Glance at the menu of any good German restaurant, and you’ll find a sampler platter: a way for diners to taste a little bit of each popular dish on one plate. It’s the ideal choice when everything looks so tempting and so unusual that you just want to try as much as possible – and maybe go back for more.
That second part is challenging because there are no small servings with Bavarian fare. Picture a plump German grandmother placing plates piled high with steaming sausages, schnitzels and sauerkraut before you, begging you to eat because “you are too skinny!”
Enter David Kurth, Linden Ray and Kevin Lawell – a sampler platter of restaurant owners, if you will – who work together to run Hügel Haus and “Door County’s wurst bar” at 11934 Hwy 42 in Ellison Bay. Kurth met Ray when he started to frequent the Mink River Basin, which Ray owns.
“We sat with friends, talked about life and just started forming a friendship,” Kurth said.
Then, over drinks on New Year’s Eve in 2018, they had the “aha moment” to go into business together.
“Linden is brilliant at everything to do with the business end of the restaurant – an area I don’t enjoy – [and] it just seemed like a great idea to take that next step,” Kurth said, speaking about Ray’s experience as the owner of the Mink River Basin. “Linden knows Ellison Bay [and] what the visitors and locals of Door County want.”
Kurth, who runs the back of the house, shared his background just minutes before heading into a warm kitchen on a wintery Friday night. “My German grandma, who spoke with a thick accent, inspired my love of the cultural comfort food.” At age 14, he was introduced to the business side of food in his family’s restaurant, where he worked for 10 years.
“German food is a personal passion of mine,” Kurth said, “not only because of my family background, but because I love fall – a time of the year where you can enjoy hearty servings of giant pretzels, flavorful bratwurst and my personal favorite, jägerschnitzel. There is nothing better!”
Kurth also speaks of the importance of friends and family in regard to Hügel Haus. Everyone who is working there now was there when they opened.
“Family and friendship are everything!” Kurth said. “This includes our customers, who keep coming back, and it starts with loving what you do. Everyday is different, but providing a relaxed atmosphere with comfort food and great beverages is what I aspire to create with Kevin and Linden.”
Lawell, who manages the front of the house and bar, never intended to be in the restaurant business – he wanted to work in horticulture – but one day he found himself working a side job in a French-American fine-dining restaurant.
“The head chef offered a steak for me to eat after my shift,” Lawell said. “I was scared to death sitting across from him, but then he told me he needed a third cook and offered me the job.”
Soon after, Lawell went to Arizona to attend culinary school, then on to a sports bar, then to a farm-to-table spot in Washington. Eventually, he decided to return home to Door County. He lived in a cabin behind Mink River Basin and – as you’ve guessed – started hanging out with Ray and Kurth at the bar.
“We would shoot the breeze. We became like brothers,” Lawell said.
The three decided on German fare because no one was particularly invested in it in Door County. “I worked at a couple of local places that would feature a schnitzel plate here and there,” Lawell said, “and I listened to what the customers had to say. They loved it!”
Lawell is a people person who loves interacting with customers every night, and though he has formal culinary training, he trusts Kurth completely to be in charge of the kitchen.
Where Lawell really gets excited is speaking about the German beers that Hügel Haus has on tap and the wines it has introduced to the area.
“We have a new selection of dry Rieslings that are awesome,” Lawell said. “Most people think sweet with German wines, but customers are crazy about the new dry versions.”
To complement those liquid offerings from the Land of Lederhosen, enjoy a gigantic, warm soft pretzel with mustards and toppings, as well as schnitzels and sausage dishes that will have you singing along with tubas and accordions in your head.
Kurth, Ray and Lawell all spoke of the mutual respect they have for one another and how each one of them keeps their ego in check. They emphasized that it’s about the customers, the food and the business – not who’s right or wrong.
The members of this trio all come to the table with a sampling of restaurant backgrounds, food-service sensibilities and different “flavor profiles.” It’s a successful recipe – especially when blended with friendship and a mutual passion for the business.