State College

Last days of Herwig's are 'bittersweet' for owner, employees

Greg Allen serves food to diners Saturday at Herwig's Austrian Bistro. The downtown State College restaurant is slated to close this week.
Greg Allen serves food to diners Saturday at Herwig's Austrian Bistro. The downtown State College restaurant is slated to close this week.

Herwig’s Austrian Bistro is dead. It’s about 3 p.m. on a Friday and the doors to the West College Avenue eatery have been locked so that the staff can catch up on dishes and replenish the menu. Intermissions are not uncommon around here. Owner Bernd Brandstatter doesn’t want a bunch of food sitting around the restaurant getting stale and soggy.

“I want everybody to have the freshest possible meal that they can have here,” Brandstatter said.

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Herwig's Austrian Bistro owner Bernd Brandstatter puts the finishing seasonings on a meal Saturday. Since announcing the restaurant's closure, Brandstatter said he and his staff are busier than they’ve been in years. Abby Drey

In the two months since he took to Facebook and announced that Herwig’s would be closing up shop permanently, Brandstatter and his staff have been busier than they’ve been at any other point in the past three years. People have crossed streets, time zones and borders just to say goodbye or satisfy a craving for grenadiermarsch.

Brandstatter understands that what he’s dealing with right now is, as Joni Mitchell sang, "a pave paradise and put up a parking lot"-type sentimentality. Still, it would have been nice if just this once it was lunch that cometh before the fall.

“It’s kind of bittersweet now that we’re actually closing. It’s kind of aggravating,” Brandstatter said.

James Madonna has been working at Herwig’s for about five years. He’s a manager, but is no stranger to the dishwashing station. With seven employees and a room full of tables to bus, there’s not a lot of time to put on airs. By Madonna’s estimation, business has quadrupled in the past few weeks.

“It’s like a football Saturday happens every single day of the week and our staff has not grown,” Madonna said.

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Diners read the chalkboard menu at Herwig's Austrian Bistro on Saturday. Abby Drey

The last day of operation will be Friday. Snap Custom Pizza that will be taking over the space at some yet to-be-determined point in the near future.

Madonna has no idea what’s next after Friday. A week booked with wall-to-wall nothing feels right. There’s also some concern that the next job might fall short of the standards established at Herwig’s, where if the food doesn’t look right, they just scrap it and make something else.

Starting over is a concept that Stephen Boris should be getting familiar with soon. He joined the Herwig’s staff two months ago for the culinary experience but has been doing anything and everything necessary to keep pace with the crowd. Sometimes that means washing dishes. It’s the atmosphere — not the grease — that will stick with him.

“Everybody here jokes around, everybody here gets along, but most importantly everybody here gets stuff done,” Boris said.

That includes Brandstatter. Nobody wants to see how the sausage gets made in these situations — at 700 a batch, who has the time? — but there’s saying that running a restaurant is hard work and then there’s saying that Brandstatter spends 10 hours making sauerkraut.

“My dad’s name is on the awning, so I have to be there every day. That’s just how it is,” Brandstetter said.

His father put the "Herwig" in Herwig’s 16 years ago and Brandstetter is sad to see it come to an end — but after all that time, there’s also back pain to contend with and other unfortunate realities to owning your own restaurant that will be gladly left behind.

“It’s just the whole thing of, ‘Oh, can I pay myself this week?’” Brandstatter said.

On Thursday and Friday, Zeno’s will help celebrate Herwig’s final two days of business with a pop-up bar. After that, Brandstatter isn’t really sure what to expect, although he said that he would love to get a job where there’s the possibility of getting fired.

Sounds relaxing.