Niemergs Steakhouse

The history of Niemerg’s Steakhouse was the topic for the presentation at the Effingham History Museum. The restaurant has changed in different ways through the years, including the sign out front. Instead of a pipe, like it had for many years, it now shows a cup of coffee while reading a newspaper.

News Report Staff

As Niemerg’s Steakhouse approaches its 40th anniversary this year, many of its customers might not know how the popular restaurant first went to comic extremes for drawing in customers.

For example, there was the daily “car shuffle” for Niemerg’s employees during those early days.

“When the employees first came to work in the morning back then, they were told to park out front. That way when people were driving by they’d say, ‘That place is hot! Look at all the cars parked there.’ Then later, the employees would go out and move their cars to the back of the building to make room for new customers. It was all about the illusion of making the restaurant look busy,” said Jason Sandschafer, Niemerg’s manager, who first worked with the restaurant when he was 13 as a drink dipper on the serving line during catering jobs.

Drive by Niemerg’s Steakhouse on West Fayette Avenue now and there is only a few times on any given day when the parking lot is short of customer vehicles.

But there is an interesting history why this family-owned restaurant has not only prospered, but underwent seven expansions – without closing down for a single day during each project — and reached out across this part of the state with catering services. Much of that story was told by Sandschafer, as part of the Effingham History Museum lecture series on Thursday, Feb. 8.

Dennis Sandschafer and Gene Niemerg were in their early twenties when they opened Niemerg’s on the west end of Effingham. And, like many new restaurant owners, they had to learn fast how to fill the booths and tables with customers day and night.

When the restaurant first opened on Sept. 1, 1978, all the best-laid plans on the menu produced a train wreck, Jason Sandschafer explained, based on what the owners recalled.

“It was a disaster. They had worked up a fancy menu thinking they could put out all that food in time. They couldn’t keep up. They eliminated a lot of the menu items after that first day,” Sandschafer said. “What happened on that first day still influences what we offer as our daily specials. We always ask if we can put those specials out in time when we working up the menu.”

After that first day, Gene and Dennis rolled up their sleeves, along with their small staff of about 20 cooks, bakers and waitresses. They made the menu simple. They gained valuable advice on what food and supplies to purchase and serve.

“Clint Purcell would come in and tell them what groceries to buy. They would turn him down sometimes. Then Clint would go out into the lobby and call them on the pay phone and work to convince them he was right,” Sandschafer said.

The young restauranteurs concentrated on hard work and providing a high volume of quality food at reasonable prices. Fancy menus and high prices were out of the picture at Niemerg’s.

“A lot of independent restaurants fail because of overhead costs. Gene and Dennis worked 100 hour weeks. I remember not seeing my Dad very much because he was working a lot in those days. Many people can’t imagine what 100 hours of work per week is like,” Sandschafer said.

Family ties also provided some of the talented staff and family members are still a valuable asset on the payroll. Through the years they have baked those delicious pies and other desserts from scratch; made regular or off-the-interstate customers feel like pampered cousins; cooked or prepared the orders; and transported and served customers across town or in other counties through catering services.

“We work hard as a family unit,” Sandschafer said.

The employee total has grown from 20 in 1978 — mostly family members — to 176 today. Niemerg’s employees have a lot of staying power with an average of 9.23 years of experience at the restaurant. There are employees who have been at the restaurant from its start, and a large group of staff with 30 or 20 years on the payroll.

Sandschafer said the restaurant offers different benefits, including health insurance, a Caribbean cruise for 25 years of service and even a college scholarship program.

“We want to encourage the younger employees to stay with us through college,” said Sandschafer, who came back to work at Niemerg’s after earning business degrees from Illinois State University. He preferred a small-town family operation as opposed to a corporation in a larger city.

When he started as the front manager at Niemerg’s, Sandschafer decided to work at different jobs so he could be more efficient in management. He bused tables and was a host for welcoming and seating customers. He was a bartender in the Brass Rail. Then he started one morning as a waiter.

“It was six in the morning and a gentleman came in and I asked for his order. He looked at me and said, ‘I ain’t getting waited on by a guy!’” Sandschafer recalled with a laugh.

After 30 days of his job education, he was glad to start his management career at Niemerg’s

After expansions in the original structure, the restaurant can seat up to 197 customers in its dining areas where the buffet is located, 121 in the coffee shop with its rounded counter and 92 in the Brass Rail.

There are four separate kitchens to keep those customers happy as well as the catering customers. There is a basement area where the baking is completed by women who know how to make your mouth water. The restaurant sells 1,000 pies weekly; that number increases up to 775 pies sold per day during Thanksgiving week.

“People will ask us how we get all those pies and desserts made from scratch. We tell them we have some ladies chained up by stoves in the basement,” Sandschafer said. “Then we tell them that we have ladies baking how their Moms taught them. They know what they’re doing.”

Niemerg’s catering services have spread the business name across Illinois. How Niemerg’s started catering is a funny story.

A relative of the owners wanted them to cater her daughter’s wedding. They turned her down. But she wouldn’t take no for an answer. She kept asking and finally got them to say yes. So a family vehicle was fitted with a large

“I used to wonder why Dad had that big box in the back of the station wagon. It’s wasn’t until years later that I found out it was Niemerg’s first catering vehicle,” Sandschafer said.

The fleet of catering vehicles is much more impressive now for Niemerg’s. No longer are some of the younger catering workers sitting on buckets of tea or veggies as seats.

“We have seats for everybody and seat belts, too,” Sandschafer said.

To illustrate how the catering has added to the bottom line of Niemerg’s, consider these figures: 2,400 meals served annually during an electrical cooperative dinner in Paxton and 2,000 people served at an annual breakfast in Mount Vernon.

“Those are our biggest ones. But we do a lot of small ones. The holidays are our biggest season for catering. Over a 14-day period then, we served 17,000 meals,” Sandschafer said.

But the secret to Niemerg’s success from the start has been the Effingham County community, Sandschafer said. It provided the support in so many ways – including contractors on the building project not charging until the Niemerg’s ledger book was in the black – as well as providing hard-working employees for the staff.

“If you’re a young employee at Niemerg’s, it’s not the question if your sister will work here, but just when. We love to hire the dairy farm kids, too. They are very reliable because they are used to getting up early and working hard,” he said.

Sandschafer noted some think of the restaurant business as the same-old, same-old day after day. That is not true, he said.

“Every day is a new one. It’s always different. My favorite time is when everybody here is working hard. It just clicks. It is beautiful to be part of it,” he said.

That’s why there is no need for the car shuffle anymore because Niemerg’s is clicking day after day.