Diner: We Live Here

Otto's owners Paul and Emily Weckman live the 'old-fashioned way'

May 16, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Joe Lamb

Paul and Emily Weckman share breakfast with their two young sons.

Paul and Emily Weckman's young twin boys explain that the reason they're allowed to climb up behind the fountain and sit on the Buddha statue's lap is because, "We live here." And they do.

The Weckmans own and operate Otto's and live above the restaurant they opened just after their last semester of college, just before the twins were born.

"It's an old-fashioned way to live, up above your business," Emily explains. "But it's also a really modern, really green way to live. We never have to drive to work!"

After four years of running Otto's, Emily and Paul are woven into the fabric of Covington's MainStrasse, and they're becoming even more involved this summer, as Paul is heading the Covington Farmer's Market in its newest location, the Sixth Street Promenade.

"It's just now sinking in, I guess, that this is really happening — that we're over the hump," Paul says with relief. "We've got a great staff in place, great customers who like our place, and we're evolving to the next step."

The next step, it seems, is about being green and about the community.

Paul has been reading Setting the Table by Danny Meyer, the New York restaurateur whose Union Square Café helped revitalize the nearby Union Square Market and the area surrounding it. Paul is passionate about the message.

"You've got to take care of your staff, your customers and your community — those three things, in that order," he says. "Union Square did that, and they made the area stronger, but in turn it helped their business. They shopped at the market, which helped the market, but the fresh produce and loyal suppliers — that helped them."

Paul has supported the Farmer's Market in Covington for the past few years, even volunteering to cook breakfast there one morning just to draw customers. But he wants to be able to buy the majority of his produce there. To make that happen, the market needs to expand.

"I'm just being selfish," he laughs.

But Emily makes it clear that their vision of Covington is green. "The boys start school this year, and they'll be taking the bus. We want to have Covington's business district become so healthy that we can walk to get most of what we need."

They fantasize about a cheese shop, a butcher and especially a bakery in MainStrasse. Their thinking is that Jean-Robert de Cavel's restaurants and some of the new small eateries like Pike Street Press would support a core of local suppliers. Paul brags that he did all his Christmas shopping on his street this year and got the whole thing done in a couple hours. What guy is not going to love that?

The Weckmans feel that Covington has momentum.

"Covington has an opportunity to capitalize on what Cincinnati's not doing in terms of a downtown neighborhood," Emily says. "We think it can be done."

If that sounds like youthful idealism, that's because it is: Paul and Emily are both 26. When they started Otto's it was sink or swim, just out of the University of Kentucky with two kids on the way.

"We thought if we sold 20 sandwiches a day, five days a week, we might make ends meet," Paul laughs. "We just didn't factor in taxes, expenses — those little things."

Paul had always cooked, since age 8 or 9. His mother tells a story that he called her at the office to ask what temperature to put the oven on for meatloaf. Her friends told her to quit discouraging him from calling and to keep encouraging him to cook. She did.

In high school, he had dinner parties for his friends. In college, his nickname was "Snacks."

Emily saw his potential, maybe before he did. For his 21st birthday, she gave him a cookbook inscribed with a long message that predicted, "Maybe someday, you'll use this in your restaurant."

He does. Emily's painting of two peas in a pod, which she also urged him to hang in his restaurant someday, foreshadowed not just their partnership but also their twins. It's a little eerie, but in a good way.

"It was a lot to take on, and some people couldn't do it," Emily says of the experience of opening Otto's with a pair of newborns. "It's a life adjustment. We went from being college kids just thinking about ourselves, and now we think about a lot of people when we make decisions: our family, our employees, our community."

Paul interjects, "It's a nice load to carry."

Otto's reflects their values — it's not big, impersonal or corporate.

"It's casual fine dining," they say, "but in a eclectic, family style."

"You build relationships and build a community around it, and it works," Paul says with confidence. "We're lucky to be able to do this."

So why take on the Farmer's Market? "We took an interest because, why not? A good market to walk to on Saturday, what could be better? It improves the quality of life, it's real, it's personal."

Otto's Deli, 521 Main St., Covington, 859-491-6678. Covington Farmer's Market, Sixth Street between Main and Bakewell, is open Saturdays.