Once neophytes in the world of B&Bs, the Nelsons have spent 18 years welcoming visitors to their gracious home on a Port Washington hill and plying them with outrageously delicious breakfasts
Rita Nelson had stayed only one night in a bed-and-breakfast inn and her husband Dave had never slept in one when they decided to become innkeepers. They purchased the Port Washington Inn Bed and Breakfast on June 5, 1996.
The couple moved from Sioux City, Iowa, where their three children had graduated from high school. Rita was restless and Dave, a psychotherapist, was willing to make a change.
“I tell people, I had a mid-life crisis and was looking for a challenge,” Rita said. “It turned out to be more of a challenge than we thought.
“We had done a lot of cooking and entertaining, but we had never run a business. I still remember the first time I had to run a credit card. I was worried I wouldn’t do it right.”
Thousands of credit card charges and 18 years later, the Nelsons are still innkeepers at 308 Washington St. and the list of guests who love their gracious home and wonderful food continues to grow.
When they opened their doors, there were two other B&Bs in the city — Inn at Old 1200 and the Grand Inn. Now the Port Hotel is the only other establishment that offers a bed and breakfast.
“It used to be innkeepers lasted an average of five years. That was when people could buy an old house like this, fix it up, rent a few rooms for several years and sell it for more than they bought it for,” Dave said. “That doesn’t happen anymore.”
The couple credit the owners of the former Grand Inn for mentoring them and also attended workshops sponsored by the Wisconsin Bed and Breakfast Association.
The only thing that prepared them somewhat for their new venture was that they had housed college students in Iowa.
“We were always having other people living with us,” Dave said.
“When we were looking for inns, a large private space was important to us. You need private space in an operation like this.”
A large third-floor apartment is what attracted the couple. But it was colder than expected and expensive to heat, so they moved into a basement or garden apartment three years later. The third floor was recently converted into a luxury suite with a sitting room, gas fireplace and two sleeping areas. Four guest rooms, each one named for a relative and containing memorabilia from that person, are on the second floor with sitting and dining rooms on the first floor.
Rita and Dave are foodies and assumed all innkeepers fed their guests the type of breakfast they provide — homemade pastries, bread, granola, jams and jellies, yogurt, fresh fruit, an egg entree and meat.
Although they learned that isn’t always the case, their signature remains creative breakfasts made from scratch.
From scratch means they grind their own flour from heirloom wheat berries, culture their yogurt, make the jams, jellies, mayonnaise and sauces they serve and preserve foods from farmers markets. It’s the way they have been feeding their family since the 1970s and their guests since opening the inn.
Rita said she can accommodate any diet restriction if she knows ahead of time.
“We realize how much gluten we serve when we have guests who are gluten-free,” Rita said. “The nice thing is we make everything from scratch so we can tell them exactly what’s in our food.”
Guests can choose to have breakfast at 8:30 or 9:30 a.m. but exceptions are made.
Last week, a businesswoman needed to leave by 6 a.m., so Dave got up early that morning and made bacon and eggs for her as she sat at the kitchen counter. Early risers can also request breakfast to go.
The kitchen is always warm due to the AGA range cooker made in Great Britain that is never turned off. The large, red, cast-iron stove has four ovens that are always at 150, 250, 350 or 450 degrees. Two range-top warming and simmering plates keep food at the right temperature.
As food cooks, Rita moves items from one oven to another. Something is always cooking in the ovens. Last week, it was chicken stock for soup.
The best part of running an inn, Rita said, is getting to know the guests and seeing them enjoy the house she, her husband and children have restored to its original grandeur while adding modern amenties.
But they also respect their guests’ privacy.
“We’ve learned most guests don’t want to talk to us for a long time or see us every time they’re relaxing in a sitting room,” Rita said.
“They’re here to get away. We’re friendly and open to conversation but aren’t pushy. We let them know they can call us on the phone any time they need something or have questions.”
Often guests say they plan to do something, but end up staying at the inn, relaxing or reading in a sitting room or enjoying stunning views of Lake Michigan from balconies, Rita said. Family heirlooms can be found throughout the house, but the real treasure is the house itself, she said.
“People don’t expect their accommodations to draw them in as much as they do,” Rita said. “The house has good vibes. It’s a feel-good house and puts people in that relaxed frame of mind.”
The couple enjoy pointing out architectural features original to the house that was built in the 1890s by George and Eva Blessing, who moved from Chicago when Mr. Blessing bought the Port Brewing Co.
“One of the daughters married Judge Grady and they lived there for many years so more people know it as Judge Grady’s house,” Rita said.
“But it’s George’s and especially Eva Blessing’s influence that you see throughout the house.”
That includes leaded glass windows, elaborate chandeliers, picture rails, embossed wallpapers and ornate radiators.
Dave refinished all the wood floors and much of the woodwork.
Over the years, the couple installed low-maintenance siding, replaced wood decks and balconies with “green” materials, added air conditioning and installed washers, dryers and dishwashers on all three floors so they don’t have to carry laundry and dishes up and down stairs.
“We’re trying to make the running of the inn simpler for us as we get older,” Rita said. “We’re still enjoying it and not ready to retire yet.”
The Port Washington Inn is at 308 W. Washington St. Turn to the recipe page to try some of the inn’s popular items.
Image information: Port Washington Inn proprietors Rita and Dave Nelson serve guests hearty breakfasts, such as leek frittata and wheat toast made of flour they grind themselves. Photo by Sam Arendt.