By Ruth Klossner River Valley Extra newsmagazine
Barbecued ribs topped the menu when Veigel’s Kaiserhoff opened its doors for the first time on January 6, 1938—and they’re still the signature item today.
And, like the ribs, something else —or should we say, someone else—has been there since day one.
Don Veigel, then a 15-year-old high school student, was on hand for that opening, working side-by-side with his parents, Albert and Minnie Veigel.
“I went to work and worked all day,” Veigel, now 90, recalled of opening day.
The original Kaiserhoff was at 523 First North, in what had been a filling station. The Veigels rented space for a bar room and a little dining room in the back.
The elder Veigel had operated the Lyric Café in the 1920s, and “was in the food and beer business all his life,” according to Don.
The early years weren’t easy.
“It started tough and got tougher,” Don recalled. “During the war, we couldn’t buy stuff to sell, especially meat. Dad begged every meat market in town to get meat.”
The original menu offered three choices—barbecued ribs, roast chicken, and hamburger steak—all served with French fries, toast, and cole slaw. With ribs costing 17¢ a pound at the market, the rib plate sold for 45¢.
“The shame of it was that people didn’t have a dollar to spend for dinner for two,” Don said.
When Mr. Radke, the building owner, needed more space for his Cadillac business, the restaurant had to move. That move was to the rundown old building of Vercoe Plumbing in the 200 Block of Minnesota Street.
After remodeling, the Kaiserhoff opened there April 1, 1946. It had a long bar and seating for 60, or as Don said, “That was about it.”
By then, the cost of the rib dinner with the Kaiserhoff’s own special sauce had risen to $1.15, with a chicken dinner costing $1.00, and hamburger steak 85¢. A hamburger was 20¢, a glass of milk 10¢, and a beer 20¢.
With the war over, business started to turn around.
“Things picked up, people went out more, and the economy was better,” Don said. “By the later 1950s and on, business was really booming.”
In 1963, Don bought the building to the north and remodeled the entire place. A new bar was put in and more dining room space added. At that time, Mr. Busche, an employee of Hirschfield’s, painted a large mural of a man sitting by a beer barrel in the bar room. It’s titled, “Bier und Brot macht die wangen rot,” meaning “Beer and bread make the cheeks red.” It’s still there for all to see.
About 10 years later, Don purchased the Saffert Meat Market Building, to the south. A nice entry space and large party room were added. With the addition of that space, the restaurant now has a capacity of 250 to 300 people. A variety of meeting/dining rooms hold from 10 to 125 people, allowing the restaurant to host anniversary dinners, groom’s dinners, wedding receptions, bridal showers, baby showers, class reunions, and business meetings.
And, just as the building size has grown, so has the menu.
“We added shrimp, scallops, and salmon years ago. My wife, Jan, put German specialties in more recently. That’s been really good. People really like it,” Don said.
Customers like it so much that the Kaiserhoff German Sampler is right up there with Bar-B-Que Ribs as the most popular entree. The sampler includes ribs, of course, along with landjaeger, bratwurst, red cabbage, German potato salad, and sauerkraut.
The “K’s” menu also includes a number of other favorites, named for or by local personalities. (See sidebar)
Don and Jan were married in 1990 and Jan has been at the restaurant ever since.
With 75 years in the business, Veigel has seen a lot of changes. He cited competition as one of the biggest.
“There weren’t many restaurants in town when we started. Now all the fast food places take a little slice—we’re loaded here in New Ulm,” he said.
Kitchen equipment and regulations have also changed. While kitchen equipment has gotten better, it’s also gotten super expensive, Don noted.
Of regulations, Veigel said, “That is something. It’s tough. We have to do a lot. Everything has to be stainless steel; we have to date all the food, all that stuff. [The industry] should be regulated, but a lot of times they go overboard.”
The bar part of the business has also changed over the years, due mostly to more strict DWI laws.
“We used to have groups come in to drink and eat. Now they have one drink, eat, and go home,” Veigel said.
The smoking ban was good for business, Veigel, a smoker for 60 years who quit 10 years ago, admitted.
“It was good for everybody. I’m glad how it turned out,” he said.
In a time when the average tenure of a restaurant is seven years, how has the Kaiserhoff managed to thrive for 75 years?
The menu, of course, is key. Another is the staff, starting with Don and Jan, and continuing through many faithful employees. Among them are Sally Mielke, a cook for over 50 years, and Kay Gerasch, Betty Gutzke, and Onie Dittrich, waitresses who were with the Kaiserhoff for more than 30 years each.
“You don’t find that in restaurants these days. I’ve been fortunate. I had wonderful employees—that’s what makes it go—good food, good employees, and good customers,” Don said. “You can always get somebody in a restaurant once, but the trick is to get them to come back.”
The combination of good food and good employees has helped “The K” earn numerous honors, including New Ulm Industry of the Year in 2001 and the best barbecue restaurant in Minnesota in 2011.
The Kaiserhoff has hosted a lot of famous athletes, entertainers, and politicians over the years. Among them were Bob Allison, Kirby Puckett, Juan Beringer, Joe Mauer, the Steinbachs, Sid Hartman, John Denver, and Governors Wendell Anderson, Arne Carlson, and Tim Pawlenty.
“Governor Pawlenty always had to take ribs home, or he said his wife wouldn’t let him in,” Don said. “Bob Allison was a close personal friend. He used to play in the Kaiserhoff’s golf tournament that I had for 29 years.”
Terry Steinbach is another personal friend. He and his brothers, Tom and Tim all played for the Kaiserhoff’s baseball team in 1982. That team won the state baseball tournament.
“We had a Kaiserhoff baseball team for over 50 years,” Don recalled.
Many customers have enjoyed dining at the restaurant for 50 or 60 years.
“Some would say to me, ‘See that booth over there. I got engaged in that booth 50 years ago,’” Don said. “There have been a lot of great, wonderful people who came here. They made the work easier.”
On a few occasions, customers got a dash of excitement with their food. When New Ulm was hit by a tornado, customers were hustled to the basement for shelter.
“In one of those storms, the roof from our banquet room ended up over by the bank,” Don said.
Menu items named after local personalities
• Lewie Bensen Special—Small portion of ribs with grilled cheese. “Lewie had the local bus company. He came in so often and always wanted a grilled cheese and a few ribs—so we just called it that.”
• Bob Stout Special—large hamburger on bun topped with melted cheese, Kaiserhoff cole slaw, and fried onions. “Don was a friend of mine. He always had that, so we named it after him.”
• Don Brunner Weight Watcher Special—one-third pound broiled hamburger or broiled chicken breast filet served with fresh tomato slices, cottage cheese, and egg slices. “Don was a manager at 3M. He always had it so we named it after him. He lives in Chandler, Arizona now and comes up and visits once a year.”
• Ray’s Salad—Tossed lettuce, flavor-flecked with bits of bacon, blended with Kaiserhoff dressing and crunchy croutons. “Ray Kleinert came to work for me from the Holiday House. He brought it with him.”
• The Operator—Hamburger topped with cole slaw. “That started years ago, before they had the big telephone system. They had the telephone building where Telecom is now. The operators used to come here for lunch. They had hamburgers with cole slaw—we called it The Operator. It’s still called that.”