You don’t have to travel to celebrate Oktoberfest, the traditional German beer festival. Host a party in your hometown with German-style sausages from Schmidt’s Restaurant und Sausage Haus delivered straight to your door! A staple in Ohio’s German Village for more than 120 years, Schmidt’s is a fourth-generation family-run business specializing in authentic German sausages. This season we’re offering samplers of their famous Bahama Mama and other assorted sausages, including traditional sauerkraut and mustard.
Here, we talk to Geoff Schmidt all about the history of the business, what makes their sausages special, and how he celebrates Oktoberfest. Read on!
Tell us the story behind Schmidt’s. How did your family get started in the meat business?
We started in the packing house business — we were called the J. Fred Schmidt Packing Company. It was started by my great-grandfather in 1886 in the German Village area of Columbus, Ohio and ran through the third generation, with my father, George F. Schmidt. At that time, the big chain stores eating up mom-and-pops, so to be in meat packing was very difficult. My father made the decision to close down the packing house.
We owned a building around the corner that was a delivery stable for the early days — it was a cool brick building in the German area. We ended up closing down, and we used the proceeds to open up a restaurant in 1967. My father brought a couple guys from the packing house over, and we opened Schmidt’s Sausage Haus und Restaurant. They would make the meats in the back and sell them out the front, like a meat market. Then, if you were waiting for your meat to get sliced or weighed you could have a quick sandwich. But it flip-flopped — people started coming in for the restaurant part and not just to get meat. We switched the name, so now in our marketing it’s Schmidt’s Restaurant und Sausage Haus.
My father hired some German ladies to do the desserts and potato salads, and their recipes made up other dishes on the menu. They were cooks in the morning and waitresses in the afternoon. One of them still works here — she’s 91 years old, and everybody comes to see her.
Can you describe Ohio’s German Village, where your business launched?
It’s a beautiful German area, with brick houses and unique gardens. The whole preservation of the village was done with private funds, by individual; it’s one of the largest privately restored areas in the country today. So people really take pride in the area. It’s right off of downtown, so you can walk to downtown Columbus. We have a park, Schiller Park, which is one of the oldest parks in Columbus — almost every house around the park is from when the park was founded. It’s a beautiful community.
The Schmidt’s food booth is still a mainstay of the Ohio State Fair. How did the stand begin? What do you sell?
We celebrated our 100th year this year! To my knowledge, we are the oldest private food vendor in any state fair in the country. My dad was put into the Ohio Architectural Hall of Fame this year as well. He passed away a year and a half ago, so we’re really proud of him. I always say our job is just not to screw up what he’s done.
Our first year at the fair was 1914, when we were in the packing house business. At that time, everybody went to the state fair, so we used it as an advertising tool for our products. It turned out to be a real family thing. When my dad turned 14, my grandfather got the All-Ohio Boys Band to come to our stand and play “Happy Birthday” to my father. We carried on that tradition until he died. Now that he’s gone, the band comes and plays for my brother John — he has a birthday during the fair, too.
It was the first special event we ever did. We sell a lot of sausage products. What makes our product good for fairs is that it’s a walking product — you can hold it in your hand in a bun. We sell our famous sausages, hot dogs, potato salad and our infamous jumbo cream puffs are a big seller.
What do you serve in the restaurant?
We are a German restaurant, but we’re not exclusively German. A lot of people think German food is dark, heavy and dank, but ours is light and airy, and we play upbeat, high-end German music — no yodeling.
Our most famous product is our Bahama Mama, a smoked beef and pork spiced sausage. We also have a bratwurst, which is pure pork. Those are our two biggest sellers. Then there’s the knockwurst (also a big seller), weiner schnitzel and pork schnitzels and sauerbraten. We have a great Reuben. Sides are red cabbage with apples mixed in, sauerkrauts, German potato salad, which is served hot and is oil- and vinegar-based.
We’re very fortunate to have what we think are two distinct signature items: our Bahama Mama sausage and cream puffs. The cream puffs are a half-pound of flaky pastry shell filled with a combination of whipped cream and vanilla puddings. When you walk into the restaurant the first thing you see is the dessert case — it’s the best salesperson we have.
We also have a German chocolate cake, apple strudel and pies — coconut, chocolate and banana. We also do cream puffs in vanilla chocolate, peanut butter and other seasonal flavors.
All of our original dessert recipes are from 1967. In fact, 95% of our menu is the same as it was in 1967. We’re more concerned about consistency than changing things.
Who runs the company today? What are your respective roles?
My dad had three sons and three daughters who all got in the business. He slowed down, and we took over the restaurant operations.
Today, the company is all under J. Fred Schmidt, my father. I run the restaurant and party rooms and our mail order program, and my sister Sandy helps me. My brother John is in charge of special events, and my sister Susie works with him. My brother Andrew and sister Georgeanne are in charge of the party room facility at a local golf course, as well as our catering and truck divisions. That’s how we stay friends — being separate but together!
Now John’s son and my son Kyle work in the restaurant, so we’re to the 5th generation so far.
What’s special about Schmidt’s sausages? What do people love about them?
Our original recipes date back to 1886. We’ve tried to keep the same flavor we had back in those days. The sausages are made under our specifications by companies in Ohio and Michigan. We use natural casing for most of our products; it’s easier to use skinless casing, but we use natural casing because that’s the old-world recipe and it gives you the bite of the product. We only use special cuts of meat.
Which of your products is your favorite?
My favorite is the garlic knockwurst. It’s like eating candy.
What’s your favorite way to enjoy your sausages?
On the grill, outside — there’s no other way. The flavor you get outside on a grill is so different from frying it in a kitchen. When we go out and do events, like Oktoberfest, we use our own grills and tents to cook our products.
How do you celebrate Oktoberfest? What’s on your menu?
We run the Columbus Oktoberfest; this is our 49th year. It attracts about 30,000 people. What’s unique is that for most people Oktoberfest says beer, but we really push the concept of family. Kids come in with their parents, and the parents can have a beer and a brat but there’s plenty of entertainment for the children. We also have two great bands: one traditional German band and one that’s more contemporary. There’s a cream puff eating contest, a run (I call it the brat trot), dog and pig races, a puppet show, juggling, face painting, arts and crafts and a parade.
It’s not just a Schmidt menu. We do the Bahama Mama and the bratwurst, our Oktoberfest chicken, fried baloney and cream puffs. Other companies come in and do their schnitzel, sauerkraut balls, Reubens, fried pickles, and cabbage and noodles. We have traditional German products like strudels.
Can you share any tips for others throwing an Oktoberfest party?
Good entertainment is the key, I think. And good German beers. All of our beers are imported directly from Germany.
What are the best beers to pair with sausages for an Oktoberfest celebration?
Paulaner, Hoffbrau and Bitburger — all German beers.