New owners of dining spots in Waubeka, Belgium serve plenty of experience
Patience and persistence have proven to be the keys to success for Ozaukee County’s newest restaurant owners.
Both Debra Ruchalski and Christine Ungs have notable track records in the local culinary world, but they now have a chance to set their own courses.
Ruchalski has taken over El Diamante Mexican Restaurant at W4121 Center St. in Waubeka, and Ungs and her husband Bill are now at the helm at Chrissy’s Now & Then Pub, 745 Main St. in Belgium, the former home of Curley’s Restaurant.
In both cases, the women were lured into the business by pleas for help from the previous owners.
Ruchalski had been the manager of Fredonia Family Restaurant since it opened four years ago.
She made the move into the restaurant business after working for 18 years painting signs in Chicago.
“It got to the point where I wanted to move my family out of the city and into the country,” Ruchalski said.
She quickly adapted to the quieter lifestyle of Fredonia, and became one of the cornerstones of the family dining spot on Highland Drive.
This summer, however, she was approached by John Bente, a retired police officer who had opened El Diamante in the old Waubeka fire station building.
The location has had a revolving door for aspiring restaurant owners, and Bente too found the job a lot more demanding than he expected.
“He liked cooking but running a restaurant wasn’t anything like he expected and he wanted out,” Ruchalski said.
Bente asked if she wanted to run her own restaurant. Ruchalski accepted the offer and began learning the challenges of ownership.
“A lot of my old customers see that I am here now, and ask ‘Are you managing both places?’ I don’t like to make a big deal about the fact I am the owner here. I just say, ‘I’m managing, all right … managing to keep my head above water,’” Ruchalski joked.
“Sometimes, I think it is harder coming in and taking over an existing business, because you don’t get to shut down and regroup.”
Although 100-hour-weeks were not unusual for Ruchalski when the Fredonia Family Restaurant was starting, she said the workload is much different now.
“I’ve learned it was a lot easier spending someone else’s money. I used to have to do payroll, but now I have to make sure there is money to cover all of those checks,” Ruchalski said.
One of the first moves she made was to hire Polo Raviera, an experienced chef with a loyal following from several restaurants in Milwaukee. He brought a dedication to authentic Mexican cuisine.
To balance out the menu, Ruchalski said, basic American comfort food has also been added, including such things as pot roast and roasted chicken. Friday fish fries, which includes perch and broiled poor man’s lobster, were an instant hit.
Daily breakfasts are also popular, resulting in an ebb-and-flow of customers throughout the day.
Although she is leasing the two-story frame building from the Waubeka Fire Association, the fund-raising arm of the fire department, Ruchalski hasn’t done anything with the second floor yet.
“I don’t want to do anything that wouldn’t be handicapped accessible, but I have been thinking about setting up space for youth activities upstairs,” she said.
“Whatever we do, I want to make sure we do it right. I am going to do the best I can to reverse what they call the Waubeka curse with this building.”
There is no perceived curse in Belgium.
Christine Ungs was approached by Patrick Connell, the most recent owner of Curley’s, asking if she wanted to take over.
Connell found himself overextended running the Silver Spring House in Glendale and Curley’s.
Ungs had been working at the Belgium restaurant and has previous experience serving and hostessing at several local dining spots, including Port Hotel and Deano’s.
Teaming with her husband Bill, an accomplished carpenter who has managed Applebee’s restaurants, the couple brought a unique skill set to the job and a commitment to the community. They took over the business last month, although Connell continues to help out
when he can.
Ungs said her goal is to blend the history of Belgium already on prominent display in the restaurant with a vision of the present.
“Curley’s had done such a great job of showing the history of the community with the old photos hanging on the walls, but we also want to be the center of activity for the community,” she said.
To realize that latter goal, Ungs has created a showcase recognizing a selected “Business of the Month.” The idea is to open eyes to the variety of firms operating in the village.
“I am a firm believer that you have to support your local businesses. We want people to be involved in their community, and we intend to be a big part of local fund-raising activities,” she said.
Live music will be offered several times a month, and the new tradition of trivia nights will continue. Football games always draw a crowd, with the lure of a serve-yourself chili bar and peanuts in the shell tossed casually on the floor.
One of the first moves Ungs made was to bring in Felicia Keopke as head chef. Koepke has extensive experience, including working in the kitchen of the former Smith Bros. restaurant in Port Washington and at the Shady Lady in Newburg.
The varied menu features Cajun selections for the adventurous, and homemade favorites like ham with scalloped potatoes or stuffed peppers.
Although the building has been attracting customers since 1887, Bill Ungs gave the locale a new look with several updated touches — including the creation of a dedicated game room well away from the bar.
In all, there are three dining zones with seating for more than 200.
Although the business has a long history, Ungs said it is drawing new customers all the time, including those stopping by while riding on the Interurban bike trail or spending time at the Harrington Beach State Park campgrounds.
“We want to appeal to the people of Belgium, but we realize they alone aren’t going to be enough to keep us in business,” she said.
Ungs said she has no second thoughts about buying the restaurant.
“I am the kind of person who needs a challenge. This business is my passion,” she said.
Ungs said she and her husband have proven to be a great management team.
“We tend to feed off each other,” she said.
Her husband, Bill, had another explanation.
“There hasn’t been any problems, but then we don’t often have to work the same shift,” he quipped.
POSING BY THE SIGN at Chrissy’s Now & Then Pub in Belgium were (above, from left) former owner Patrick Connell, chef Felicia Koepke, and owners Christine and Bill Ungs.
El Diamante Mexican Restaurant owner Debra Ruchalski (left) and chef Polo Riviera hope to bring stability to the Waubeka dining spot.
Photos by Mark Jaeger