‘Progressive’ concept in West Bend
Owner of The Norbert wants patrons to fill up on small plates

By AMANDA VOSS - Daily News

Oct. 15, 2014

Two waitresses help customers.
John Ehlke/Daily News

WEST BEND - Tony Koebel, co-owner of the Poplar Inn, is offering West Bend residents a unique dining experience in their own backyard that might otherwise require a 40-mile trip to Milwaukee.

The Norbert, 115 S. Main St., named after Koebel’s grandfather, opened about four weeks ago. It isn’t your average restaurant because of its small plates concept.

“We wanted to be the first small plates concept restaurant in West Bend,” Koebel said. “We wanted to have a restaurant that was very progressive for West Bend. We wanted a semi-urban feel. We wanted to bring some of the big city menu ideas to West Bend.”

Koebel said the small plates concept is essentially glorified appetizers.

James Jones, executive chef for The Norbert and the Poplar Inn, said small plates is a new concept that features less rigorous menus, that evolved from Spanish tapas.

“We don’t want people walking out the door feeling like gluttony,” Koebel said. “We don’t want them feeling full. We want them feeling really really good, so we’re offering these smaller portions. We never take a menu away from the table. As the night goes on people can order as much as they want.”

Jones said the concept started popping up in the last 10 years with the popularity of the Food Network.

“People are a little bit more open-minded about trying new foods,” Jones said.

Tony Koebel walks around the bar at The Norbert on Oct. 1 in West Bend
John Ehlke/Daily News

“There is this new crop of people that have grown up on the Food Network,” Koebel said. “They’ve seen all sorts of new flavors. It’s not really a steak-and-potatoes generation anymore.”

The menu customers see one night won’t be the same the next night because the menu changes every day. It might be challenging, but Jones said he gets to be creative and has fun.

“We understand the times are changing and people are looking for something different and something healthier,” Koebel said.

While The Norbert is progressive, Koebel said they will turn back the clock on Saturday nights and host Supper Club Saturdays in addition to the small plates menu where supper club favorites like beef Wellington, prime rib, chicken cordon bleu, old-school pasta dishes and relish trays will be offered.

It took about four months for Koebel to renovate what used to be Januli’s Pizzeria and Italian Deli into The Norbert. Koebel said when people walk into The Norbert the first thing they will see is the backbar and 20 beer tap lines comprised of craft beers.

“We understand craft beers are huge right now in the industry,” Koebel said.

Then he said customers will see a large open area that is painted a deep shade of blue complimented by soft elements like chandeliers hanging from the painted tin ceiling. He described the decor as semiurban, progressive, industrial and modern.

Even though customers remark about how much bigger the space is, Koebel said he hasn’t changed the footprint of the space. He removed the deli counter and installed new flooring. He built the tabletops, designed the bar stools and created a Jenga looking set of wood blocks on the bottom half of the columns, which is a by-product of the tabletops.

Koebel is a carpenter by trade and works with Habitat for Humanity. He had a tight budget and most of the materials in the restaurant are reclaimed or recycled.

“This truly was a dream of mine to do this,” Koebel said.

It might be challenging to own two restaurants, but Koebel said his parents have taken over his responsibilities at the Poplar Inn.

Koebel’s father, Michael Koebel, said the Poplar Inn and The Norbert will be collaborating. He said both restaurants share the same chef, do business the same way by putting the customer first and share similar business ideas.

Michael said he, his wife Denise and Tony have talked about a possible second location, but it was a matter of finding a great one. With Tony’s experience, Michael knew it could be a success.

Tony hasn’t done any marketing for The Norbert and there’s no sign on the building yet. He is letting residents spread the word. “I understand West Bend talks and people think that is a bad thing and I don’t see it that way,” Tony said. “What I see is a town that looks out for each other more than anything else. It’s not that the people here want to know everybody’s business all the time. I think people are genuinely concerned with each other.”

“Hopefully friends talk to friends and neighbors talk to neighbors and the next thing you know it’s a wonderful dining experience because people are frequenting the place and they know each other,” he said.

The Norbert opens at 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Tony said they aren’t taking reservations because he doesn’t want to exclude anyone.

“Our whole thing is everyone is invited,” Tony said.