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Schnitzel Shack bridges the continents in Effingham

POSTED: November 22, 2011 12:35 p.m.
Photo by Calli Arnold/

Joe and Pao Weitzel serve up a German-Thai fusion at their acclaimed restaurant, Schnitzel Shack.

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Schnitzel Shack has become a welcome addition to the Effingham County community.

It’s savory Jaeger schnitzel and Pad Thai have enticed visitors from all over the Low Country and Coastal Empire, even as far as Jacksonville, Fla. and Myrtle Beach, S.C., to its Rincon location.

The distinct palettes of a flavor discovered in the Thai-German cuisine find themselves complementary in the quaint restaurant off Highway 21.

Opened by Joe and Pao Weitzel two years ago, Schnitzel Shack wouldn’t be as successful without the testimonies of veterans and others who’ve spent time abroad attesting to the authenticity of the fare served in both disciplines.

“Most of them have served in Germany for a longer time,” said Joe. “They want to speak German; they want to share their memories. I believe for them it’s like a time capsule.”

As much as the food embodies the cultural heritage of its owners, Schnitzel Shack seems the perfect reflection of their personalities as well.

The décor is of a German guesthouse but with Thai paintings and Pao’s eye for design, but it also embraces Americana at its finest with Marilyn Monroe — Joe’s “girlfriend” — portraits and reproductions engulfing the wall space.

The beer steins shelved behind the bar, like many of the decorations and music in the restaurant, belong to patrons.

While the delectable dishes are more than enough reason to frequent Schnitzel Shack, Joe and Pao’s easygoing charm and gregarious management styles leave customers feeling as if they’ve kindled a friendship during the course of the meal.

“I’m only here in the evening, more for the entertainment part,” said Joe.

Tasteful concept

Joe and Pao moved to America 13 years ago when Joe transferred to Merck Pharmaceuticals’ Port Wentworth location.

Three years ago, Pao wanted to start a business. In addition to her chemistry background, Pao also studied fashion design, but moving to a fashion center was not palatable for Joe and a clothing shop locally didn’t seem reasonable in a down economy.

“She wanted to do something,” said Joe. “Me being tied up here, moving to New York, which I hate and I didn’t want to go, I love the South, and so we looked into different things here that we can do.

“One option was, since we both love to cook, a lot of friends asked us about going into that direction.”

Joe was raised with a love for cooking and crafted most of his skills working at his family’s restaurant, Braustuebel, as a young man in Darmstadt, Germany, near the French-German border and Frankfurt.

“We had a master chef, a young guy,” Joe said. “He never forgave any mistake. He would hit you with a skillet on your hands, was a pretty rough guy. But he was an excellent chef and he had his years in Sweden and other European countries before he came to us.”

He said they had 300 seats at Braustuebel served by three chefs and three auxiliary chefs.

Pao Weitzel, however, had little experience in the kitchen before she came to the States.

“For me, it was survival reasons because I’m here in America,” she said. “Normally, when I lived in Thailand, I never cooked. I just helped my mother and family prepare the food. But my mother was gonna cook.”

Craving the foods she’d found so bountiful in Thailand, Pao began recreating dishes from her childhood home in her new home in Ebenezer, with help from her mother over the phone.

“And I was on the phone with her mama,” Joe said in good humor, “and (she) almost poisoned me several times because the wrong dose was in there.”

“He was like the guinea pig,” said Pao, “and he if liked (it), maybe other people will like it too.”

They said friends would delight over their Thai-German fusion dishes during dinner parties and when Pao wanted to open a business, a restaurant seemed the natural choice.

They said they were thorough in planning and researching before opening Schnitzel Shack. They consulted SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives) and Pao presented her business model and marketing plan to Joe for critique and approval before they made any investments.

“Yes, she presented to me, and I played devil’s advocate,” he said. “I do that too for big companies. So I’m responsible for budgets, personnel, for projects. So, that concept was not accidental.”

They found the perfect spot in McCall Plaza off Highway 21, close to home but visible to customers, where they can capitalize on Effingham’s German heritage and a large military population.

Eat

The space is also intentionally small in part because of the details and efforts that go into the foods.

“Here’s the thing,” said Joe, “we cook everything from scratch. We don’t have prefab meals.

“On the other hand, and people are forgiving of that, we can turn every seat three times in one shift and then … we’re out of ammo. We have to close for a couple of hours and a re-prep.”

He said that this prep versus turnover dilemma is why they don’t advertise. The sauces, the sauerkraut, the cabbage, everything is made in-house and for a time, that included butchering their meat.

Local butchers didn’t supply the cuts of meat they needed for their plates, so, for the first six months, employees butchered the meat themselves.

“And then we got a local butcher who was willing to go that route and butcher with us and deliver with us according to our own recipes and cuts and all that,” said Joe. “And that enabled us basically to do that next leap, if you will, to be able to serve bigger crowds.”

They said that veterans and foreigners will come in as skeptics, craving flavors they’ve not had in years, sometimes decades, or a hint of home. But they said veterans are their biggest supporters.

“It’s like we bring back their memories,” Pao said. “The German side and of the Thai side, some of the veterans have experience in Southeast Asia with Thailand. So they come and like to exchange experiences, talking, sharing.”

They said the best part of opening the restaurant has been watching the faces of those craving schnitzel or their other dishes and seeing them melt into satisfaction as they eat.

“The most rewarding, this is actually when you see the faces of people when they come in and they say ‘I haven’t had that for so long,” said Joe.

“And then they have the first bite and they’re like ‘mmmm,’” Pao said, imitating the slow smile of a chewing customer.

“That’s the best, this is the very best,” said Joe.

Drink

Joe’s love of fine German beer is also a staple of Schnitzel Shack.

But this too was a challenge he had to overcome in the States. They serve Weinstephan, one of the oldest breweries in the world, dating back to 1040 when it was brewed in a Munich monastery.

“I’ve known these beers for many, many years,” said Joe, “and I wanted them here badly, in Georgia.”

But due to the harsh Southern climate, a kegerator would not cool the beer to the perfect temperature, so he used his chemistry background to adapt his draft station.

“(These beers) suffer from the weather conditions, so you have to overcome that,” he said. “And being a chemist and being familiar with systems where you cool and  acquiesce solutions and don’t harm them and things like that, we were able to overcome that.”

He said customers remembering food from overseas say the same thing about his beers, even Germans.

“People from Munich, pilots from Germany, combat pilots,” said Joe, “they said it was unbelievable, ‘exactly like it was in Munich.’

We were very proud. That’s really something.”

Another novelty of the drafts is that they can be ordered in traditional 16 and 24 ounce glasses or in “das boots,” which range from 1 to 4 liters.

“Usually, people underestimate our beers,” said Joe, referring to the gravity and alcohol content of the brews, adding that only on rare occasions does anyone get out of hand.

Be merry

Sometimes, as a token of camaraderie and thanks, Joe will offer customers a tiny “das boot” filled with what he’d dubbed an “Ebenezer smoothie” — a recipe he did not disclose but tastes like apples with a hint of whiskey.

Schnitzel Shack has been praised by patrons and local publications, but possibly the best indication of the quality of the Schnitzel Shack experience is that they don’t do any advertising.

“This was our first project,” said Pao, “and we didn’t know if it was going to work until now. I think the customer likes our food, likes his beer, his food.”

“We said, ‘let’s give it a shot,’” Joe said. “But we never thought it would turn into a business. It was meant to be something like a little thing that she could run.”

Now, naturalized as U.S. citizens, they feel at home in Effingham. They said that the reception they’ve had from the community as neighbors and as business owners has been open and loving.

“It’s very nice, it’s beautiful,” said Joe. “You can’t get better.”

“It’s a very warm welcome,” said Pao, “how the customers have come to us and supported us and said thank you to us.”

“That’s a new experience for us,” Joe said. “People will come (to the bar) after they’ve eaten and say ‘we want to say thank you for you and that you opened here and we have a chance to eat that food.’

“And I say, ‘What? No. We have to thank you and say we appreciate your business.’ And that’s usually what hits us most.”

“It’s like when they show appreciation,” said Pao, “it’s like ‘wow.’ This is something that I really feel great about.’”

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