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AADL Talks To: Michael Weber, Vice President Hotel Operations, Weber's Restaurant & Hotel

When: August 3, 2023

Photo of Michael Weber seen from the waist up in a suit and pink tie, seated at Weber's restaurant. The place setting has a white table cloth and plate with folded napkin. Wooden ceiling beams and a stained glass window are visible in the background.
Michael Weber

 

In this episode AADL talks to Michael Weber, grandson of Weber's founder Herman Weber, and current Vice President of hotel operations. Michael recounts the history of the business, his grandmother's contributions, and the changes Weber's made in order to weather the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

Transcript

  • [00:00:09] Amy Cantu: Hi, this is Amy.
  • [00:00:11] Elizabeth Smith: This is Elizabeth. In this episode, AADL talks to Michael Weber, vice president of hotel operations at Weber's restaurant and boutique hotel. Michael shares memories of growing up in the family business, how his grandmother brought a level of sophistication to the restaurant and some of the changes and challenges Weber's has faced over the years.
  • [00:00:33] Amy Cantu: Welcome, Michael. Thanks for coming in. We'd like to ask a little bit about the origins of the restaurant. You have a long history of being a restaurant plus a hotel. The name has changed a few times. Could you talk a little bit about just the name of your restaurant and how that's changed over time? Why?
  • [00:00:51] Michael Weber: The name is Weber's restaurant. It was founded by my grandfather, Herman Weber, in 1937. He grew up as a chicken farmer in Chelsea and had four brothers. He would deliver his chickens to Metzgers the original Metzgers downtown. He eventually met Mr. Metzger and got his first job as a dishwasher there and rented the apartment above Metzgers. That's how he got his entrance into the restaurant industry. In 1937, he had saved up some money. Instead of buying a car, he bought a gas station on Washington and Platt road and he sold gas. But he also opened a tiny diner in the gas station and called it the High Speed Inn. They sold hamburgers and they had a pinball machine and they had Lowenbrau beer on tap. He bragged about two gimmicks that he had. One was, he made the pinball machine really easy to play, easy to win or get refired so people would play that. Then he put the beer keg where everybody could see it behind some glass. You would say draft beer direct. He loved his gimmicks and that place was very successful. From what I heard, it was so successful that the neighbors didn't like it and he lost his lease. He then worked with another person and rented another building called the Oak Grove Tavern. That was only opened for a couple of years and again, that one was very successful, but the owner basically said, I want to run this now. I want to run the restaurant myself. I don't need you anymore. After that, he had enough money and said no more renting from anybody. I'm going to buy my own property and that's where he opened the first Weber's restaurant. It was called Weber's Supper Club. That was on Jackson Road before Zeeb.
  • [00:03:09] Amy Cantu: Approximately, where would that have been? What's there now? Do you know?
  • [00:03:13] Michael Weber: There's a Toyota dealership there now.
  • [00:03:15] Amy Cantu: That's where it was. Got you.
  • [00:03:17] Michael Weber: It's between Wagner and Zeeb. Jackson Road, just west of us where we are now. At that location, he met my grandmother, Sonja Weber, who immigrated from Germany during the war. She was really the one who had the style and sophistication and Grandpa was the ambitious businessman. She brought a lot of the charm and decor to Weber's, as we know it. They made Weber's Supper Club a success. They built Weber's Holiday House Motel onto that location. I believe that was an eight room motel. That's when they had my dad and my aunt. Ken and Linda, and they grew up there and helped out of that business. Then in the 60s when Ann Arbor started serving liquor, Scio Township, which is where the location was only beer and wine. They went around and petitioned Scio township to allow them to serve liquor, but it was declined. Herman saw the land available down the street and he knew that the interstate was being built around that same time, and he just had the foresight to say, hey, we can have a bigger property. We can serve liquor, and it's going to be a great location for the long term. They pulled up stakes and moved about a mile down the street and opened the first Weber's restaurant. That's the original building that we have the A frame design. That's all the original Weber's restaurant in 1960s. That restaurant was very popular from the get go between Detroit and Chicago was one of the busiest restaurants.
  • [00:05:15] Amy Cantu: When did you add the hotel and when did the name change?
  • [00:05:18] Michael Weber: The first time it was called Weber's restaurant was in the 60s. Then the hotel was built in the 70s. The first wing of the hotel was built in the 70s. The saying was a hotel fine enough to bear the Weber's name. I remember reading some literature that we put out in the 70s and even then the restaurant only been opened for 10 years, but it was talking about the historic Weber's restaurant [LAUGHTER] in the 70s. The famous Weber's restaurant is opening a hotel. The first wing was built in the 70s. The second wing was built in the 80s.
  • [00:05:55] Elizabeth Smith: If you could talk a little bit more about the Supper Club and what that was.
  • [00:05:58] Michael Weber: It was a small fine dining little Supper Club. There's no music a lot of supper clubs will have. But it was just a classic American fine dining. When Herman had it by himself, it wasn't quite as nice. My grandma said that there was cinder block walls. [LAUGHTER]. That they would bring the silverware to the table after the guests sat down because it was more efficient that way. Then she said, no, that's not correct. The silverware is on the table so the guests can see it. She turned it from just another restaurant to really sophisticated fine dining restaurant, and we were able to carry that level of service and food from there.
  • [00:06:48] Amy Cantu: Did the actual food that you serve continue over all of the years or were there original recipes continued from one location to the other?
  • [00:06:56] Michael Weber: I'm trying to think if I have any recipes from the original Supper Club. Some of the earliest menus that I've seen were from Weber's restaurant. The prime rib was in the 60s and that's something that we've kept for a long time. We've had duck on the menu forever. That's been a recipe that we've had. The London broil recipe has been around for a long time. A lot of them from the Weber's restaurant in the current location has certainly stayed.
  • [00:07:25] Elizabeth Smith: I think we left off in the 80s. What changes have there been since then with the building?
  • [00:07:31] Michael Weber: The last big addition was in the 80s, which was the second wing of the hotel, and then the second large ballroom, Atrium ballroom. From there, we added an outdoor patio on the restaurant and a sun deck on the pool, but no real expansion. What we did starting around 2000 was almost completely rebuild the hotel. We completely redid the lobby, the ballrooms, the exterior, all of the hotel rooms, all of the bathrooms, the pool area. That was really a huge renovation that we've been doing for 20 years now. We're still have a couple things on the list to do.
  • [00:08:21] Amy Cantu: I wanted to ask about you had mentioned the dishes that you have, the ones that are the most popular. I think I read somewhere that you sold how much was it? Sixty thousand pounds of prime rib a year?
  • [00:08:36] Michael Weber: That sounds about right.
  • [00:08:37] Amy Cantu: [LAUGHTER] That's incredible. You think of yourself more as a restaurant that happens to have a hotel?
  • [00:08:46] Michael Weber: We're particular about our name and it's Weber's restaurant and hotel, a large 158 room hotel, but still over 60 percent of our sales is food and beverage. Most hotels that have food and beverage outlets, food and beverage is 10-20 percent of the total sales. We are very unique in that we have a large restaurant, the habitat bar, and a very large banquet and catering facilities and we serve a lot of people. A lot of people will stay at Weber's hotel because there's a good restaurant attached. People will typically say a hotel restaurant is never very good. It's just there. They put it on because they have to give their people something. We're not a hotel restaurant. We're a restaurant that has a hotel.
  • [00:09:45] Elizabeth Smith: Do you know anything about any of the famous people that came through?
  • [00:09:49] Michael Weber: We've had a number of people over the years. At the entrance. One of our favorite pictures is of Louis Armstrong. He was playing somewhere in Ann Arbor and he brought his band there. Thank goodness we got that picture because it's so great and clearly you can tell it's at Weber's and he's just there having a good time.
  • [00:10:10] Amy Cantu: Wait, did he play or did he just stay there?
  • [00:10:12] Michael Weber: He just came for dinner. After he's playing somewhere in Ann Arbor. We love that picture. We had a meeting with Mr. Toyota and Mr. Ford when Toyota tried to buy Ford.
  • [00:10:29] Amy Cantu: They came there? Oh wow.
  • [00:10:31] Michael Weber: It was a secret meeting, and they couldn't have it in Detroit because it would have raised too many eyebrows, so they had it at Weber's back in the Bistro. I'm trying to -- we have Weber's Hall of Fame, which is pretty fun to look at. People love that and looking at the pictures of everybody over the years.
  • [00:10:49] Amy Cantu: Tell me about the Coconut snowball. [LAUGHTER].
  • [00:10:53] Michael Weber: That's my favorite dessert.
  • [00:10:55] Amy Cantu: But it's not on the menu anymore? You have to know to ask for it?
  • [00:10:58] Michael Weber: We brought it back on. My brother took it off. We had about four or five different ice cream dishes, and he's like, everything's a Sunday on the dessert menu. You have to take something off, and I guess he doesn't like coconut as much as I do. [LAUGHTER] That one was taken off for a while, but it didn't last. The fun thing about Webers is if you do something wrong, you'll hear about it pretty quickly and you'll fix it. We make all of our own ice cream from scratch in house, and I think we have the best homemade ice cream, a good chocolate sauce. It's tossed in toasted coconut and then homemade whipped cream and cherry.
  • [00:11:40] Elizabeth Smith: Can you talk a little bit about your family business philosophy and how that led to the success of the business?
  • [00:11:45] Michael Weber: Sure. I think it all started with Herman and Sonja. Number 1, for Herman, he named it Webers after his family name. He grew up poor and just had so much pride in the business. He really was the business, and that was his heart and soul. He was really well known for just being a great person to his employees, being extremely kind and generous. We still have people who just remember working for Herman and loving working for him and feeling like they're part of the family. Herman started a profit sharing program where every year we contribute a portion of the profits averaging between $200 and 250,000 a year. We have people who spend their career there as a line cook or a maid or a server, and they'll spend 30 years working at Webers and they'll have a retirement with a good life. That's a wonderful thing. Taking care of the employees is huge, and to the same note, reinvesting in the company, doing things like making your own homemade ice cream even though it costs a little bit more and you might not be able to sell for more running at higher food cost on things like that so you can have a better quality product that you're proud of and proud to put your name on.
  • [00:13:08] Amy Cantu: How did you get through the pandemic, the recent pandemic? I know you had a little bit of a store, you sold some groceries, but how did that affect the restaurant, the hotel, and your employees?
  • [00:13:20] Michael Weber: We did what we could to have some sales coming in. The store was really just, hey, we have all this inventory that's about to go bad. Let's shoot an email out to our email list and see who wants it. You put it just on crazy low prices and we sent it out, and then within two minutes, we get 100 phone calls. We're like, no, we were not ready for this. We quickly get an actual order, taking system, and we were doing 100 orders a day curbside for a couple of months. That certainly helped keep people busy. We could do the carry out business. The hotels didn't close so at a point we started having people stay in the hotel and then delivering room service to them, so you couldn't go to a restaurant, but you could stay in your own hotel room and then have food delivered to you.
  • [00:14:18] Amy Cantu: That doesn't sound too bad.
  • [00:14:19] Elizabeth Smith: That sounds nice. [LAUGHTER]
  • [00:14:22] Michael Weber: I think we even made a billboard for that, so that was popular. But it was rough. We did have to lay off a lot of people, which was terrible. We did get PPP, which allowed us to stay open.
  • [00:14:39] Amy Cantu: And is the recovery going okay?
  • [00:14:41] Michael Weber: It's come back very quickly. We probably had more demand last year than we could handle with rebuilding our staff. But this year, we will be back to pre-pandemic sales levels.
  • [00:14:52] Amy Cantu: You and your brother operate the two wings of the business, is that correct? Which part do you do just for the record and which part does your brother do?
  • [00:15:01] Michael Weber: I'm in charge of the hotel and banquets, and my brother's in charge of the restaurant and bar.
  • [00:15:06] Amy Cantu: I forgot to ask you about the banquets. That's a big part of the business as well, correct? A lot of room rentals and that thing, can you talk a little bit about that?
  • [00:15:15] Michael Weber: Sure, we have two very large ballrooms, a number of small ones, and we do a lot of wedding business. We do holiday parties. We do baptisms, bridal parties, birthday parties, everything really. The restaurant is quite large. We can serve 400 people a night in the restaurant. Between the two ballrooms, we can serve another 400 people. On a busy Saturday night, we could serve 800 people in the business. Our chef stays pretty busy.
  • [00:15:47] Elizabeth Smith: Wow. I was wondering you mentioned you're constantly working on renovations, but are there any other big changes in the works coming up?
  • [00:15:55] Michael Weber: We've been doing our bathrooms for the last 10 years, and we're hopefully going to finish them by new year's eve of this year. We really went all out with the bathrooms, floor to ceiling tile, rainfall shower, there's jets in the walls, bose Bluetooth speakers in the ceilings that are hooked up to your mirror. The newest rooms, we have the TOTO toilet, the Bidets and people love them. We get tons of reviews every day from all different sites, and it's amazing how many people mention the Bidets specifically. [LAUGHTER]
  • [00:16:30] Elizabeth Smith: What is your favorite memory at the restaurant throughout your whole life?
  • [00:16:34] Michael Weber: I had a number of birthday parties there. I had some of my friends, we are eating lunch, and I ordered the muscles as I think, seven or eight year old kid and everybody was freaking out that I was eating the muscles and the escargo and they're like, I want chicken fingers. I'm like, what? I'm like, the muscles are good, and they're just freaking out. That's a fun one from growing up. I enjoy Webers the most on a Saturday night when we have two weddings and maybe after a home football game when just the place is hopping and we've got music going and everybody's having a good time and the building really does come alive. It can be a pretty special place when you have so many people just enjoying themselves.
  • [00:17:25] Elizabeth Smith: What are you most proud of?
  • [00:17:27] Michael Weber: I'm most proud of just our team in general, specifically, our management team. Our housekeeping manager has been here for over 40 years, the hotel manager for 30 years, the restaurant manager for over 10 years, the chef for probably close to 20, purchasing manager for well over 20. Then a lot of their employees have been working with them for such a long time. We don't have a big corporate structure. We don't have Marriott giving us a book on how to run everything so we rely on our staff and their longevity to do so much and we're lucky that we have so many great people working there.
  • [00:18:14] Elizabeth Smith: Thank you so much.
  • [00:18:14] Michael Weber: You're welcome. Thank you. [MUSIC]
  • [00:18:24] Elizabeth Smith: AADL talks to is a production of the Ann Arbor District Library. [MUSIC]