Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Café, a popular German restaurant in Sanford, Florida, has won numerous awards for its authentic, homestyle cooking. But owners Theo and Linda Hollerbach say they purposely hung those accolades in the back hall by the restrooms.
“You set the tone for your guests when they walk in the front door,” Theo Hollerbach said. “A lot of restaurants want everyone to know they are No. 1 right from the start, but that sets expectations high ahead of time.”
Theo said he wants guests to be a little confused upon arrival.
“We want to set the tone for them instead of them setting the tone for us,” he said.
Linda Hollerbach said, “This is a destination restaurant designed to attract people who want to be here. We don’t sell food here; we sell an experience. We want people to remember and talk about the experience they had here.”
People travel from hours away to visit Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Café for that authentic German experience.
“There’s a tremendous amount of people who have an affinity for Germanness,” Linda said. “A lot of it has to do with the military. Millions of Americans were born in Germany during the Cold War.”
Theo was surrounded by many of those Americans where he was born in Cologne, Germany. His family owned a butcher shop; and in the back of his mind, Theo thought one day he would open his own restaurant. In 1970, Theo moved to Florida with his mom but continued to visit his grandparents and other family members in Germany throughout his high school years. While there, he worked in the butcher shop, cooked in a hotel kitchen, and helped in a bakery.
Linda managed a restaurant for many years, too. After they were married, opening a restaurant of their own seemed like a reachable dream. However, when they tried it several times over 20 years, for various reasons it didn’t work out. Instead, the couple continued to work in jobs outside the food industry while their daughter, Christina was young.
“We had milestones we needed to reach for our plan to work,” Theo said. “Our goal was to have enough money saved to live two years without making a dollar or taking a salary. I didn’t want to worry about house payments and car payments and grocery bills.”
Linda added, “Finally in 2000, we said, ‘We are going to do this in the next year, or we are going to quit talking about it.’”
In 2001, Linda found an existing café for sale 25 miles north of Orlando in Sanford. It had clientele, revenue, and room on either side for future expansion.
“We kept the restaurant the same to begin with,” Linda said. “Then we added German lunch specials. Eventually, we expanded the kitchen to add hot fried and cooked food, and then it just gradually changed to all German.”
Starting with just 60 seats, they added their name to the café; and much to their surprise, they turned a profit the first year. Today, after several expansions, the restaurant can seat 650 patrons and includes a rooftop biergarten. The Hollerbachs also opened a German market and deli next door to the café in addition to a German folk-wear store called Outfitters, which sells dirndls and lederhosen.
“We try to give the feeling of how Germany was in the ‘70s when Theo lived there,” Linda said. “The recipes are sort of old-fashioned, like home cooking. You won’t find many German restaurants serving what we do, because in Germany, people eat this food at home.”
It isn’t just the authentic food that keeps customers coming back. Part of the experience is the entertainment by the regular in-house performers, Jimmy and Eckhard. Both were born in Germany. The duo sing, play instruments, and provide hours of music, laughter and fun.
Most nights “das boot,” a glass shaped like a boot, is filled with German beer and passed around the family-style tables. Several times a night, the performers shout, “Zicke, zacke, zicke, zacke, hoi, hoi, hoi,” which roughly translates to cheering people on to hurry and drink. It is usually followed by restaurant patrons raising their glasses and shouting, “Prost!” meaning cheers!
The Hollerbachs credit their relationship for the success of the restaurant and other businesses.
“Neither one of us could have done this without the other,” Linda said. “We are a good match because I am not afraid of risk while Theo is risk adverse. I am not afraid to fail, and he keeps me from spending too much money or buying too much property.”
Theo agreed. “Her thinking and my thinking are not the same,” he said. “I think of us more as coaches than teammates. Teammates are usually going in the same direction. She is the offensive coach, and I am the defensive coach, and our daughter, Christina, is special teams.”
In 2020, Christina took over the day-to-day operations of the restaurant as CEO.
“She has worked every position in the restaurant,” Linda said about her daughter. “I never wanted her to work here, but she loves it. She’s cooked, cleaned, bartended, and she just gravitated toward it.”
Once Christina took charge of Willow Tree, Theo and Linda started spending more time with their other interests. Theo rides his bike often and is helping another business owner open a bicycle shop in Sanford. He doesn’t use the word “retired” when describing himself.
“I am so fortunate I get to do what I want to do when I want to do it,” Theo said. “If I don’t want to work, I don’t come in to work. But if I am at the restaurant, I walk around and make sure our culture is maintained. I make sure the staff knows they are needed and appreciated, and I try to make the guests feel welcome.”
Linda concentrates on her love of art by creating jewelry, sewing, and planning the opening of an art gallery inside the restaurant.
“I haven’t figured out how to sell art yet, but right now I just want to make it,” Linda said. “I haven’t really found my style either, but I’m working on it.”
Christina plans to carry on her parent’s traditions at the restaurant, including exceeding customer expectations without striving for perfection.
As Theo observed, “Perfection is in the eye of the beholder. Everyone defines it differently. Plus, people work better together when they know they don’t have to be perfect.”
Theo believes Willow Tree Cafe is successful because they strive to keep it in the top 20% but never at No. 1.
“If you are No. 1, people are always trying to beat you,” he said. “You always have to be on the defensive instead of the offensive. Being perfect puts too much pressure on you. No one can give 100% all of the time; but if people give 80% or 90%, it’s going to be better for everyone.”
Theo and Linda also have travel plans in the months to come. But when they’re home, they are likely to be found in a corner of the Sanford restaurant, raising “das boot” and shouting, “Prost!”