Only requisite boating expertise could navigate the winding, treacherous legs of the Lehigh River as they stretch through eastern Pennsylvania. Starting at Pocono Peak Lake in Lake City, where the infantile waters spring from glacial sloughs and estuaries, it is not long before the tides become angrily adolescent, aggressively descending 1,000 tumultuous feet as they barrel toward the tri-county line of Carbon, Lehigh, and Northampton, carving into Silurian quartzarenite layers of the Blue Mountain along the way. The white-knuckled forty-one mile sojourn ends at here at the Lehigh Gap in White Haven, however. For at this juncture the rebellious river matures into middle age, mellowing while the valley floor widens and rolls onward toward Bethlehem, Allentown, and eventually Easton, where it empties into the Delaware.
There is much pleasure in considering how tame the Lehigh River becomes, once it has assimilated to a broader basin. Settled, it affords its navigator the extraordinary opportunity to view the gently rolling hills and greenery along the river bank. The same could be said for humanity as it flows from age to age. Although most remain on course while navigating life’s many channels, mostly everyone grasps himself a bit more tightly when the pathway is slender and the waters rough, and leans back at other times to enjoy that which the view can provide.
“I came to America from the Czech Republic in the early ‘80’s,” one of The Berghoff’s former servers stated, wiping a bit of beer foam from his upper lip. Hoping to navigate away from the social and economic stagnation that his home country had experienced for thirty years, he chose the largest city in the Midwest to pursue new opportunities.” Now, in the early ‘80’s, Chicago was very, very cold, dirty, and not very welcoming. The streets were dirty, the atmosphere was cold, and no one would talk to you. And there was no friendliness, either, so I didn’t like it. It began getting better later, though. We got more trees, and things grew green.”
Clearing a safe path into the blossoming metropolis, my subject then voyaged toward the smoother waters of The Berghoff, the institutional establishment at 17 West Adams that opened in 1898. Like its founder, a Dortmunder named Herman Joseph Berghoff whose interest in hospitality grew at the turn of the nineteenth century as a result of his experience as a brewer, the young man sought similar success, only, desiring to serve in the celebrated dining room.
“I went to The Berghoff in 1984, asking for a job,” he said.” The head manager at the time was Mike Santiago, and he hired me without a problem when I asked. ‘Come here on Monday’, he said,’ and you can start right away.’ So I started right away. On that first day there was a line all the way down State Street, all the way around the corner, with one hundred or two hundred customers waiting. There may have been a little break between 2:00 and 5:00, but then we got hit again. And I was so nervous that I spilled a beer!” He laughed, recalling the incident.” Not on the customers, but on the floor, because I was shaking so much!”
As the day wore on and my subject adjusted to the continual replenishment of customers that the venerable Berghoff supplied, he found it easier to enjoy a view that so few modern restaurants afford.
“There were two floors open, and each floor had about twenty or twenty-five waiters. So there were about fifty waiters on the floor, 99.9% of [of whom] were immigrants- Greek, Arab, Pole. And many Latinos from Puerto Rico and Mexico, of course. There weren’t any part-time jobs, either, so everybody worked five days a week for eight or nine hours, clocking in at 10:00 in the morning, opening at 11:00, then working, working, working , until we went home at 9:00. It was hard work. But we were a union restaurant, too, so we had excellent benefits. Health insurance, paid vacations, and things like that.”
Grueling work notwithstanding, one notable Berghoff employee never missed a day of work. General Manager and maitre d’ Michael Santiago, the man responsible for the hiring of countless Berghoff staff members, could always be found manning The Berghoff’s maitre d’ stand over the course of a half-century. Such record attendance overshadowed those belonging to his trusted staff, many of whom had been employed thirty years prior to the hiring of my subject.
“Cold or not, sick or not sick, busy or not, he never missed a day in fifty years. He was a very nice guy with a lot of experience and a good personality. “
Yet, as my subject’s years of service grew into decades, a significant change of hands occurred at The Berghoff that altered the course of the flagship restaurant and its family of employees. Third generation owner Herman Berghoff, a septuagenarian, announced his retirement in 2004, passing the oar to the engineer of The Berghoff’s fourth generation, Peter Berghoff. Next, a number of months passed during which the new proprietor tried his hand at managing the hull. Finally, a fateful meeting was called to discuss the restaurant’s newest direction.
“In the middle of December, 2005, we had a special meeting of everybody on the floor, everybody,” the server recalled grimly.” There were about one-hundred and fifty of us, managers, cooks, busboys, waiters. And Peter said,’ I cannot keep this open and will be closing it on February 28th, 2006. I’m sorry, but you will all be unemployed.’ We were shocked. In the late ‘90’s and early 2000’s, the business started to fall off, sure. But we were still making money! Still, once he announced we were going to close down, there was a line around the corner that I’d never seen before. People from all over the United States, Alaska, Europe! Waiting in the cold for two or three hours! We were so busy that it was unbelievable!”
An unrelenting influx of business occurred over the next few months, assuredly tiring for the fulltime Berghoff team, but satisfyingly bittersweet. For, as a result of Peter’s predilection for a sea change to occur within his century-old vessel, its employees left their employ at 17 West Adams with pockets that were almost as heavy as their hearts. In regards to my friend who was hired by everpresent General Manager and maitre d’ Mike Santiago in 1984 and remained until the final day in 2006, he took a three-month long vacation shortly after the doors were closed, enjoying South America’s warmth before navigating his way back to the Czech Republic for a month-long stay. Upon returning to the United States, he started his first job hunt in twenty-two years, while maintaining ties with his beloved Berghoff family.
“I met a few co-workers after we closed down,” he smiled.” I talked to them. And everybody was okay. Nobody was suffering. It was as if we closed one door one day, and another opened somewhere else the next day. But I loved my job,” he maintained wistfully,” It was hard work, but I loved my job.”
Free to begin anew, my subject directed his sails toward a broad tributary next, one which veered away from his original course within a family-owned establishment and into the deep waters of corporate dining. There, he continues to this day, steady in the stern of his career with oar firmly in hand, navigating the occasionally tumultuous waters of service capably and confidently, yet, with a sense of grace that can only be afforded by one who fully enjoys the view.