Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:28 pm
The stretch of U.S. 41 between Milwaukee and Fond du Lac looks much the same today as it did 30 years ago. Endless, rolling hills of forest and farmland, a smattering of chain restaurants, a few convenience stores, a couple of adult toy stores and a periodic stream of billboards dot the undeveloped landscape.
That’s just fine with Paul Cunningham. He and his wife, Joan, own Schreiner’s Restaurant, which has become a destination point for business executives and vacationers traveling from southeastern Wisconsin to the north woods.
The lack of development along the U.S. 41 corridor tends to funnel weary travelers to Schreiner’s at the freeway’s intersection with Highway 23 on the southern edge of Fond du lac.
"A lot of business people always tell us their cars are programmed to stop here," Paul Cunningham said. "We’re a destination restaurant. We’re not a traffic parasite. We have guests that we consider regulars who drive 50 to 60 miles who know me by name, and we know them by face. They come in here 100 times a year, and they’re not even from here."
Since Schreiner’s moved from another Fond du Lac location to its U.S. 41 location in 1973, business people have been using the restaurant as a meeting place. And, of course, to eat.
Schreiner’s has received national acclaim for its clam chowder, its Torke coffee, its pastries and pies and its overall American cuisine.
The demand has been so strong for Schreiner’s coffee and chowder that the products are now packaged with the restaurant’s logo and sold for take-home use.
The traffic along the U.S. 41 corridor has fueled the restaurant’s popularity since Albert and Regina Schreiner moved the business to the site.
"This was all cornfields, and there was a Prange’s store over there. Mr. Schreiner raised this land up. It was important to be where it was convenient," Cunningham said.
Once he learned his children weren’t interested in taking over the business, Albert Schreiner handpicked Cunningham, who had started working at the restaurant as a busboy, as the "corporate son" to own Schreiner’s in 1992.
Cunningham has not just held the status quo. He has deployed an ongoing series of business strategies to establish the restaurant as a "must stop" destination on the way to the north woods.
Improving the appearance, the ambiance and the functionality are critical for a restaurant’s success.
Cunningham invested in a $1 million renovation and expansion of the restaurant in 2000. Within the next year, he plans to spend another $200,000 in remodeling the coffee shop and dining room and another $100,000 in equipment.
Taking another page out of the "Execution – The Discipline of Getting Things Done" book, Cunningham also is "rewarding the doers" and holding his people accountable.
Of Schreiner’s 140 employees, 50 have worked at the restaurant for more than 10 years, and 24 have worked there for more than 20 years.
Four of Schreiner’s five chefs have worked at the restaurant for more than 20 years, creating a strong sense of continuity in the kitchen.
Cunningham places a premium on such loyalty. Schreiner’s employees receive health care benefits, profit-sharing, paid vacations and paid holidays – perks that are not common in the restaurant industry.
"First, I think it’s easy to work at a place you’re proud of. We want them to do quality, quantity food production," Cunningham said. "That’s why I do the purchasing, to let them do what they do. Everybody here is homegrown."
Cunningham’s Rolodex is full of business cards from executives throughout the nation, including many who are based in southeastern Wisconsin and use the restaurant as a meeting place. Those executives appreciate the fact that Cunningham and his wife are "hands on" with their business.
Executives such as Ralph Knoernschild, president of Whitefish Bay Realty Inc., simply can’t pass through Fond du Lac without veering into the Schreiner’s parking lot.
"It’s just like stopping at home for breakfast. You know what I mean? I just think their help, their personality, their service, their interest in people, their food — it’s all extraordinary," Knoernschild said. "The owner himself is out there on the front line, making sure things go the way they should go. That’s the way it should be. I would recommend Schreiner’s to anyone. There’s no way we’ll go up north without stopping at Schreiner’s. No way."
John Lamm, president and chief executive officer of John Lamm of Jackson Inc., a landscaping, garden center and nursery company in Jackson, also can’t make the trip up U.S. 41 without his vehicle seemingly swerving on autopilot to Schreiner’s.
"That’s a good way to put it. That’s me. I’m one of them who can’t go up there without stopping," Lamm said. "Neatly dressed waitresses, their food, their homemade bakery and soup are just excellent."
Ken Thiede, vice president of commercial lines for Johnson Insurance in Racine, also plots his course through Schreiner’s. "I’ve been going there for 20 years. Schreiner’s, honest to Pete — quality, quality, quality. You leave happy," Thiede said.
Cunningham welcomes such business executives — with a caveat. A few business people think of the Fond du Lac restaurant as a public meeting place, where they can set up temporary shop for hours and meet with clients.
One woman actually took a seat in a booth and proceeded to tell the hostess that she would be receiving visitors in half-hour increments. The woman planned to interview job applicants all afternoon at Schreiner’s.
"The vast majority of our guests are here to eat and to talk. But some people will try to camp out here," Cunningham said, adding that he bristles when he sees patrons spread out their blueprints or look for a place to plug in their laptop computers. "It doesn’t say ‘office condo’ on the sign outside. The waitresses only have three or four tables, and they really depend on those tables turning over."
Cunningham has been asked to expand by opening other Schreiner’s restaurants in Wisconsin. If he does open another restaurant, possibly along Interstate 43, it won’t bear the Schreiner’s name, Cunningham said.
"It’s just not fair to hang 60 years of experience on a brand new facility," Cunningham said. "With the attention to detail that we pay, you just can’t do it."
* Owners Paul and Joan Cunningham know their business and have developed that niche as a destination point along U.S. 41.
* They are actively engaged on the floor of the restaurant.
* They hold their employees accountable and reward the best performers. Four of the restaurant’s five chefs have been employed at Schreiner’s for more than 20 years.
May 28, 2004 Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI