Longtime W.A. Frost Host Says Wintery Good-bye
Linda Schwieters was the first face guests saw when they lunched at W.A. Frost.
Oh, the people she’s seen in her 36 years of seating people at W.A. Frost.
As many as 1,400 people come through the celebrated St. Paul restaurant on Selby Avenue on a good day, according to General Manager Bob Crew. And while a good portion of the people eating lunch tend to be regulars, for almost four decades hostess Linda Schwieters, still managed to remember names and talking points for a great many of the guests who dined there.
And this was before reservations systems allowed an electronic cheat sheet.
“She developed an uncanny ability to recognize and greet people,” says John Rupp, the owner of W.A. Frost, along with other historic properties. “It scares me that she’s gone.” And not because they don’t have competent people on the front desk today, they do, he adds. It’s just that Schwieters is “a hard act to follow.”
The 76-year-old was as enthusiastic on her last day of work at Frost as she was on her first , when she was surprised and delighted that she got the job as hostess. “This was personal to her,” says Rupp. “It was more than a job.”
And although Schwieters loved working for Rupp, “he was intimidating when I first met him,” Schwieters says. “He had a booming voice and was an I’m-in-charge guy. ...I’m a hugger and while he’s not a hugger” he eventually came around.
“She was a good sport,” he says.
Schwieters officially retired at the end of January, but the polar vortex, along with an abundance of snow days, caused her to miss saying goodbye to a number of her regulars. “The weather was so bad, they didn’t really need me,” she says.
And even though we were just meeting at W.A. Frost to talk over lunch, she got there early, put her purse in the cupboard next to the host stand, checked to be sure none of the menus were stained or dirty and straightened a few pictures and rugs while she waited. Old habits die hard, and for 36 years, taking care of someone else’s comfort was her calling.
She’s only a few months into it, but the hardest part of retirement, she says, is what to do with your jewelry. “I love dressing up and now it’s not needed.” When she first started working at the restaurant, she wore dropped-waist dresses that she made herself; for the last decade it was pants. She loves oversized jewelry and “that became my signature,” she says.
She took a style cue from Rupp’s first wife, Peggy’s unique sense of style, and Peggy’s mother. Both women, plus Rupp’s mother, worked at the restaurant, which was still in its building mode in the Cathedral Hill area. “It was all hands on deck,” Rupp says of the time.
Schwieters applied for the job after being a stay-at-home mom, because her four children attended private Catholic schools and she “needed to earn some money.” A friend saw the ad in the paper and convinced her to apply. “It was a rough area” at the time, she says, but she was only afraid of not getting the job because she was older than the others applying.
She remembers one of the best parts was working with Rupp’s mother and mother-in-law. “Mrs. Rupp had a purse full of tools to fix things” in the restaurant, she says, and “Peggy’s mother was gorgeous.”
One of Linda Schwieters favorite rooms at the restaurant has a large mural on one wall.
Schwieters became part of the family. She once had to tactfully tell the boss’s mother the plants she was watering were plastic. And because Mrs. Rupp had a hard time remembering the day’s specials, she’d drag the big chalkboard stand from the lobby to the table to read them off, Schwieters says, chuckling. “They were adorable to work with.” It remains a close-knit staff, and Schwieters isn’t the only employee to boast of longevity.
For six years, she tried a stint at managing, but it wasn’t her style. “I didn’t want to tell people what to do and not to do,” she says. Plus, “I’d already seen how much fun hosting was.”
As far as her regulars for lunch, Schwieters knew which tables they preferred, who was going to ask for the music to be turned down, and in some cases, which paintings they wanted to sit near. For businessmen hosting clients at lunch, she always tried to greet them by name, knowing it would impress their clients.
Since much of the wall space is covered with oversized oil paintings that look like they belong in a museum, regulars had favorite viewing spots. There’s an original John Ferry that railroad officials commissioned years ago that at one time hung in the Minneapolis Depot, she says. But the most unusual request, that is more frequent than one would imagine, is: “Can I sit by the sheep picture?”
The painting in question is a large, dark realistic view of sheep in a storm, with a black sheep in the middle. Schwieters isn’t sure why people want to sit by this particular painting, but she’s a fan of it as well.
The décor is akin to someone’s living room. There are three real wood-burning fireplaces to accompany the realistic paintings, and Schwieters says she used to tease people who requested to be seated near them that they’d be responsible for adding more wood to the fire if needed.
Downstairs has the only gas fireplace and is also allegedly home to ghosts. One story that made the rounds is that years ago when the manager locked up, he’d turn off all the lights in the lower level and by the time he was ready to leave, the lights were back on, she says. There’s still the occasional light that pops back on. But don’t take her word for it. A lunching psychic once asked Schwieters to accompany her downstairs to take photos. She showed Schwieters the streaks of light in the photo as her proof that there were ghosts. “She said she could feel them there,” Schwieters says. “And you know where most of the ghost are? In the women’s restroom.”
When asked if they were female or male ghosts, Schwieters pauses before replying, “I didn’t think about that. That would have been a good question to ask.” The spirits also apparently reside near a sealed off door to a tunnel once used for moving illicit spirits during prohibition.
One of the reasons, Schwieters regrets not having the chance to say goodbye to her regulars is that many have become friends, albeit on a first-name basis only. “I’ve had regulars and then one day they didn’t come in and you wonder what happened to them,” she says.
That’s not uncommon. “In the hospitality business, you’re looking for that human-to-human connection,” Bob Crew says. “You hope to extend a sense of hospitality. Linda could do that. You didn’t have to teach her that.”
The role has changed over the years. “People used to visit while they waited for their table,” she says. “Now they get out their cell phones.” It bugs her when hosts keep drinks or food at the front desk and leave their station to visit the cooks in the kitchen to chat. But Schwieters is never judgmental when she’s confronted with this at other restaurants. And she tips well regardless of the service because, “I know how hard a job it is.” Harder than even retirement.