Spotlight Business: Heidelberg Restaurant (Upper East Side)

Despite only being in his early 30s, Andreas Matischak, manager of the almost 80-year-old Yorkville German restaurant Heidelberg has a keen appreciation of his many older workers. “I’d rather have older people working here,” he says.

Heidelberg is built on tradition: “We don’t change. We’ve never changed. We’ve been the same since the beginning. We’ve always kept it as our core to not change with the times or deal with fads. We’ve just been doing the same food, same beer since the beginning,” he says.

Currently the staff, wearing traditional lederhosen and dirndls, encompass a range of ages and it’s not uncommon for waiters at Heidelberg to work through their 60s, 70s and even 80s, and to be on staff for decades. Their presence is part of the brand of tradition and history that customers are drawn to.

One of those employees, Ana, 70, who just recently retired to move back to Europe with her family, was the “fiercest most meticulous waitress we ever had,” Andreas says. “She wouldn’t let anyone else help bus her tables. Each table was set perfectly, wiped down clean. You didn’t have to tell her to do anything. She worked her whole life in the industry.”

Whatever task she was doing, she had extreme pride in her work, a quality he does not always see with younger workers. “It’s like listen, you’re here a year now and I still have to chase you down to make sure the table is set right,” he says.

Andreas, whose mother owns the restaurant, says the mentality of customers’ eating at a restaurant has changed significantly from one of socialization to selfishness and that it needs to be tamed. “You have to have an old school mentality, that the customer is not always right. You can’t take their bull…. People want it right away, their way,” he says. “People that are lifers know how to deal with it, but not in a rude way.”

Heidelberg’s hostess, Hedy, has been working at the restaurant for 40 years and Andreas says her work ethic is incredible.

“She refuses to leave,” he says. “She lives to work. She wants to work. I love having her here. I have to force her to take a vacation.”

Barbara, 89, while not technically an employee anymore (she bartended at Heidelberg 30 years ago and is a family friend), still comes in frequently to interact with customers and bus tables because it’s good for her mental health. Otherwise, Andreas says, she’d have nothing to do. “She’s super sharp, she’s strong,” he says. “She comes in every day. Harasses customers. Tells them to eat.”

The work also keeps her fit: “A couple months ago, I was remodeling an apartment upstairs,” says Andreas. “[Barbara asked] ‘is there anything you need me to do?’ I said, ‘I have 300 pounds of concrete down here that need to go upstairs’, joking around. Then I hear footsteps going up super slow – she’s carrying 50 pound bags of concrete up the stairs. I’m like, ‘Barbara, what are you doing? I was just joking.’ And she’s like ‘well there’s nothing else for me to do today.”

While Barbara may still be physically strong, that’s not the case for everyone and Andrea does makes some adjustments for his older workers, such as giving older waiters their own busboy or placing their sections at the back of the restaurant, closer to the kitchen. “Nothing more than that though, just helping them out a little bit. The rest of the crew knows to help them out,” he says.
It’s this sense of teamwork and community that has allowed Heidelberg to enjoy very high staff retention rates. Andreas estimates that he’s only had to hire 3 new employees in the last 2 years.

“We’re like a family here. We know each other too well. We all hang out together. Every day at 4 o’clock we all eat an early dinner together. We all get along. We all treat each other like family,” he says.

Andreas says Heidelberg’s biggest challenge isn’t with staff but with the Second Avenue Subway construction which has resulted in unsightly scaffolding in front of the building for years. “We don’t have the foot traffic outside because of the construction,” he says. He and his mother have been approached to sell the building multiples times and was recently offered several million dollars, but declined out of their love for Yorkville’s history and community. “We don’t need the money,” he says. “We want to save this neighborhood. We don’t want this to be destroyed.”