The Norbert: Adapt, adopt, improve

By NICHOLAS DETTMANN - Daily News

Oct. 20, 2017

From left, Elaine Lesko of West Bend, Lucy Weller of Cedarburg and Anne Pagel of Cedarburg talk as they wait for their meal Oct. 11 at The Norbert in West Bend.
John Ehlke/Daily News

A large sign hangs above the entrance to the kitchen from the house at The Norbert, a restaurant in downtown West Bend.

In big, colorful letters it reads “Adaptation.”

Owner and chef Tony Koebel said it is the perfect definition for what goes on at The Norbert, 115 S. Main St.

“That’s always been the word here. Since Day 1,” Koebel said. “Can we move, change, can we adapt what the market is asking for? Can each of us adapt to changes that are being made in the market and the customers and the food?”

He added, pointing to five of 20 staff members, “And, can I adapt to the brainpower that these people have? Can we make it work?”

So far, yes.

The Norbert was one of the 10 recommended restaurants within Washington County by Daily News readers in a recent, informal poll.

“There’s no person who is the star of the show,” Koebel said. “I believe in a cooperative effort.

“As much as it would be nice to have a set menu and set ideas and set scheduling, I believe that a restaurant can run under chaos, can run under many ideas.”

And those ideas often come in the hours before the restaurant in the former Januli’s opens at 4 p.m. for dinner.

On Oct. 7, cooks at The Norbert put together a root vegetable medley — roasted beets and potatoes, carrot ribbons, radishes, honey lime vinaigrette and edible flowers.

“It just came out of nowhere,” Koebel said.

However, it was hugely popular, selling out that night. That ability to come up with something, almost on a whim, is what The Norbert’s customers love most.

“There is something always new at The Norbert,” one survey respondent said. “And it’s always creative and delicious.”

West Bend’s Ashley Remmert said, “The Norbert is my favorite because they do a lot for the community and the food is amazing and they are always changing up their menu.”

The only original items still on The Norbert menu when it opened in September 2014 are the coconut shrimp, steak sliders and fish tacos.

Sam Zielinski, a staff member, said The Norbert’s “originality” is what she believes helps separate it from other restaurants.

“The menu is always changing,” Koebel said.

And Koebel is not a stranger to changing, adapting at the proverbial snap of a finger.

Three years ago, he hoped to open a barbecue restaurant where Dublin’s is today on Wisconsin Street in West Bend. But the deal fell through.

So, Koebel accepted a job and was 33 days away from moving from his native West Bend to Atlanta to continue in the restaurant business. At the time, he was with Poplar Inn for about seven years.

Koebel had ditched just about all of his belongings, minus a few articles of clothing and shoes.

Then one day his phone rang.

“Julie Sears, who used to own Januli’s, she called me, 33 days before I was leaving for Georgia,” Koebel said, adding he was also planning to work with Habitat for Humanity’s international hub in Atlanta.

“She came in with a screamin’ deal and I changed everything. I said, ‘OK. I’m going to do it. I’m going to stay in West Bend.’” The other reason as to why he wanted to move to Atlanta was because he was ready for a shift in his life.

“I literally threw away everything I own, except for some Tshirts and Converse All-Stars and some jeans,” Koebel said. “Yearbooks, baby pictures, you name it. I was through with it. I wanted a change in my life.

“I had a place in Atlanta. I was dead set and then Julie called me.”

He was also out of money and knew getting help from banks to open up a new restaurant was difficult. But his friends and anyone else he could think of stepped up and helped him open The Norbert.

Januli’s closed in April 2014 after nearly 13 years in business. On May 7, 2014, Koebel got the keys to the building. On Sept. 10, 2014, The Norbert opened, maybe prematurely. But, Koebel had to, he said.

“I nickel-and-dimed this all together,” Koebel said, adding when the restaurant opened in September 2014, there were still power tools scattered in spots throughout the establishment.

The design and construction of the restaurant was all through Koebel’s vision and a vast collection of recycled material. He did so because he admitted he was a carpenter at heart, which is why he was and remains involved in Habitat for Humanity.

“Years and years ago, West Bend Company made an exercise product called The Total Gym,” Koebel said. “When West Bend Company closed, they liquidated everything for pennies on the dollar and my dad, somehow, ended up with 77 pieces of that stock that helped build The Total Gyms. I used every piece. All 77 pieces are in this restaurant.”

The restaurant has come a long way since.

The Norbert, led by Koebel, is also involved in the community.

Each year, it has a community Thanksgiving dinner. No reservations are required and customers pay what they can.

“This place has seen extreme growth,” Koebel said. “And we’re still on a trajectory that maybe I’m not even ready for.”

And that’s something the Koebel and his staff are used to: change and adaptation. It’s just the way they like it.

“It’s been pretty wild,” Koebel said.