Opening Wolfgang’s Steakhouse at age 65
Let’s talk about your career after you retired from Peter Luger.
I was already 65 when I quit, so I thought that I should just go ahead and enter retirement. I imagined my wife and I taking it easy on a beach somewhere in Florida. But then my youngest son, Peter Zwiener, came to me and proposed that we start a restaurant together. He already had two waiters and a chef ready to work.
I wasn’t exactly sure about it, but in the end I decided to jump on board. We got our start by opening up our first location on Park Avenue in 2004.
How did things go when you first opened?
After spending 40 years working there my work at Peter Luger became widely known in the industry. The New York Times did a huge spread about me titled, “After 40 Years, A Waiter Is the Boss,” which was truly a grand introduction. That helped turn out huge lines for us, and we were very busy right from the get-go. We had customers coming in asking about who I was and how I got the restaurant going at 65. It was was quite the topic around town.
What was your thought process when it came to planning the restaurant?
The menu and concept wasn’t just up to me. The staff, including the chef and my son Peter, contributed their own ideas. I’m very customer focused, so I threw around a lot ideas about the menu. I wanted lots of variety, and I would talk about how we should do lobster if it’s on the menu. My goal was to have a menu that delighted our customers.
Then for the customer service side of things I had us install the latest technology for when we opened. We had online reservations, a POS system, and so on. My plan was to simplify our work and make everything more efficient.
Now your restaurant has gone beyond America, with locations in Japan, Korea, and the Philippines, what do you think think lies behind your worldwide success?
Well, we certainly place a lot of importance on the quality of our meat and the portion sizes. We stress the importance of quality service as well.
When I was working at Peter Luger I realized that one of the keys to success was proper quality control for the beef. So even though my job was to lead the staff I still took it upon myself to learn more about aged beef. I would show up two hours ahead of the other staff members and check on the cellar where we aged our beef. I spent time talking to the chef to learn about the aging process.
Peter Luger had several suppliers and I suspected that there were some differences in quality. Maintaining high quality beef was a priority of mine, and I was able to put a lot of the knowledge and techniques I learned at Peter Luger to use at Wolfgang’s Steakhouse.
Wolfgang’s Steakhouse only offers top-quality USDA certified Prime cuts of beef. All of our restaurants have their own in-house cellar for aging. We bring in chilled beef that’s never frozen and dry-age it for a 28-day period. This ensures a high level of quality. We are completely dedicated to this type of quality control, which makes us proud to offer our fine-quality steaks to people all over the world.
Back in the day a lot of Americans liked their beef with a fair degree of chewiness, but when we opened up our first location we were happy to find out that customers loved coming to Manhattan to enjoy our exceptionally tender and flavorful beef.
Did you face any difficulties when you added more locations?
In the beginning I didn’t think about expanding at all. However, our first location turned out quite a few people, which convinced us that we should open up a second location to accommodate more customers. So, it was kind of a natural progression that led us to opening up another restaurant. At the moment we are preparing for our 6th location in America.
We have a variety of rules in place for when we open up additional locations. For example, each restaurant needs to have its own cellar for aging beef. In addition to that we have to be strict with our beef suppliers, and we only order from trusted sources.
Moreover, we are only thinking of this expansion as a joint venture, not a franchise. My son Peter is the president of the company, and he comes to Japan 4 times a year to visit our locations there. He is in charge of personnel, and he has the final say on the menu as well. This helps us maintain quality on a broad scale.
I’ve been especially proactive about expanding more in Japan. Since my days at Peter Luger I’ve had wonderful customers from Japan, which has made me a real admirer of the country. And, we are also extremely fortunate to have an amazing business partner like WDI (*1).
*1: WDI Corporation manages restaurant chains and bridal businesses. Their HQ is located in Roppongi, Minato Ward, Tokyo.
Ensuring that Wolfgang’s signature hospitality is passed on
Do you have any other rules outside of quality control?
Oh yeah, certainly. The system we use for serving out in the dining hall is a departure from Peter Luger.
Instead of have one person in charge of a table we put a system in place where two people manage a table together. We have a group of two servers, one on the frontend and one on the backend, and we serve up to 6 tables with this system. We don’t use busboys. (A busboy is typically in charge of carrying out dishes, washing, preparing utensils and linen, etc.)
By relying on more than one server we can be much more scrupulous. Servers can work together and check on each other’s work. Also at Wolfgang’s Steakhouse we constantly make sure to get every staff member informed about the entire menu. That way they can help customers with any questions if the occasion calls for it.
During the last bit of my time at Peter Luger we had a total of 16 waiters, and we had 1 person for every 3 tables. Then we had several busboys to help support the waitstaff.
Other than that we have general rules for training our staff that extend worldwide. These are based on my real passion for hospitality that has been cultivated for many years, which is something that I want to share and pass on to others. At each location we have a training system in place that gets the entire staff motivated and excited. One example of this is how we approach team building at our branches in Hawaii. We distribute tips across the entire staff rather than one person earning them on an individual basis. Our pay system also rewards hard-working staff members that contribute a lot to their work.
Now that you’re 79 and currently still active professionally, what does work mean to you on a personal level?
Work is what makes me truly happy. During my many years as a waiter I was able to enjoy my time as a people-person, which meant that my job was a true joy. These days I’m not out on the floor like I used to be, but when the evening rolls around I often stop by the restaurant to check in on customers and see them enjoy themselves firsthand.
Even though I tour each of our Wolfgang’s Steakhouse locations worldwide to meet customers in each country we’re in, it’s the late evening hours that are my favorite time to talk with customers. The employees around me will say that it’s late and I should go home to rest, but my connection to customers is what truly keeps me going.
My connection to our employees is very important to me as well.
Constantly keeping up with my health is the best thing I can do to keep working without any hangups. That also might mean eating lots of rare lean meat to avoid cholesterol (laughs).
Do you have any other points of importance that shine through in your restaurants?
Sure, for instance my wine panier (a basket for wine bottles that allows for easier pouring) comes from Burgundy in France, which is a bit of tradition that I’m very particular about. My son Peter and the rest of the staff respect that about me and they don’t write off my adherence to traditions like this as “outdated thinking.” I put a lot of importance on the traditions that I’ve inherited.
On the other hand I also think that fresh ideas are essential as well. Peter is at the head of the company now, and I make sure to listen closely to his ideas.
All of our Wolfgang’s Steakhouse locations have a horseshoe decoration at the front entrance. Originally horseshoes were said to have stored up happiness on the bottom sole, and they are a good luck charm of sorts.
But at Wolfgang’s Steakhouse it’s displayed the other way around. That’s because I want it to instead be about delivering happiness outwardly to our customers. A restaurant is not about storing up happiness and fortune for us, but rather a place to deliver happiness to our customers. It’s more about sharing happiness. That’s what this work means to me.
Lastly, do you have any advice for young people working in service?
Be immaculate in your approach and carry a sense of humility when you interact with customers. Be polite and friendly, too. These things seem rather obvious, but that just makes them all the more important. That’s the essential point.
(Interviewer: Takashi Ichihara, Text: Keiko Ikegawa, Photography: Kengo Osaka)