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German restaurateurs close 'two-decade institution'

TOWN 'N COUNTRY - Mike Jacobi calls it his "little present." The German restaurant he opened 16 years ago, Schnitzelhaus, at 4333 West Waters Ave., just under a mile west of Dale Mabry Highway, has provided countless memories. Like the three pair of hiking boots he has worn out while serving dishes concocted from family recipes and cookbooks; working side-by-side daily with Susi, his wife of nearly 25 years. Together they do about 90 percent of the serving. Susi takes the first three rows near the kitchen; he gets the rest. Or the numerous beer steins, topographical maps and scenes of Germany that line the walls of the eatery.
Even the jokes. "I get lunch customers here and what do you think the first question is?" Jacobi says, grinning. "'What's the joke of the day?' Or when we get very busy, they say, 'Come, you haven't told any jokes here today. What's wrong with you?'" On May 13, the 80-seat Schnitzelhaus will serve its final Jägerschnitzel, closing its doors for good following that day's business. A casualty of the slowed economy, Jacobi has decided it's time to close shop and focus on his new career in corporate training, coaching and keynote speaking. That will transition into his eventual retirement. According to Jacobi, 62, the business has had a 40 percent dip in sales during the past five years, making the closing inevitable, although you wouldn't know it in recent months. After revealing plans to close the restaurant, Schnitzelhaus since October has had an influx of business – from those wanting to experience the fare at least once more before the doors shut for good, to those venturing in for the first time. Tucked between Spanish restaurants and shops, an Indian and a Vietnamese restaurant, one might think a German eatery would be out of place. Nonsense. "People come from 60 miles to eat here," Jacobi said. "Makes no difference. German restaurants are never on restaurant alley. They're always on a side street where people are actively looking for it." He has had residents of Winter Haven, Melbourne, The Villages, Spring Hill, Zephyrhills, Sarasota, Sebring and Pinellas County come into his little restaurant. When Campbell Hunt, a native of Melbourne, Australia, moved to Tampa, he heard about the little "hole-in-the-wall" restaurant. He tried it and spent three days a week for the first three months exploring the menu. That was eight years ago. "It's a shame," Campbell said of the restaurant's closing. "It's a bit of an unknown landmark as far as food goes in Tampa. It's a true, authentic experience. They're awesome out of the options here and I've tried them all, but nothing's been more authentic as far as what Mike and Susi have produced there." So what drove Jacobi to open a restaurant? As a 15-year-old living in West Germany, Jacobi's mother worked late hours. In order to help out – and eat at a decent hour – he took on the responsibility. "My mother was divorced. She came home at 8 or 9 o'clock at night because she had two jobs," Jacobi said. "So I started cooking. When she came home and started cooking at 8, then we wouldn't eat until 10." The teen was given a grocery list, which he took with him during afternoon shopping trips alone. After bringing home the goods, he closely followed his mother's recipes, having meals prepared by the time she arrived home. From there, a love of culinary life grew. Jacobi, his wife and their newborn son, Ralph, moved to Tampa from Texas in the early 1990s and opened a jewelry business on Waters and Rome avenues. During the short time the jewelry store was open, Jacobi had a small German deli, which allowed him to experiment and perfect certain items. But by late 1996 the jewelry store was not doing well. He found a new location just up the road and gave in to his passion for food. "The first year, I was very insecure with my recipes, needless to say," Jacobi said. "But to really know the way I do home-cooked food — because it's not restaurant food, it's really, truly home-cooked food — has become a very big hit [is special to me]. "Just the sheer interaction and friendships we have developed. Yes, they come back for the food, but they come back, almost to the same degree, because they want to talk to Susi and me. They want our customer service and our storytelling." Sometimes that storytelling touches on moments of his youth. In 1957, when Jacobi was 7 years old, he and his family were forced to live in a German refugee camp. His stepfather was arrested and accused of being a spy, which led to the Jacobi family being placed in that camp. There, they shared a room with three families. Back then, when his mother received her monthly paycheck, there were just 50 cents remaining, meaning there was little to eat. "We had nothing," Jacobi said. He eventually made his way to the United States from Munich, Germany, in 1980. After almost two decades in the food industry, he surely has a favorite menu item. Jacobi runs to his kitchen, returns with a white, laminated menu, and points to his favorite: Chef Mike's Jägerschnitzel a la Black Forest. It's a veal schnitzel with spaetzle and wild mushrooms, sautéed in wine and flamed with brandy at the customer's table. "I never had a restaurant before," Jacobi said with a smile. "I'm not even a professional cook. I'm just a home cook." The final days of business will serve as a celebration. There will be live music with performer Inga, and Spaten Oktoberfest beer will flow five months early. Those days also will be filled with Mike and Susi Jacobi working with their son, who is studying electrical engineering at the University of Florida. Ralph Jacobi will return from Gainesville to help his parents cope with the restaurant's emotionally and physically taxing final days. Campbell said Jacobi told him almost two months ago of the plan to shut down. Since then Campbell has been on the telephone, churning up business. "I've already called a few people to give them a heads-up," said Campbell, a pharmacist. "I'm like, 'Hey, remember that place I told you about? Now's the time. Your window of opportunity is closing.' … "And to think, this little business grew from a love of food to a nearly two-decade institution," Campbell said. "No regrets. Absolutely no regrets," Jacobi said. "We did emotionally well. We did financially well. It was a great run and we're going out with a big bang."

edaniels@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7928 Twitter: @EddieDTampaTrib

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