Theresa Schneider, owner of Schneider’s German-American Restaurant in Avon, laughs at the thought of moving to a warm retirement village in Florida.
Her restaurant is here. Her family and friends are here. If she leaves, who will ensure her son, John, and their staff follow the recipes as they were told to her all those years ago in a little town outside Augsburg, Germany?
“This is like a friendship, not a business,” Schneider said.
At 90, Schneider still comes to work every day to help in the kitchen and oversee the making of such German-American favorites as sauerbraten, weinerschnitzel, potato pancakes and apple strudel.
“She still doesn’t tell me some of the secrets,” John Schneider quipped.
John Schneider has helped his mother run the business since his father died in 1975, about five years after they opened here.
Theresa Schneider came to the United States with her husband, Peter, and a 9-year-old John in 1952. Peter Schneider worked in knitting mills in North Jersey but dreamed of owning his own business. Then he saw a newspaper ad for an ice cream parlor in Newark and took it over from another German couple, who taught him and his wife how to make ice cream and hand-dipped chocolates. They opened in 1960, with Theresa selling at the counter.
Soon, local merchants started requesting hot meals. Theresa began making “simple” but “beautiful foods that the people really liked.”
She later added traditional German dishes to her home-style menu.
The Schneiders moved their business to the Jersey Shore in 1970, when they purchased an ice cream shop in Avon. Again, they started with handmade ice cream and candies and slowly added foods to the menu.
“Anything they wanted, I cooked,” she recalled.
The Schneiders still roast their own turkey, roast beef and corned beef for deli sandwiches. Seafood platters, of course, are practically a requirement for a restaurant in this resort town to survive.
John Schneider of East Windsor said he pushed to get their customers to sample his mother’s ethnic dishes, but German sausages weren’t exactly an easy sell. John Schneider said it took two or three years to get people to even try the sauerbraten. He had to give them samples.
After their customers warmed up to German foods, they switched the veal Parmesean to weinerschnitzel. Knockwurst, bratwurst and Bavarian bierwurst were added to the menu. A Hungarian stew called chicken paprikash and Polish pierogies followed.
Gypsy wurst, also known as ziegeunerwurst (a spicy veal bratwurst), recently was added to the menu.
The most popular dishes are the sauerbraten, a marinated sweet and sour beef, served with potato dumplings and red cabbage ($24); wiener schnitzel, a lightly breaded veal cutlet ($24); and Hungarian beef goulash ($19).
Traditional desserts, like the black forest cherry cake and German chocolate cake ($5.25), as well as apple or cherry strudel ($4.50), are also made in-house.
The Schneiders no longer make their own ice cream and chocolates, but they do sell ice cream treats at the counter or in the casual dining room.
John Schneider says his family’s restaurant is really from another era.
“We don’t belong in this time,” he said.
The place, with dozens of hot air balloons hanging from the ceiling and license plates covering the back wall, is not trendy or chic or part of a chain. It pushes dishes that come from Germany, Austria, Poland and Hungary, initially intended for immigrants who wanted a link to their heritage.
“I think Americanization will eliminate German food,” he said, noting that many German-Americans have assimilated to the point where they don’t look for that kind of food anymore.
Schneider said only half of his customers order the ethnic dishes; the deli sandwiches and seafood platters “round out the business.”
“In the restaurant business, the main objective is to please the people who come through the door,” he said. “Some of these German dishes will be forgotten in a couple of years.”
Theresa Schneider is still working for those who want to remember the old countries or a younger generation seeking a link to its heritage. She boasts that four generations of customers have come through her doors.
“We must have done something right,” she said modestly.
The matriarch is proud of what her family has accomplished but shows no angst over the future of German-American food. Nor does she put pressure on her son to continue their tradition.
John Schneider, despite his wry sense of humor, is not completely pessimistic. He quickly noted how sausage sales go up during Oktoberfest. He reasoned that German foods could make a comeback, maybe in the form of a restaurant that offered a quick sausage and a beer.
“There may be a resurgence,” he said.