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FJ Zwicklbauer

Photo: Alicia Solsman

Time Is Up
By Katharine Jones

Begun 50 years ago by German immigrants as a soccer club, the Bavarian Chalet thrived in its heyday as a restaurant and banquet hall. But time took its toll on the business and family, and New Year’s was its last hurrah

 

For Marianne Zwicklbauer, the day of New Year’s Eve begins early. As one of the family members managing the Bavarian Chalet, it is her job to oversee the banquet operations for the evening’s celebration. There are many tables to set (every table in the three dining rooms being used that night was reserved, some twice) and a variety of appetizers and dinner entrées to prepare, like the traditional jaeger schnitzel and sauerbraten. But on this morning, Marianne spends a few hours, much as she had as a teenager, helping out in the cold prep section of the restaurant’s kitchen, cutting up vegetables and mixing together the authentic German salads that the Bavarian Chalet has served for years.

“I wasn’t going let any one else make what I was making,” she explains about the specific way of chopping and mixing onions, cucumber and vinegar for the salad. “One of the reasons why is that German food is simple, and because it’s so simple, people don’t respect it. People don’t make it correctly.”

For one thing, the cucumber and onions must be cut into uniformly thin slices. It’s also important to drain the cucumbers; that way, their moisture doesn’t water down the rest of the salad, which also includes equal parts oil and vinegar, and some salt and fresh pepper to taste. It’s a recipe she learned years earlier from her grandparents, both German immigrants, who opened the Bavarian Chalet in Guilderland more than 50 years ago.

“I guess in that sense I’m a perfectionist,” she says.

The old family recipes aren’t the only aspects of a Bavarian Chalet meal that are paid close attention to. The Zwicklbauer family has always done business with other older, immigrant-family run butcher shops, bakeries, and florists in the area. Milk and cheese have always been purchased from local dairy farms. Produce came from farms within the state or even from the restaurant’s own backyard vegetable garden.

The bar at the Bavarian Chalet also satisfies the needs of a small group of fans who flock there not just for the 13 imported beers on tap, but for the open and casual atmosphere. It’s a second home to many neighborhood barflies, and on any given night, old friends, and new ones, stop in to joke with the bartender, watch sports on television, and settle down into their seats with a glass of German beer.

The Zwicklbauers’ attention to detail and loyalty to local businesses and customers speak of their attachment to community and a desire to please a regular clientele. Watching Marianne’s perfectionism in action on New Year’s Eve, one might assume she is trying to impress and please her customers so that they will both have a good time and want to come back. But after this night, there will be no coming back: When the party is over and 2004 becomes 2005, the Bavarian Chalet will be closed for good.

Photo:Alicia Solsman

The story of the Bavarian Chalet begins in the southern German state of Bavaria, in a town called Obergessenbach, where Marianne’s grandfather, Franz Zwicklbauer, began his work as a master baker. He, like his future wife Erna, came to Albany at age 15 to escape the poverty facing Germans in the 1920s. One of Franz’s early jobs was baking fresh bread for what was then called Albany Hospital, which he also supplied with meat from pigeons that he raised in his backyard. Erna worked as a servant for wealthy Albany families while taking lessons in English at night.

Franz bought a restaurant from his older brother Karl (who also opened Zwicklbauer’s Hofbrau on Warner’s Lake, now renamed and under new ownership) on North Allen Street named Palm Garden; he then renamed it Little Bavaria, which was a much smaller operation than what the Bavarian Chalet would become. Erna worked both as waitress and as a cook, taking orders from customers and then walking back to the kitchen to prepare the food. Recipes were old family ones, some of the same hearty, simple dishes served at the Bavarian Chalet right until the end, like potato pancakes, schnitzel, wursts and sauerkraut.

In 1952, Franz bought property in Guilderland, which he first used as a field to host soccer tournaments and home games for an organization he founded called the Albany Athletic Club. What began as a team clubhouse and dining hall was added on to and later connected to a picnic pavilion for the players and their fans. As its popularity grew, the building eventually morphed in to what the Bavarian Chalet became. Franz’s like-named son and his daughter-in-law Fran (who also managed the restaurant for a time), started the Guilderland Youth Soccer Club in 1978 with another couple, also using the field behind the restaurant for home games.

The restaurant played host to countless athletic banquets, class reunions and weddings; it’s hard to find someone who grew up or has lived a long time in the Capital Region who has not been to a function there.

Throughout the years, the restaurant has had its share of additions and renovations, but with its dark woodwork and stone foundation (each fossil stone handpicked from the Helderberg mountains by Franz himself), it still has the feeling of an Alpine lodge. Many of the people who worked at or regularly patronized the Bavarian Chalet say that they felt right at home there, as if relaxing in their own living rooms. Inside, the banquet halls are decorated with German artwork, and are daylit through panoramic windows and doors that lead out to the sprawling yard and patio. A few yards beyond the building, near the edges of a small pond, a few English fallow deer, descendants of an original pair, Hansel and Gretl, can be spotted. It is a picturesque property on which hundreds of weddings and banquets have taken place. The Bavarian Chalet’s 20 acres of grassy lawns, trees and gardens are set far enough away from the traffic of Route 20 to almost evoke the German countryside.

As lovely as it is, the property may be better-suited to its original purpose as a soccer field, not a restaurant—especially a restaurant that needs a steady stream of visitors to stay in business.

“You would have thought that in the last 50 years we would have gotten something out of our location, but our location has always been a detriment to the dinner business,” says Marianne. “It’s nice for weddings, but there are tons of weddings that take place in buildings with no windows and no view and a parking lot. And they’re packed. It’s not hurting them at all.”

(l-r) Jim Sinkins and Franz Zwicklbauer

Photo: Alicia Solsman

Marianne also says that while the restaurant is frequented by a group of loyal locals, a lack of community support and residential or commercial development in Guilderland on their side of Route 146 are partly to blame for the lack of a larger customer base.

“Because of the development, or lack thereof, in Guilderland, people have learned to drive to Route 20 and head toward Albany . . . we are in a community that doesn’t really support its own business.”

The combination of an uphill battle to compete with the area’s increasing number of chain restaurants, increasing overhead costs, and sheer exhaustion of the family members who poured years of hard work into its operation, took its toll on the business. The frustration from fighting to stay alive in a community that was no longer sustaining it resulted in the restaurant announcing a year ago that 2004 would be the Bavarian Chalet’s last year in operation, and that New Year’s Eve was the last night the restaurant would be open.

“The restaurant breaks even,” says Marianne about the reasons for the decision to close. “That’s not the concern. We have always paid our bills. And we closed being able to pay our bills. Its just that the effort to do that becomes more difficult and that combined with [the fact] that none of us were interested in keeping it open.”

Since the announcement, the restaurant has seen its share of stress. Marianne herself commuted daily from her home in Hoosick Falls, while her parents, though officially retired, also put in 30 to 40 hours a week. Her younger brother FJ worked 30 to 40 hours a week as well. Knowing that their jobs would be gone at the end of the year, many longtime employees were forced to look elsewhere for work. In the last year alone, the kitchen went through four different head chefs. The maintenance employee of 20 years found another full-time job, but he continued to work part-time hours for his former employers so that they would be spared the hassle of looking for someone new. By the end of the year, the Bavarian Chalet had lost half of its banquet servers. Though it was difficult to see their restaurant slowly shrink in business, and sad to see their workers leave, the Zwicklbauers remained supportive.

“You can never resent somebody for bettering themselves by finding a better job or anything that would help them and their family,” says Marianne. “You are sad that they leave, but because you do like them, like a family, you feel good for them too.”

To make matters even more difficult, the Zwicklbauers lost their matriarch, Erna, this past fall.

Though their regular clientele begged them to remain open indefinitely, the family announced last New Year’s Eve that they would stay open one year only, to honor previously made reservations for weddings, reunions, and banquets. “We didn’t want to do anything on New Year’s Eve,” Marianne confesses. “We were coerced into it by our customers. It was because of them and their encouragement that we went ahead and did anything at all.”

It was important for the family to finish the 50-year run on good terms with the community, even one whose support had diminished. On the last day, amid the preparations for the final dinner, someone phoned the Chalet requesting the restaurant for an upcoming wedding reception. Though slightly ironic, the call hit a sour note.

“It caps off the feeling that no matter how much you do, no matter how much you put into something in your little world, there are still people who are completely oblivious to how hard you are working or the fact that you’re closing,” sighs Marianne. “People don’t know what’s going on in their own communities anymore.”

Many of the people who work at the Bavarian Chalet are in related in one way or another. It almost seems that everyone who works there was brought in by another family member. Many of the young waitresses and hostesses have parents who worked the same jobs years before them. Future husbands and wives have met there, working alongside each other.

“I’ve seen more than one relationship come out of here,” says Marianne’s husband Cliff Belden, who met his wife while working there part-time during medical school. “It’s not just employee and employer—it’s an emotional business.”

Dionne Gryges has spent the past four-and-a-half years working at the Bavarian Chalet, serving the last few days of the restaurant as its main bartender. On one night a few weeks before New Year’s Eve, she excitedly pulls out a “special occasion” book—inspired by one Erna had tried to keep years before. Inside the little album are pictures of the regulars, a sort of family that has made her love her time at work.

One reads, “. . . great place and great people have made the Bavarian a land mark in Guilderland. Best wishes.”

And in another, “It’s a rare gift when you can come to an establishment such as this and everyone knows your name and makes you feel at home and one of the family.”

The same emotion resounds throughout the ranks of the regulars. Like Mike Donegan, an attorney from Guilderland, they are sad to lose their favorite after-hours hangout, but also sympathetic to the family that welcomed them for so many years.

“These people have been so kind to me,” says Donegan, who was introduced to the restaurant by a German aunt about seven years ago and (despite his own Irish heritage, he jokes) feels a connection to the restaurant.

The Bavarian Chalet and some of the acres of property surrounding it are on the market. Though it’s been shown to a few parties with possible interests in the building for another restaurant (which would please some of the regulars who live nearby), the family would just be happy to see the building in the hands of someone willing to take good care of it.

“I hope somebody gets it who loves it as much as the whole family loved this building,” says Marianne.

Her father Franz echoes her opinion, saying that though it would be nice to see another restaurant operating on the property, they will just be relieved to move on.

On New Year’s Eve, in the hours before midnight, the usual troupe of friends, relatives and employees gathers in both celebration and nostalgia. Gryges and a few members of the waitstaff show up mid-afternoon to tend to the crew of regulars who are still stopping by, on this last night, on their drives home from work.

“I’m excited about it—we all are,” she says, waving in the direction of a few men sitting at the bar. “It’s all they’ve been talking about. . . . I think it’s bittersweet for the people who own it, but sad for the rest of us.”

At the bar sits Mike Marmuscak, an engineer from Duanesburg who can’t remember just how long he’s been coming to the Bavarian Chalet to watch football. He is certain, however, that it’s the only place for his favorite Sunday sports ritual.

“I probably won’t find another bar on Sundays,” he says. “I have no desire to.”

Elsewhere, the waitstaff has neatly arranged the dinner tables with carefully placed wine glasses and starched napkins. A few of the younger waitresses have dressed up in traditional dirndls, which were discovered after some rummaging in the restaurant’s attic. It’s been years since they’ve been worn, and though a few don’t seem to fit quite right, it’s a novelty the women seem to enjoy.

“They started out wearing them, why not end in them too,” says Elizabeth VanWie, who’s been working at the Bavarian Chalet only since October. She, like a few other waitresses, has been helping to fill in the gaps left by others who had to leave.

By 8 PM, all members of the Zwicklbauer family in attendance are on their feet. Marianne and FJ run back and forth between the kitchen and the buffet table. Their mother Fran meets and greets around the front foyer, and father Franz multitasks, working on the cash register and greeting guests. At the bar, Gryges quickly fills orders for beer and wine. On tonight’s drink menu the drinks are listed as being served as either seidel (small) or stein (large). The bottom of the menu holds one of the few reminders that the end is here: “Aufwiedersehen from the Zwicklbauer Family and a Happy New Year.”

Minutes before midnight, someone turns a television on to the coverage of Times Square. Everyone gathers around the bar area; as flutes of champagne are passed around the dim room, photos are snapped, and a few toasts are made.

Donegan, who has been known to entertain his friends at the restaurant with some impromptu songs, thanks the Zwicklbauer family for their years of hospitality before beginning to sing the words of the New Year’s favorite “Auld Lang Syne.” The crowd joins in, and a few members of the family, who until this point in the evening had remained poised and proud, shed a few tears.

Near the front door of the restaurant, where they had been stationed for most of the night, Franz and Fran are making the best of the celebration. Fran is laughing and smiling among her old friends and family members, and says that she’s looking forward to a great 2005.

“Not good,” says Franz when asked how he is feeling. “But we’ll make it.”


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