By Jeff Maisey
I arrived at Olde Towne Portsmouth’s Bier Garden around 10 AM one morning, and sitting at a dining room table was Dad (Anton) Osfolk, as he often is, peeling potatoes by hand for the day’s freshly made German Potato Salad.
In the kitchen, son Kevin is busy prepping for the Friday lunch crowd. Mom (Hannelore) Osfolk is buzzing around making certain everything is tidy. Daughter Stefanie is doing the supply orders from her laptop at the bar. It’s family teamwork just as it has been for nearly two decades.
The Bier Garden will celebrate in 20th anniversary on Saturday, September 30 with its annual Oktoberfest event featuring a large traditional oompah band, ceremonial kegs of beer shipped over from Germany, strongman competitions, and lots of made-from-scratch food. This year’s Oktoberfest is on the grounds of the Ambassador Club in Portsmouth from noon to 9 PM.
I’ve always been drawn to the restaurant with its Old World charm. There are several exceptional seating options ranging from an outdoor traditional Bavarian beer garden to the indoor, cozy pantry-like dining rooms, and the rear bar featuring high seats with tables as a mural of the historic town of Rothenburg.
It was at the bar that I sat down with Stefanie and asked her to share the Osfolk story of success in the restaurant/beer business.
How did it all start 20 years ago?
It was all four of us. My brother and I worked downtown at different restaurants. We said, “There’s so much potential down here, why don’t we do something about it?”
We convinced mom and dad to start this whirlwind adventure. We knew mom could cook; dad could build; Kevin was going to bartend, and I was going to wait tables.
We opened it together in October of 1997 and within six months we all had to quit our other jobs just to do this full time.
What was in this space before the Bier Garden?
We take up six different spaces as we’ve grown. The first spot was a place called Weiner World, a hot dog store. We then moved into a section that was Pfeiffer Book Store. Then, where the bar is, was a business called Antique Adventures. Now, the Bier Garden Gift Shop went into what was a catering business. It was a doctor’s office in the early 1900s.
Can you share with us the concept of featuring traditional German food in this market as we have many current and retired military folks who passed through Germany at some point?
I’m shocked every day to see how many people come here who were stationed in Germany or have family that lived there. They miss the food.
Our food is Southern German, which is very similar to Southern (American) country food – country fried steak, potato salad. They are comfort foods.
For many years the Bier Garden was an oasis for beer lovers with your unmatched selection of European beers in bottles and on tap. Can you discuss this facet of the business?
Right now we have close to 400 bottles and 22 on draft. Out of all of the taps we only allow two American. It’s just who we are. We tried to dabble in the (American) craft beer. It’s just not a part of who we are.
Some of these beers have been brewed for over 1,000 years and you just cannot compete with the quality that it brings. We’re finding the craft beer market has opened things up to a lot of people who would never drink beer before. Once they find something certain styles they like, like a Belgian wit, and then they come here and find a traditional, real Belgian wit like St. Bernardus Wit, and they go, “Oh, my god. This is what it is supposed to taste like.” We’re seeing a lot of people start at craft and come back to us.
I understand you sell more Aventinus than any other restaurant on earth. Can you talk about some of those core beers that put Bier Garden on the world map?
I knew that we had the record for a few years. When Susanna Hecht came here last year for a Schneider Weisse beer dinner I asked her how many years we had that title. She looked at me very puzzled and said, “Of course, you still have it.” So 19 years running we’ve had the record for selling more Aventinus than anybody in the entire world, including their restaurant in Munich.
Another one of those is St. Bernardus. We just got back from a trip where we were acknowledged for being the third top seller of St. Bernardus Tripel in the US. We sell more than anybody on the East Coast.
Remind us how your parent came to America and the origin of the Osfolk family?
My parents were raised in southern Germany, close to Stuttgart. Both of them were born outside of Germany because on the War. That’s where all the family still is.
My parents immigrated into the United States in 1963. Oddly enough, they came right to Norfolk because my dad had a distant cousin who lived here and that sponsored them.
My dad had a brick-making business.
Your parents are a real draw here at the restaurant. People love to chat with them. Can you talk about their popularity with customers?
Mom and dad definitely don’t want to stay home. Dad works three days a week, but mom is here every day. She oversees everything. All the recipes are hers.
I think their favorite part is still sitting down and talking to people.
The gift shop is part German supermarket, part wine and beer store, part retail gifts. Can you talk about the importance of this addition?
We had a gift shop about 15 years ago in part of a building we no longer have. It went on the backburner for a long time. About two years ago we acquired the building that was directly behind us and we have the space. I think we’re going to call it the Bier Garden Gift Shop & Market. Like you said it is like a grocery store. It’s also a gift shop with Bier Garden memorabilia, T-shirts, notebooks, hats, coasters…we also sell all the traditional foods, cake mixes, honey, coffee, traditional wines. People are flocking in for the wines. Germany has fantastic wine.