Where “Cutting Edge” is About the Knives

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Harry’s Hofbrau an enduring comfort food haven for generations.

Talk turkey at Harry’s Hofbrau in Redwood City and the conversation inevitably turns to numbers. Sixty-six years ago, Harry’s carved its first turkey sandwiches. In normal times, Hofbrau chefs roast 18 to 22 turkeys weighing 26 to 30 pounds every single day, seven days a week, 364 days a year. For Thanksgiving this year, Harry’s presold 150 turkey dinners with all the fixins’ for packing home to Grandma’s. In a pre-Covid year, the Hofbrau pushed out close to 2,000 meals on Thanksgiving Day for diners who chose to do their turkey self-stuffing inside the festively decorated eatery rather than at home.

As this unusually challenging year winds down, employees from Hofbrau pastry chefs to carvers will be just as diligent dishing up something that Silicon Valley people – in theory – should disdain: “the usual.” Yet through generations, Harry’s has outlasted fads, fashions and competitors by figuring out what customers like—and sticking with a tamper-resistant formula based on serving quality, affordable food in plentiful portions and a welcoming atmosphere.

“I’m not saying it’s 100 percent stagnant because it’s not,” Bob Paul, whose “director” title at the Hofbrau includes “protein procurement” and other tasks. “We do make changes. But you have to make changes very carefully because when you’ve been around since 1954, people anticipate that they’re going to come and get something they’re used to and they like.”

Daily Specials

That means Beer Braised Brisket for dinner on Mondays, Chicken Pot Pie on Tuesdays, Weinerschnitzel on Sundays, two kinds of soup daily and a choice of seven breads for a bulked-up carvery sandwich. That also means for dessert, customers can select among the nine-apple pie, the towering chocolate cake – or even rice custard and Jell-o. Ambiance? As regularty as the seasons change outdoors, Harry’s décor molts from New Year’s Day to Valentine’s, all the way to Christmas.

Both Paul and Operations Manager Mike O’Brien say it’s the customers who decide what’s on the menu—and they speak up when something goes missing. Adapting for fewer customers because of the Covid, for example, O’Brien briefly removed Manhattan clam chowder to reduce waste. He put it back on the menu when people complained. About 10 years ago when various factors significantly drove up the price of Miner’s Bones, Paul recalls, management decided it was better to take the specialty off the menu. “Well the outcry was so high, we put them back at the price it had to be for cost of the item, which is about $4 or $5 more,” Paul says, “and they didn’t say a word.”

Redwood City residents Julia O’Leary and Sandra Riedy, who were settled into a padded booth for lunch on a day in November, are long-time customers and don’t come to Harry’s for the nouvelle in cuisine. Their meal portions were so ample that both of the retired Redwood City School District employees took home leftovers for dinner. “I like it because I can have whatever I want,” says O’Leary. “I can just get something small, or like today, I was starving so I had dinner at lunchtime.” Riedy was having turkey enchiladas for the first time and has never had a Hofbrau meal she didn’t like. “No,” she says with a laugh, “because we wouldn’t order it.”

San Francisco-Style Hofbrau

Change, in fact, has taken place at Harry’s Hofbrau but it’s been so gradual as to be easily forgotten. The restaurant’s founder and namesake was Harry Kramer, a native Austrian who got into the restaurant business in San Francisco in the 1940s, where restaurants like Lefty O’Doul’s and Tommy’s Joynt gave the German “hofbrau” a different spin. Kramer and Tommy Harris were original leaders in the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, according to Paul.

Kramer migrated down the Peninsula before opening his first Harry’s Hofbrau at 1700 El Camino Real, where Roosevelt Liquor & Grocery is today. He outgrew that space and 10 years later moved two blocks south, in 1964. Son Larry Kramer, who had worked in the restaurant in high school and college, bought the restaurant from his dad, who retired in San Diego, in 1969. Larry Kramer did a major remodel and expansion in 1988, and subsequently added six more “Harry’s” in the Bay Area.

He’s down to two Hofbraus (the other is in San Leandro) and splits his time between Redwood City and a Southern California office, where he is involved in real estate, restaurants and other business.

“But Redwood City’s home,” says Kramer, who has lived in that city his entire life. Working in his upstairs office, he can see friends coming into the restaurant on a television, so he’s up and down the stairs many times a day to greet them. “We just try and retain and keep a status quo that I think is so important today,” Kramer says. “Most places are so impersonal … I want to maintain that feeling that it’s a warm, friendly place to go to and you’re always going to see someone you know there. It’s not going to be something that’s just a place to get a meal and get the hell out.”

In the Kitchen

Like all restaurants, Harry’s Hofbrau has had to adapt to changing rules because of Covid, expanding takeout service and outdoor dining when indoor dining isn’t allowed.

Hours before the first lunchtime customers queue up and start to steer a brown plastic tray along the serving line, the morning shift has already been at work: Preparing 12-gallon pots of soup, steaming potatoes, trimming beef, baking bread, and dropping globs of cranberry sauce into scores of tiny plastic cups. O’Brien toured a visitor through the kitchen, where convection ovens were roasting four or five beef roasts and six whole turkeys for lunch. The next cook would be coming in at 2 p.m. and make an assessment for dinner.

“All our salads are made fresh,” O’Brien adds. “The food is fresh cut daily. There are no canned products. Everything is done for that day.” A walk-in refrigerator holds the jumbo quantities Harry’s requires: whole turkeys, two to a box; gallons of salad dressing; a garbage can-sized container filled with bread for stuffing. “Come Thanksgiving,” O’Brien says, “I’ll have five of these ready to go.”

Out of the same kitchen, Harry’s operates its catering business, which took a hit as a result of the Covid, when demand for weddings, parties and corporate events evaporated. O’Brien was busy nonetheless last month gearing up to deliver turkey, potatoes and gravy for industrial and commercial accounts. Prime rib roasts are popular with families who want to take them home to serve at home at Christmastime, O’Brien says. It’s sold by the pound and comes with au jus and horseradish.

A Cost Advantage

Meanwhile, another part of the Hofbrau operation is housed in a nondescript building several blocks away which serves both the Redwood City and San Leandro restaurants as a storage and production facility. The space affords Harry’s price advantages that come with purchasing in bulk or by the pallet, Paul says, where smaller restaurants don’t have space to store large quantities.

Upstairs, bakers turn out the cakes, pies, cookies, bread and other baked goods that are distributed to the two restaurants. Baking for both restaurants takes place Tuesdays and Thursdays, and cake assembly and decorating on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Downstairs, beef briskets are injected with a special brine, vacuum packed, cured and turned into corned beef for the other big holiday on the Hofbrau calendar. “During St. Paddy’s week, we will go through about 4,000 pounds,” Paul says.

His association with Harry’s Hofbrau goes back to the 1970s, when he worked for a meat supplier and Harry’s was a customer. After he retired, Larry Kramer asked him to come on board to help with procurement. But in a family restaurant, Paul says, “everybody wears a lot of different hats.” Kramer, for example, is hard-pressed to remember having Thanksgiving at home. Instead, Harry’s owner himself is doing whatever it takes, from saying “hello” to washing dishes and bussing tables. “One hundred percent,” he says. “I’m on the floor just like everyone else.”

Family Focus

O’Brien went all through school with Larry Kramer’s two sons, and started with Harry’s Hofbrau as a bartender at the Mountain View restaurant. He worked at other Hofbraus and currently oversees operations at Redwood City and San Leandro.

Redwood City’s features 28 varieties of beer of all styles and O’Brien does the buying. Craft beers have become a huge part of the business, according to Kramer, and brought in a clientele that is “not the old guard I grew up with in Redwood City and Atherton in the ‘50s and ‘60s.” That said, families dine in the next room, so raucous conversation coming out of the bar is discouraged. “You want to be a family-style restaurant,” O’Brien says, “you don’t need the wrong words coming out of the mouth and kids running around.”

Likewise, there’s an employee dress code calling for minimal jewelry, no visible rings or studs on other body parts, mustaches neatly trimmed and beards grown only on vacation or time off. Hair color must be “a natural shade” and body markings can’t be visible. “It’s just the policy of what we ask,” Kramer says. “No one portrays their own personal identity. They all sign up for it before they go to work.”

The Comfort Tradition

With the Hofbrau’s longevity, it’s not hard to find customers who were introduced to Harry’s brand of comfort food by their parents and then raised their kids to become customers. Or to find non-Peninsulans like Warren Hanson, a Pleasanton resident who sells construction equipment and regularly eats at Harry’s when he’s doing calls.

“I enjoy their turkey sandwiches and their pea salad,” Hanson says, pausing over lunch. “You can’t get pea salad everywhere … My mother used to make this.” When he tells customers, “’I’ll meet you at Harry’s,’ they know exactly where I’m going to be. A lot of my deals have been made here. I’ve sold a lot of machines because of Harry’s.”

In fact, Hanson eats at one or the other Harry’s locations three or four times a month. “I come here because the food’s wonderful, always consistent,” he says. “The guy that carves the turkey, he sees me and he knows exactly what I want.”