Making it in the restaurant business is a lot like creating the perfect steak. It takes time and preparation for things to fully marinate into something rich and flavorful. Successful restaurant owner Wolfgang Zwiener knows all about the delicate process. Zwiener went from starting on the waitstaff of New York’s famed Peter Luger Steak House in the 1960s to overseeing the staffs of seven signature Wolfgang’s Steakhouses around the country today. Though it took the veteran restaurant server 40 years to start his own business — he opened his first steakhouse on Park Avenue in 2004 — the wait has proved worth it. From his five-month-old establishment in downtown Miami, the steak maven talks to us about everything from his German roots, to South Beach’s ever-growing culinary scene, to expanding his eponymous brand into Asia.
Tell us about your backstory. How did you begin your journey into the food industry?
Being in the food and beverage business has been something that has come naturally to me my entire life. It’s my true passion. Perhaps part of the reason is that as a young boy growing up in Europe, my parents owned a restaurant and lodge in the eastern part of Germany, as did their parents. You can say it’s in my blood.
After graduating from school, I decided to follow the footsteps of my parents and entered the Berufsschule in Bremen, a trade school focusing on the principle elements of service, hospitality, cooking and management in the food and beverage business. After graduating from the program, I was fortunate to be employed by North German Lloyd [shipping company] and was able to travel the globe, all while putting the elements of fine-dining service I gained in my training to good use.
In my early twenties, I decided to move to the United States and was able to work at great institutions like [Manhattan’s] Luchow’s and the New York Hilton’s food and beverage department, furthering my experience and knowledge before starting my career at Peter Luger Steak House for more than 40 years.
How did you go from being a waiter to a successful restaurant owner?
Owning my own restaurant was something that I wanted to do my entire life. However, due to family commitments, it was something I held off until later in my life. As I was thinking about retiring, my son Peter, who was an investment banker at the time, approached me and said, “Dad, you are too young to retire. You have so much knowledge, experience and passion about all aspects of what makes a great steakhouse. Why don’t we create a steakhouse using your knowledge and experience to help follow that dream?”
We both teamed up with two other colleagues I have known for years from Peter Luger’s, as well as chef Amiro [Cruz] and a very close friend of my son from his matriculating days at Columbia University, and we opened our first steakhouse on 33rd Street and Park Avenue in February 2004. Nine years later, we now have seven steakhouses in total [four in New York, one in Beverly Hills, one in Waikiki Beach and one in downtown Miami] and are currently in the process of negotiating leases in Tokyo, Japan, Beijing, China and Panama City.
What lessons have you learned over the years in the industry?
It’s all about providing great service, great food and a great ambience to your guests. We want to make sure each guest has an amazing experience at any one of our restaurants and has a strong desire to return soon.
What are your thoughts on the Miami dining scene?
I love the dining scene in Miami. I have been coming to Miami since the mid-1970s and have watched it evolve into a true culinary capital of the world.
When you’re not working, which restaurants do you visit?
I am at one of my restaurants most evenings of my life now. But when I do go out, I don’t have one favorite in particular. In Miami, however, I enjoy Joe’s Stone Crab and Mr. Chow.
Whom do you admire the most in the restaurant scene?
There is one person in my life who stood out among all the people I have encountered in my career: the general manager of Luchow’s, Mr. Schnauffer. He believed in me and gave me my first job in the United States. As my mentor, he provided me with guidance and knowledge, all while enhancing my experience in the food and beverage business.
Can you give any tips to other aspiring food industry professionals?
You need to have passion. Owning a restaurant is a lifestyle, not a job. You have to treat your guests like gold and provide them with the best product you can, while at the same time, provide an ambience that is fun and inviting. Your guests have to see value in your product. And most importantly, don’t give up on your dream.
Photos Courtesy of Wolfgang’s Steakhouse