were building the bombers out at Willow Run for World War II. He was able to sell Löwenbräu beer there, and he had one pinball machine, and he had five seats and a small grill and he sold hamburgers. He told me years ago that this pinball machine back then you could get tickets and then the tickets you could redeem for money. He set the pinball machine on the easiest to win so everybody was winning tickets. They were coming in and there's only one pinball machine. They were waiting in line for opportunity to play the pinball machine and win the tickets. While they're waiting, of course, they were drinking beer and eating hamburgers. He said he made enough money from the pinball machine to pay the run on the building.
  • [00:05:02] Amy Cantu: Smart move.
  • [00:05:07] Ken Weber: Eventually, what happened is it got popular and busy and it was still a residential area out there, and the people at high speed got upset with him because he was more interested in selling food and beer than he was in gasoline. So, he lost his lease.
  • [00:05:22] Amy Cantu: Well, now at that point, was he had he already thought, I want to run a restaurant, or did this happen gradually then?
  • [00:05:29] Ken Weber: Well, he learned the restaurant business from the Metzgers when he was working in there as a dishwasher, and he saw what was going on. He learned how it worked in the kitchen. That's why where he first got his aspirations, I think. Also, he didn't have the money to get into that place. I'm just remembering now that he told me that he had to sell his car, and he sold the car and with enough money that he sold his car and his brother's help, they were able to make the down payment on the lease.
  • [00:05:58] Elizabeth Smith: Once they wouldn't renew the lease, where did he go after that?
  • [00:06:02] Ken Weber: After he lost that place, there was a place called the Oak Grove Tavern, and the building is still there. It was on Jackson Road, about a quarter mile west of Toyota -- Jackson and Park Road. That was another place and back then, Jackson Road was the main drag between Detroit and Chicago. That was the US 12 before 94 was built. He took over that place and it was called the Oak Grove Tavern, and he basically leased it. The owner had it, and they were running it and weren't doing too well. He was able to get volume. He got business on it, and it got very busy. He had his second success. He was able to figure out how to attract customers and have them come back and like the place. He had that instinct and it was hard work, and I think he was friendly and he sold reasonable and he believed in hospitality. Evidently, he was able to do it better than other people in that era. What he told me was that the person who owned the building saw the business was so strong. He says, well, gosh, now the business is built up. What do I need him for? He wouldn't renew the lease with him, and he took it over and he started running the restaurant on his own after he kicked dad out. Now, dad got kicked out twice on leases, and he says, this is the last time I want to go in a lease situation.
  • [00:07:21] Amy Cantu: Yeah.
  • [00:07:24] Ken Weber: He had enough resources at the time to buy some land and build a place. It's a very humble place. It was just a Cinder Block building, very small and he built that where the Toyota is now. That was called the Weber's Supper club.
  • [00:07:37] Amy Cantu: When did the idea come to him to also open a hotel?
  • [00:07:46] Ken Weber: Well, he was doing good at the Weber Supper Club. In fact, that was opened, and he added onto it three times. He added on a bar, a town and country room, an Old Ann Arbor room because the business was there and he was successful. He was able to get the loans. Then he added on a six room motel separately just right next door to the place. At the time, there was a new chain coming in America that was very popular. It was called Holiday Inn.
  • [00:08:11] Amy Cantu: Yeah.
  • [00:08:13] Ken Weber: I don't know if this was on purpose or not, but he ended up calling his place Weber's Holiday house.
  • [00:08:20] Amy Cantu: Smart.
  • [00:08:21] Ken Weber: He had a big neon sign, Weber's Holiday House six rooms, and that's about the time I was born. I was born, and we lived in the office of that place. We lived right in the motel. That was all going and then suddenly, it wasn't suddenly, but 94 opened and US 12 was now just a road and his business just went way down. He knew that he was in trouble, so he tried to get a liquor license in Scio Township and they put it up for a vote and Scio Township wouldn't pass it. He saw times were changing. He saw this land that is where the current Weber's is now. It was about seven acres and it was farm land and was carved up because 94 came in there and it was an oddball piece of land. He went in there and he talked to the man and it was for sale, and the guy said he wanted $70,000 for it. Dad said, you're crazy, I can't afford $70,000. He says, it doesn't matter. There's another guy that's interested in the two, and I'll just sell it to him. Dad said, who's that? Win Schuler.
  • [00:09:25] Amy Cantu: Oh, wow.
  • [00:09:26] Ken Weber: At the time Win Schuler was big competition. He was running restaurants all over the state. I think he had seven restaurants.
  • [00:09:32] Amy Cantu: I remember those.
  • [00:09:32] Ken Weber: It was the number 1 restaurant in the State of Michigan. Dad says, okay, I'll buy it [LAUGHTER]
  • [00:09:39] Amy Cantu: He knew that. He knew that was a spot [OVERLAPPING]
  • [00:09:41] Ken Weber: He'd be done if Schuler got in there and he didn't. He got the land in the City of Ann Arbor then. He had to go to City Council, and City Council decided that they would allow it. They'd zone it so that it would be commercial. I just read recently that the reason why they zoned it is they thought they'd rather have a restaurant or hotel in that location as opposed to industrial. They changed the zoning to restaurant. There's homes nearby. They were concerned about the homes in the neighborhood too. He got it rezoned, and then they actually gave him a liquor license, and he needed liquor because Scio Township wouldn't do it. He was able to get that approved by the city. Then he hired a architect at the time, quite well renown. He was a UM Grad. His name was Jim Livingston, and he had just completed the Boyne Mountain and Gaylord. He did the Gaylord Bavarian style, and then the Boyne Highlands. He had just completed all those places up there in Northern Michigan when the skiing was getting popular. They're all Bavarian settings. Then, for some reason, I don't know why Weber's they were advertising as a Bavarian styled restaurant. I don't know, maybe because Ann Arbor was pretty German back then and dad's last name is German. It's ironic we've never served German food [LAUGHTER]
  • [00:11:06] Elizabeth Smith: When they moved into this new location, did he change anything right away of how he was doing the business?
  • [00:11:11] Ken Weber: Well, he had liquor. He had to learn that because he's only been beer and wine in Scio Township. He had to learn that, and he hired a bartender. I think there's a place called the Town club back then, which was a private club that had liquor, and he hired the bartender from there. He knew the liquor. They did that. Of course, the hours were long. They were serving dinner until one o'clock. Can you believe serving dinner until one o'clock and actually have someone show up at one o'clock for dinner. But they were doing that, and back in the day, it was very different back then people stayed out late and would go into the lounge and the place opened. It was successful immediately.
  • [00:11:49] Amy Cantu: Did you have live music then right from the get go or?
  • [00:11:52] Ken Weber: Do you remember Paul Tompkins?
  • [00:11:54] Amy Cantu: Yes.
  • [00:11:54] Ken Weber: Paul Tompkins was the organist at the Michigan theater. He was a celebrity here in Ann Arbor. Dad bought a Hammond organ, and Paul Tompkins was the organ player. Yes, he would be there and he played at the Michigan and he played at Weber's. He was the entertainment. We always had entertainment of that type. Then finally, the organ got out of style, and Paul Tompkins got too old. We switched to a piano, and we still have piano to this day.
  • [00:12:23] Amy Cantu: You've had quite a few celebrities in there.
  • [00:12:26] Ken Weber: We've had a lot of celebrities that stayed at the hotel over the years, yes. Back in the day before the Rock and Roll bands of the '60s and '70s went to these big arenas. They would come to the small clubs. They went to many clubs here in Ann Arbor, and we had a lot of bands. They went to Crisler Arena too. We've had the Beach Boys. We had the Small Faces at the time and Linda Ronstadt and Tracy Chapman and many more.
  • [00:12:51] Amy Cantu: Wow, that's great.
  • [00:12:52] Elizabeth Smith: Was the family still living at the hotel through all this time or did you ever have another home where your family was living?
  • [00:12:59] Ken Weber: Well, so I was born. They were living at the hotel, and Dad was fine with that, but my mother said, I am not having another child in this motel. If you want another child, we're going to have a house. Dad bought a house on Wagner Road [LAUGHTER]
  • [00:13:13] Amy Cantu: Pretty close by. That's great. Now, I imagine you have some pretty fond memories of spending time as a child in the restaurant. Can you talk a little bit about that?
  • [00:13:26] Ken Weber: It was interesting because I was quite spoiled that way because we would eat dinner all the time. I probably was one of the youngest kids in Ann Arbor to eat lobster as a three or four year old. [LAUGHTER] Oysters and escargo and all those crazy things. But I had a chance to learn food at a young age. My sister and I grew up in the food. Of course, at the kitchen table every day, we would hear my parents talking about everything that was going on at the restaurant that they had to deal with. We were privy to all the ins and out of running a small business.
  • [00:14:07] Amy Cantu: What did you learn?
  • [00:14:08] Ken Weber: Mostly the headaches. The problem with this situation or this customer or staffing or someone quit or someone walked out, or they spilled a drink on somebody or all these crazy things that would go on.
  • [00:14:23] Elizabeth Smith: There was a big expansion in 1969, is that correct?
  • [00:14:27] Ken Weber: The restaurant opened and we were fortunately successful and so my father decided that to round it out and maybe be a little bit more secure in the economy to add a hotel. Ann Arbor was growing at the time, and we were right on a great location right on an exit ramp off 94 coming into town. He was able to get approval from the city to add a motor inn, we called it a motor inn at the time, and it was 126 rooms. That got added. Very beginning, they said, Well, now an inn fine enough to bear the name Webers. That was the idea. We stayed independent. He tried to get a franchise from Sheraton, and Sheraton wouldn't give it to them. Then at about that same time, the Briarwood Hilton opened. Dad was a little worried that he might not make it without a national franchise. We opened without it, and he was never looked back. We were able to stay independent all these years without a franchise. It's a big deal because they take 10% right off the top. If you can run a business and not have to pay that, that really makes a difference.
  • [00:15:39] Amy Cantu: You had one of the first indoor pools, is that right? Can you talk about that?
  • [00:15:43] Ken Weber: Yes. From what I recall, Dad said that they had a little bit of money left over, and they could either add a bar or they could add a pool area. Of course, a bar has immediate payback in a pool area, you wonder. They flew, the architect and him, they flew into Minnesota. Minnesota had one of the very first enclosed swimming pools, and they looked at that. They got some ideas, and they brought it back and they ended up building an indoor pool. This is before Holidome. This is one of the first indoor pools around anywhere. There was a place in East Detroit called the Georgian Inn, and they might have had one too. But it's still I think I haven't seen another place with spiral staircase inside an indoor pool from the rooms. I still think that's unique even today and you had issues with chlorine. The problem back then was chlorine smell. There was no other solution. We were running the exhaust fans all the time to try and suck out the chlorine, and we had to run the heaters to keep the place warm. But there were some issues, but the demand was there. Weekends were busy during the winter. Eventually, they came up with the name of the four seasons pool. Then they put billboards out and they called it Instant Florida in Ann Arbor.
  • [00:17:02] Amy Cantu: There you go.
  • [00:17:04] Ken Weber: Literally, during the winter months, families coming in from all over the Detroit area, it was booked sometimes two months in advance on Friday and Saturday nights.
  • [00:17:12] Elizabeth Smith: How did the labor division go in the family in terms of who ran the hotel and who ran the restaurant?
  • [00:17:18] Ken Weber: Well, when I was young, of course, my parents ran. My mother was running the front of the restaurant, and then my dad ran the business. We had managers too, that helped do a lot of things. Then as we grew up, Linda and I both went to school, I went to hotel school, and Linda went to advertising. We came back and then we divided it up a little bit where Linda would focus on the sales office and I'd focus on the restaurant. Then now my kids are involved. Then they both went to the hotel school at Michigan State, and we have it divided so that Michael focuses on the hotel and the banquets and sales, and Brian focuses on the restaurant and bar.
  • [00:17:59] Amy Cantu: I had read in an interview with your father when he was 80 that he said, this is not primarily a motel, this is a restaurant with rooms available for guests.
  • [00:18:08] Ken Weber: Just about every hotel has upwards of 70, 75% of the revenue that comes from rooms and restaurants are a side light. Basically, we're just the opposite where a restaurant, primarily food and beverage for our sales have always been well over 50, 60% for food and beverage sales compared to the hotel. We think that that has been helpful because we want to cater as a restaurant to the Ann Arbor community. We focus on the restaurant. We figure if we can get the restaurant and the hospitality of the restaurant right, the hotel will take care of itself.
  • [00:18:43] Elizabeth Smith: Are there any menu items that have stayed consistent throughout the years?
  • [00:18:47] Ken Weber: Well, I was just looking at this is our very first menu, and I looked at it. Back then, the very first item is roast prime rib of aged beef au jus $4.10. That is the one item that has stayed on the menu the entire time. I'm looking at every other filet mignon and New York strip steak, of course, have stayed on. But everything else we have broiled South African lobster tails, they're still on the menu. But just about everything else has come on and come off. A couple of items that were popular back in the day that you wouldn't see on a menu today as calves liver.
  • [00:19:27] Elizabeth Smith: Wow.
  • [00:19:28] Ken Weber: Sweet breads and then they used to have a veal cutlet, which is deep fried veal that's been tenderized, pounded. There are some items from the days that have switched and items like you see salmon on every menu now, but there's no salmon on this old menu.
  • [00:19:46] Amy Cantu: It was mostly meat and chicken, or was it?
  • [00:19:49] Ken Weber: Mostly meat and chicken, very few fish. We had a frozen swordfish steak and frozen deep fried scallops at the time, shrimp, of course was popular. One of the popular items back then, for $0.90 was a king crab meat cocktail. Now, of course, you can't even put on the menu so expensive. It's so rare.
  • [00:20:08] Amy Cantu: Ninety cents, wow. What year is that?
  • [00:20:12] Ken Weber: This is the opening menu. It was around '62. Back then, included in the meal would be a choice of a small glass of either V8 tomato or cranberry juice. That was always included in the meal, so they had a glass of chilled tomato juice for $0.25.
  • [00:20:31] Elizabeth Smith: Wow. That's fantastic.
  • [00:20:33] Ken Weber: That's how the trends changed.
  • [00:20:35] Amy Cantu: Recently, you went through a pandemic and things were really difficult, I imagine. I know you sold some groceries, can you talk a little bit about how you all adjusted in particular.
  • [00:20:46] Ken Weber: It was very scary. Suddenly, you're shut down and there's nothing coming in. Then you got over $100,000 worth of perishable food in the coolers and you got bills to pay, and there's no revenue. It was very frightening. The first thing we figured is we can't let this food go bad on us. I think we might have been one of the very first restaurants in the entire country to come up with the idea that we'll turn the restaurant into a grocery store, because we did it, I think, maybe one day after we were shut down, and my sons, they brainstormed the whole thing. We advertised it on Facebook, and then we went upstairs and my three sons and talking about the strategy, how we're going to handle this whole thing. Then the front desk manager came running up said. ''The phones ringing off the hook.'' You gotta get back down here. We were all on the phone and we were taking orders for this food, but we didn't know how much of it we had. We were selling food that was already sold out.
  • [00:21:45] Amy Cantu: Oh no.
  • [00:21:47] Ken Weber: Then we started, we said. We got to take your phone number. We'll call you back. It was, like, 10:30 at night where we finally called back the last people to take their order. Then we finally eventually figured out how to handle the whole thing. We started selling the food pretty much up until it ended the pandemic ended. We had regular people that come in once a week to get the groceries, and then we had to buy more food and refill the shelves. It basically was a wash by the time you did all the work, but at least it gave us something to keep our minds on and gave us a chance to keep some people employed. I got to say, one other thing. My son came up with an idea. We got to have activities, and of course, they allowed people to eat outside after a while. He said, well, why don't we turn the place into a drive in movie theater?
  • [00:22:36] Amy Cantu: I remember seeing that.
  • [00:22:39] Ken Weber: One weekend, we did that. We had help from one of the associations downtown. I think it was the film society downtown, and they brought in one of those projectors, and we did it on our Friday and Saturday night, and we advertised it, and we were selling truffled popcorn and cocktails in the back lot there was a hill in the backyard. It worked out so that when we had, like, I think we had 70 plus cars in there watching these old films they could easily have gotten on television, but they came in, and it was fun that we did it, and it was just an activity. City had to give us approval, and the City gave us approval to do it. We did some things to get through.
  • [00:23:22] Amy Cantu: Has there ever been a time either when you were running things or when your father was where it was precarious enough or stressful enough that there was that anybody entertained the idea of maybe we don't want to do this?
  • [00:23:37] Ken Weber: Well, it's always whenever you run a business, especially a small business where you don't have all the resources, there's always headaches, but we've always been determined. We like the family business. We haven't really thought about hanging it up. We enjoy going to work.
  • [00:23:56] Elizabeth Smith: Do you think that there is a family business philosophy that has made you so successful?
  • [00:24:00] Ken Weber: Well, I don't think there's anything unique, no. Maybe perseverance.
  • [00:24:06] Amy Cantu: It sounds like it. Definitely got a history of that. What are you most proud of?
  • [00:24:14] Ken Weber: I think we're lucky to be in Ann Arbor. It's a great community, and it's a strong and it's a community that keeps getting stronger all the time and with the education in this town, and of course, we're at a good location. We're happy with that, but I would say, if anything, we're just grateful that people still are patronizing the place after all these years.
  • [00:24:38] Elizabeth Smith: Thank you.
  • [00:24:39] Amy Cantu: It's great to talk. Thank you so much.
  • [00:24:46] Elizabeth Smith: AADL Talk To is a production of the Ann Arbor District Library.