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Friday, February 23, 2024

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It’s a family affair!

By Kathy Tretter
Editor ferdnews@psci.net

Ist das nicht eine Schnitzelbank?

Ya das really ist eine Schnitzelbank!

The Schnitzelbank —one of Jasper’s oldest and arguably most storied restaurant — is turning 60 this year. The Schnitz is well-known statewide (and for that matter throughout the tri-state and beyond) as the purveyor of fine dining, specializing in German fare.

So how did this amazing restaurant come to be on what had previously been a portion of the Hochgesang farm located on the south side of the county seat?

Would you believe it started as a corn crib that morphed into a grocery store and, in 1912, became the Little Kentucky Tavern?

Well believe it because those are the facts, facts that deserve a bit more detail.

The Schnitzelbank is now owned by the second generation of Hanselmans, not to be confused with Hochgesangs (and more on the connection a bit later).

Alan Hanselman and Gail Hettinger are two of Larry and Betty Hanselman’s six children and they literally grew up in the business. The brother-sister co-owners recently shared the history of the iconic restaurant in honor of the 60th anniversary.

Starting at the beginning, there were three Hochgesang children who lived with their parents on the family farm, back before the south side of Jasper had really developed. Sons Wilfred and Butch each chose a parcel on which to build their homes, but daughter Leona was not yet married, so she chose the parcel on which the corn crib was located.

Many years earlier the corn crib had been retrofitted into a grocery store, and in 1912, the Streichers leased the building to owners of the Little Kentucky Tavern. Rumor has it the owner was not quite of age, so if a photo was taken and he was present, he hid behind the customers.

Somewhere along the line Toots Haller owned the tavern and renamed it the Schnitzelbank after Prohibition. “All the big beer companies had embraced this song and Toots wanted a more German name on it,” Alan reports.

Leona eventually married Hugo Hanselman and the tavern went through a few owners, but most were not all that successful. 

Hugo and Leona had three children, Larry, Diane (Klein) and Phyllis (Gerber), the latter of whom many will remember as the long-time corporation treasurer for the Southeast Dubois School Corporation.

Their son, Larry, was working as a meat cutter for Gabe Buehler but he was ready for a challenge. He married the former Betty Boehm from New Boston, who supported him when he asked his mom, “Can I do something with that building on your property?”

His mom couldn’t understand why he would want it. “No one has made a success of it,” she told him, but since she had no plans for the tavern she let him try his hand at it.

The year was 1961. The former corn crib turned grocery store turned tavern lacked one key ingredient for a successful business — an indoor restroom.

Larry didn’t let that stop him!

His new venture was an immediate success. Larry was well know around town and his softball buddies, friends and acquaintances from the grocery store flocked in. It was a rousing success!

Then someone opened a tavern down the road and charged five cents less per beer.

Larry adjusted his prices and brought back the crowd — until the same thing happened again.

Hanselman decided he would be better off focusing on food and hired Rose Schepers to man the kitchen. Her food was much better than what neighboring establishments were serving.

Then he hired Ardella Neukam, who brought many of her original family recipes with her — traditional German food that was not only delicious but might even remind the many folks with German roots of the dishes grandma used to make. Items like sauerbrauten, beef rolladen, various schnitzels and wursts, and much more.

“Those are the recipes we still use today,” Alan explained. Ardella’s family was from the Black Forest region of German and when Germans touring the United States happen upon the Schnitzelbank they say the food tastes more German than many restaurants in their native land that altered the food to please international palates.

In addition to the restaurant, Larry was managing a dance hall behind (to the east) of the tiny tavern. It was often the choice for wedding receptions. Jack Truelove’s nuptial celebration in 1964 was the final event to be held there.

About that time a group was looking for a place to house a new non-profit — the St. Vincent DePaul Society. When Larry heard, he offered the dance hall as a place to start. By the time the very successful philanthropy was ready to move into its new home on Meridian, Larry and Betty were ready to expand.

After 10 years it was time to build a new facility. In 1969, after St. Vinnie’s moved out, the former dance hall was torn down to make way for a new and improved Schnitzelbank Restaurant.

It was love at first bite for customers who may not have partaken at the old restaurant. The Schnitz was a smash!

Sometimes Larry would lead a rousing rendition of the Schnitzelbank song for whomever happened to be dining there that night.

After two years the first addition was made, adding the bar room. And still the Schnitzelbank was filled nightly with customers who couldn’t get enough of the various offerings.

Beyond manning his restaurant, Larry was a busy man. He had attended a German festival in Belleville, Illinois, with friends and determined Jasper needed something similar.

And thus, the Strassenfest was born! He, Dave Buehler, Danny Wehr, Ronnie Keusch and a few other organized the popular summer festival.

In 1988 the building was again remodeled, with a much needed hostess station, relocation of the salad bar and additional seating.

Also added was the magnificent Glockenspiel and clock, designed by the Verdin Company in Cincinnati, Ohio with a musical mechanism that plays daily the Schnitzelbank Song followed by the Bier Barrel Polka following the chimes at two minutes after the hours of 11 a.m., 12, 1, 2, 5, 6, 7 and 8 p.m.

The roof was designed so if ever there was a need for another addition they could build up, but Alan explains that will likely never happen as the costs today would be exorbitant.

By 1991, the restaurant was also catering from the kitchen due to many requests for the service. The family made the decision to build a catering facility on the hill to the rear and for a time, brother Mark managed that. The most popular item has proven to be fried chicken.

Before jumping in with both feet, Larry reached out to Jugs Eckert, a Dubois County native who had a very successful catering business in Indianapolis. Jugs helped put them on the fast track and joked, “As long as you don’t come above Bloomington I won’t go below Bloomington,” and the gentleman’s agreement worked. When a friend from Dubois County wanted the Schnitz to cater a wedding in Indianapolis, permission was sought (and given). The catering operation is licensed in Indiana, Kentucky and Illinois, but has catered all the way to Florida.

The Hanselman children were all involved to some degree after they graduated from college. Mark and Lori are still involved in the catering (although Mark left for a time), and Jill works in the office, but Gail and Alan bought their siblings out after their parents retired and the two now stand at the helm of the enterprise. Brother Gary worked at the Schnitzelbank for 17 years but decided to try his hand at something else (he wanted his weekends free to spend time with his family).

While Larry and Betty were still heavily involved (Larry will never totally retire but at 84, he and Betty have stepped back and are currently wintering in Florida), they decided to expand further into the hotel business, initially building the Sleep Inn on the west side of Jasper (which has proven to be a boon to Shoney’s).

Their next hotel venture was the Hampton Inn, adjacent to the Schnitzelbank. This proved to be another boon for the restaurant since salespeople and other travelers could enjoy a beverage or two at the end of the day without having to drive to their lodging.

The family also purchased the former Jasper Country Club — a lovely venue for parties and wedding — and renovated it, renaming it Klubhaus 61. Larry was also an earlier co-owner of the Dutchman Inn in Huntingburg.

While 2020 has been a strain on the hospitality business, it also opened up some new avenues for Alan and Gail to explore. They now accept carry-out so customers can continue to enjoy the foods they love.

Just before Christmas they received a call from a woman in North Carolina who said she had her daughter made an annual trip to Holiday World every summer and then dined at the Schnitzelbank. She wondered if they would ship her an apple strudel so she could surprise her daughter, who missed the delicacy this past summer.

At first the answer was a firm no, but when she continued to ask and cajole,  Alan researched ways to send cold foods and was able to do so, thrilling both mother and daughter. Alan and Gail are considering adding such a service so the Schnitzelbank’s famous foods can be enjoyed anywhere in the country.

And while catering definitely slowed down as weddings and other celebrations were pared down, one annual traditional as upheld with a few variations.

Scenic Hills in Ferdinand annually brought their residents who were able for a special holiday meal. That was not possible in December, so instead the Schnitz brought meals to the residents, 164 to be exact, with five meat choices. Restaurant staff were not allowed to enter the building but brought everything to the door. As with most things the Schnitzelbank is involved in, this did not disappoint and made the lives of those residents a little bit brighter.

For 60 years the staff has observed Larry’s philosophy to serve delicious food in a wonderful atmosphere. It looks like that tradition will continue for the next 60 years.

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