Long before Guy Fieri got his first dye job, Anthony Bourdain bought his own set of knives, and Rachel Ray explained to us the idiosyncrasies of the cheese sandwich, Ted Buetow was earning his stripes, and getting his chops in various kitchens in a myriad of restaurants while living in Milwaukee.
“I worked with a lot of different chefs,” Ted said “learning everything from the right way to prepare and present a salad, to creating a five course meal. I worked my way up through the school of hard knocks in the restaurant industry beginning when I was in my early twenties.”
In 1994 Ted’s parents, Noel and Ken Buetow wanted to open a restaurant that revolved around prime cuts of meat, and fresh fish, focused on quality, what’s referred to ‘the center of the plate.’
“The approach always was to buy the best food, and let that speak for itself,” Ted said.
The original Theo’s closed, not because they had to, but rather through a business proposition. A few years ago Ted was running Theo’s, and was asked by Louie Lange Jr. to join the team at The Trinity, which was struggling at the time.
“He and I became partners,” Ted said “I was the tenant of the building in a sense. But it wasn’t long after that we realized I couldn’t run both places at the same time, so I decided to focus on Trinity, which was a bigger operation with the potential to make more money, but with it came the risk of quickly losing money too.”
It ended in the latter scenario as Trinity closed in December of 2014.
“I immediately wanted to reopen Theo’s,” Ted said. “We’d had it for sale, it never sold, so I started the process, and that’s when Randy Cunzenheim came into the picture.”
Randy Cunzenheim retired from the Fond du Lac Fire Department after a 24 year career, having risen to the rank of Assistant Chief of Training and Safety, then decided to get into the restaurant business.
“It didn’t happen that quickly (laugh),” Randy said “but almost. My wife Ruth and I are Godparents to Teddy’s children. Our father’s knew one another from way back, our families have always gotten together over the holidays, we were all involved in hockey. We’re like family. After I retired, Teddy was telling me he was thinking about reopening Theo’s, but knew the restaurant needed a lot of interior work. I’m kind of handy, so I suggested I give him a hand with it.”
They put a business plan together, one thing led to another, and the next thing he and Ted knew, they were both putting in more than 50-hour work weeks, along with Randy’s dad Ron Cunzenheim, demolishing and rehabbing the old Theo’s. Ron was a civil engineer for the city of Fond du Lac, who after a 27-year career retired, only to go to work for another decade at Excel Engineering before retiring again, and who then started and operated his own business for yet another 10 years or more.
Smith Brothers Construction put the new face on the outside of Theo’s.
“We did all the inside work ourselves,” Ted said. “Admittedly, I’m not really handy, but Randy, his dad, and another friend Randy Brezinski helped completely change the look of the bar and dining room. We tore the old flooring out, exposing the 100 year-old Terrazzo floor, and brought that back to life. The whole rehab took about a year to complete.”
The wood they used for the bar back, and bar table tops has a unique history.
“Jason Guelig stopped in one day while we were tearing things apart,” Randy said “and told us about how he’d found some wood from an old Flannigan’s Sauerkraut vat that he was contracted to demolish. The vat had been used for more than 100 years, and after looking into it Jason realized this wood was ‘original growth’ California Redwood. Now, having been used as a sauerkraut vat, these 4-inch thick beveled planks were in pretty rough shape, but after we planed them down, what we found was absolutely gorgeous. And we didn’t stain them at all, we just applied a sealcoat to them.”
If you count the rings, they number more than 175 years of growth in a 5-inch width.
“My dad’s quite the woodworker,” Randy said “and knowing that we had to rip out all the old cabinetry, and coolers that were near 60 years old, we started the project. And shortly thereafter we decided we’d just rebuild everything ourselves.”
Patron’s tastes have changed over the years for both food and beverage.
“What has also changed are the expectations of the customer,” Ted said “twenty years ago when I’d serve Ahi Tuna, people would have no idea what that was, and would very seldom order it. Now, they expect it. Today we always have Ahi, and Atlantic Salmon, and Chilean Sea Bass on our menu, all of our fish is fresh, never frozen, on top of that we try to have at least one or two other fresh fish choices on special, and of course we still buy the prime cuts of meat. Craft beers have grown in popularity, we don’t sell as much bottled beer as we once did, and we sell more wine than craft beer, believe it or not. Wine has taken off, as has high end alcohol, nobody orders off the rail anymore. Primo vodkas, and bourbons are hot, where twenty years ago you had Jim Beam, and that was it! (laugh)”
The gluten-free foods have crept into our vocabularies and across our palates.
“It wasn’t an issue before, but now it is,” Ted said “so we will customize meals to your liking.”
“Teddy is a phenomenal chef,” Randy said “he’s the reason people come to Theo’s, the food and the menu are sensational. We’re always striving to make our service better, we believe with the new design, Theo’s is basically a brand new place. We have the great venue with having updated everything from the electrical, to heating and air conditioning, the kitchen was totally gutted and remodeled. We tried to take advantage of the art deco skeleton that it had wanting to accentuate with finer details.”
And if Ted’s not in the kitchen, Theo’s doesn’t open.
“It’s not that I don’t trust anybody else in my kitchen,” Ted said “it’s just that I want to touch every plate that leaves, it’s that important to me. And we’re small enough right now, we’re only serving one meal, we’re closed Sundays and Mondays with a plan to someday soon open Sundays offering an a la carte brunch, be open for Packer games, and serve an early dinner.”
The restaurant business is more competitive than ever.
“You’re not only competing with other restaurants, but also with the customers themselves,” Ted said “and by that I mean, more often than before folks like to cook at home. With the popularity of food channels on TV, and just about everybody has a recipe or a cookbook, people like to stay home and try things themselves. Twenty-five years ago when my brother Todd owned Dillinger’s, on a Sunday during a Packer game, you couldn’t get in the bar. Nowadays, people have their own high-def big screens, and grocery stores will have a deli special where you can entertain 15 people for a fraction of the price for what you and your wife would spend going out.”
Because the customer has become more savvy, knowing exactly what it is they want from a wine to rye whiskey, or hummus and flatbread to seasoned pork tenderloin medallions. In turn, the bar and waitstaff needs to be educated and on their game for a restaurant to remain competitive, much less stay open.
“I have friends in the business, and know of at least three restaurants that have simply closed their doors,” Ted said “some out of frustration. The customer expects more than they once did. People work hard for their money, and they want to be treated right when they go out and spend their money.”
And since the beginning of time, good help is hard to find.
“You have to want to learn, and be willing to work,” Ted said “and I’ll tell you, it’s hard to find good help. I have one kid here who gets it, his name is Drew Christiansen, and he is exceptional. Three quarters of the people who walk through Theo’s front door, request Drew, he’s just that good…because he gets it. He understands customer service. How do you explain it without offending the other servers, but the template for how to do it, and do it right, is right in front of them. Work ethic these days is lacking, and never more than today is the customer never wrong. You have to cater to the customer, or you don’t have any customers. What’s gotten lost is the, ‘how can I make this right for you,’ but we’re trying to turn the ship around here at Theo’s.”
“When Ted and his family had run Theo’s for twenty years previous,” Randy said “it was always a comfortable place to come to, and we want to continue that. It’s a place where when you walk in, you’ll always know somebody, a nice place for a drink after work, have some appetizers, and also enjoy an incredible dinner.”
“Gordon Ramsey and I share the same thought process and concept,” Ted said “which is you focus on and buy the good center of the plate, meaning you buy the best filet, the best sea bass, the best tuna, and you revolve around that, and let that speak for itself. You can’t take a lower grade cut of meat, a ‘no role,’ meaning it’s not stamped, and dress it up enough to fool the customer into thinking it’s prime. When you get right down to it, Theo’s is a bargain, truly. If you were in school it would be ‘Restaurant 101.’ With most restaurants their food costs are 30% of their outlay…our is 65%. Think of 65-cents of every dollar going just to the product. When you see our filet on the menu for $35, that would be a $48 steak a la carte. All of our entrees come with soup or salad, and side. If you go to Carnevor Steakhouse in Milwaukee, and order the same steak, the same meal…because they have the same steak, you’ll pay $48, and you might get a salad with it.”
With Randy is the front of the house, and Ted in the kitchen, Theo’s 24 is ‘a must’ dining experience in casual fine dining, located at 24 North Main Street in Fond du Lac.