By M. Caroline Riser
Edited by Jonathan Battaglia
Step into Huller's Black Forest German-American Restaurant, and the smell of fresh wiener schnitzel wafts through the air past the glass cases filled with homemade kielbasa, hand-cut bacon and chocolate cake while German music drifts around the flag-lined dining room.
Susan Huller greets customers with a smile, and her husband, Jim, quickly introduces himself in his deep New Jersey accent – if he isn't busy overseeing the kitchen.
It's difficult to open a restaurant at any time, but the Hullers opened during the Great Recession and after moving from New Jersey, where their family's restaurant had had almost 40 years of success.
Despite initial setbacks, the Hullers said they were determined to build a successful business here.
"When times are not in the best of shape, it's especially hard, but we're fortunate enough, we know what to expect," Jim Huller said.
In the year after Huller's opened on Dec. 30, 2010, "loans and customers willing to pay a lot for restaurant food were hard to find," said Robin DiPietro, a University of South Carolina professor and director of the International Institute of Foodservice Research and Education.
In that year, 30 percent of restaurants reported fewer customers, according to the National Restaurant Association. The economy, food costs and attracting and keeping customers continue to be challenges, restaurant association spokeswoman Annika Stensson said.
Jim Huller says the couple's first business in South Carolina was plagued by many of those challenges.
The Hullers decided to move south "just for a change" in 2006, selling the restaurant building in New Jersey but not the business.
"We had been to South Carolina many times, and we liked the area," Huller said.
With lifelong experience in a butcher shop, he decided to open a wholesale meat company in Winnsboro, "but with the economy in the shape it was in, places were not taking on new product lines," Huller said.
"I really didn't know what I was going to do," he said.
Then, the Columbiana Drive building, which had housed Sticky Fingers, a Charleston-based barbecue chain, became available.
"We thought why not do it again? We know this business, we've been doing it for so many years, we felt comfortable doing it in this area," Huller said.
The Hullers say they think customers appreciate that everything is scratch-made.
"That's what people come here for," said Susan Huller, who recently quit selling insurance to help out in the restaurant.
Joan Underwood of Columbia, who has eaten at Huller's twice, said scratch-made is nice, but "it is more important to me how the food tastes and the quality of the ingredients," Underwood said.
John Reynolds, a Huller's regular, said the restaurant is more crowded every time he goes and that the ambience and food is "getting better with every visit."
Jim Huller's father, a trained sausage maker, opened the family's first restaurant in 1968 in Hoboken, N.J. In 1972, the family moved to Jackson, N.J., and opened a butcher shop that evolved into a restaurant and a line of branded products sold in area supermarkets.
"Up there, people tended to grow up with German food readily available," he said. But in Columbia, only two restaurants specialize in German food. The other is Julia's German Stammtisch on Fort Jackson Boulevard.
"We consider it friendly competition," and some of Huller's customers eat at Julia's, Huller said.
DiPietro said government employees, college students and military men and women make up a diverse customer base more familiar with German cuisine than most Southerners. She said Huller's location just off Interstate 26, west of I-20 also is good.
Jim, who bought the business from his dad in 2000, now handles all the cooking, and Susan handles the dining room and administration.
The restaurant had space for a butcher shop, but Jim said it did not open until February because they wanted to focus on the restaurant.
"Now we can feature what we intended on from the beginning – all of our homemade products," he said.
Hostess Jasmine Miller, who was born in Ansbach, Germany, has worked at Huller's for over a year. She began after helping her mom, who is also a waitress, at the restaurant after school.
With the friendly atmosphere and German feel, "It's like home," she said.
DiPietro says people's curiosity about new restaurants will help Huller's but that the owners "will need to build a committed following of people that will be repeat customers and will talk about their restaurant."
The Hullers say they are pleased with the welcome they have received from the Midlands and point to over 1,100 followers on Facebook.