"My chief complaint in life is that I've worked it away. If I do go to have fun, I need to make a job out of it first in order to figure it out."
Erich Christ is a compact man in a crisp, white chef's coat, with a youthful mop of now gray hair and a formidable mustache to match. His large hands sport fingers the size of bratwursts, rough and strengthened with age and work. I tell him that he's approaching his 50th year in business, like its some fact he didn't know. "No, it's approaching us. This isn't something you want to do, it happens to you."
He doesn't smile while he reports any of this information, nor can I report that there is exactly a sparkle in his eye. You see, this man is German. Despite having lived in Minnesota since the '60s, his accent is still significant and every word lands with the weight of a business manual. But when I get around, finally, to asking him if he really means it, that having worked so hard is a complaint, he and Joanne, his bride and business partner of the past five decades, answer "no" in unison. "It's just that I belong to a group of people who work, and then pretend to complain about it. There are workers, and there are players, and that's that."
And that's that. After even a brief audience with the Christs, it's no real surprise that their Black Forest Inn will be celebrating its 50th anniversary in May. Erich's German work ethic and the Minnesota one of "south Minneapolis gal" Joanne, who manages the front-of-house, wouldn't allow for anything less. They would have liked to sell, but the price was never high enough, so they continue to do the work, day after day.
Erich arrived in Minnesota in 1965 after getting out of the army. His brother was already here working as a clothing salesman, and got word that a guy was selling a German bar. Erich needed a job, and he had been a butcher and a cook in the army. "So I bought myself a job," he says. He would have liked to make his living as an artist, "But I haven't a shred of talent. So what do you do?"
Joanne was a German major at the U of M, and after graduation "the rent was still due," so when she heard of this new German spot on Nicollet, she headed down. After only a year, the two were married, and a year after that a daughter was born, and a year after that, another. At the same time, the restaurant was booming. "A lot happened, all at once," she recalls.
The late '60s was an exciting time, and "The Black" was a hub of cultural activity. The Vietnam War was on, the draft was coming to an end, and there weren't a lot of restaurants in the Twin Cities at all. "There were drugstore counters, and there was Charlie's (a high-end place at the time). But there wasn't really anyone taking the time to work on one culture's food."
Joanne calls the Black Forest "an early ethnic" restaurant. There might have been a good Chinese restaurant or two, but that's about it. A regular once described it this way: "We used to say, 'Should we go out to eat, or should we go to the Black?'" "It was an extension of everyone's living room," Joanne says. "We'd sit on the curb and smoke dope and talk politics," Erich adds.
The food was always big, meaty, and traditional. Erich modeled it after what he "understands as a traditional German restaurant," and if you go to the outskirts of Nuremberg, you'll find his menus there. Bratwurst, sturdy rye bread, potato salad, and goulash figure prominently. He's from Mannheim, which is about the size of Minneapolis, "but the weather is worse."
Over the years, they've struggled to strike a balance between what their longtime customers want and what the passing years demand. They've moved to more vegetarian-friendly dishes, smaller portion sizes, seasonal menus, and even some gluten-free options. "But then we'll have someone come in and say 'We drove all the way from Waconia and you don't have the liver!'"
They can't keep track of how many couples have met in their restaurant and then gone on to marry, or how often old employees will swing by, flip open their wallets (or their phones), and show off the kids and the grandbabies that are the human legacy of Black Forest. The Christs themselves have four children and four grandchildren, and when Erich mentions the way the young ones call and report the latest thing they're interested in learning to cook, he softens visibly. I think I even see a glimmer of a grin. "They say they want to make noodles, so I'll break out the pasta machine and they'll all trot over and start to crank!"
Despite the European cogs-and-cranks, machine-like work ethic, the two are nothing short of philosophers when it comes to what they do.
"It takes all the creativity you have," says Joanne. "Some people think that business is crass, but really, every day you are confronted with creative decisions of 'musts' or 'dare nots,' and you have to create something hospitable out of that. Food is like any art. You're talking to people without words."
"What I like about business, is if you do it right, it's a win-win for everybody," says Erich. "Like in sports, what I don't like about it is they go out and play their hearts out, but then someone has to lose. No matter how hard they work, one of them is a bum. But in business, if I make something, it ought to be worth the money people pay for it, unless I'm serving a bunch of fools. It's a win at the end of every day."
As our chat begins to encroach on the lunch hour, and more customers start to breeze in, Erich has a bead on the door. He gets fidgety, as any good restaurateur does when someone waits more than a few seconds for a greeting, and I can see him agitating to get into the kitchen. All 50 years, he's always been the chef, though he doesn't like the title. "Chefs follow people around with clipboards. I just like to cook."
What does he like to cook the most? He answers with an equation. "I like it when someone tells me we need 2,000 bratwurst and 200 gallons of potato salad, and at the end of the festival you have 10 bratwurst left and 15 ounces of potato salad. You got it right! And of course it has to be good. There's no question about good." The Christs have a full roster of activities planned for their 50th anniversary party. May 15, 16, and 17 will be full of music, beer, movies, games, and more at the restaurant, parking lot, and banquet space. Summit Brewing will provide a special beer for the weekend, and local bands and a neighborhood parade highlight the Saturday events. Sunday is family day; there will be games and movies for the kids and music throughout the day. The party is free and open to the public.
"But bring your own fun!" Erich warns. "Some people can't have fun until the band starts," he says, shaking his head. And with that, he's off to work.
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