Mother-daughter team Anneliese Schaffer-Neises and Patricia "Pat" Schaffer have found their way into the hearts -- and stomachs -- of the community through their family-owned restaurant, Villa Europa on Deans Bridge Road, which they've co-owned for 19 years.
Anneliese is 70 years old, but she's still cooking up masterpieces in the kitchen. Through dishes such as schnitzel (veal) and schweinehaxe (stuffed pork chops), she's brought a taste of her German heritage to Augusta.
"Omi" is the German word for grandmother, and Anneliese has nurtured several generations of Augustans with good food and her warm heart.
Daughter Peggy Schaffer, the restaurant's office manager and bookkeeper, says that she's constantly comparing other food to her mother's cooking.
"She's the best cook I know. She doesn't go by recipe. It's just a little bit of this, a little bit of that," she said.
Peggy said her mother and sister are an inseparable pair.
"Pat's always been the brains behind the operation, and my mom took over the food," she said. "I think it takes both of them. If either of them weren't in the picture, it certainly wouldn't run the way it runs."
The business specializes in German and Italian dishes, and serves steak, seafood and other items. There are few restaurants on Augusta's south side, but Villa Europa continues to thrive because of its loyal clientele, Pat said.
Bob Garrett, an elder at Alleluia Christian Service Center, is not of German heritage -- he simply likes the food. He's been a customer at the restaurant for 25 years, back when it was known as Roman Villa.
"It's a great place to go. They have the best German food and some of the best Italian food in town. It's probably the most underrated restaurant, as far as I'm concerned," said Mr. Garrett, who also serves with Pat on the nonprofit organization South Augusta Redevelopment.
"They're trying to do more than just serve food -- they're trying to preserve a cultural heritage, which is good," he said.
Sue Alzheimer, whose grandmother was German, and her husband, who is also part German, are among the faithful customers at Villa Europa.
"My husband and I have been married for 25 years, and we had our first date there. We also ate there for our 25th anniversary," Mrs. Alzheimer said.
"I love the atmosphere, and the food is delicious. Usually, when we have company come in and we want to take them someplace special in south Augusta, that's where we'll go," she said.
A love for cuisine
Anneliese was born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1937. Growing up, she always knew that she wanted a career in the food industry.
She'd been raised around food -- her mother loved to cook and her father made cherry jelly and wine for neighbors. So, it was a natural fit, she said.
She worked as a butcher and had delicatessen experience before coming to the United States in 1972.
"She used to cut secretarial school -- her mother wanted her to be a secretary -- and she would hang out in the butcher shop because she loved food so much," Pat said.
In Germany, young people either went to trade school or professional school. Anneliese was enrolled in secretarial school but was finally allowed to pursue her passion when her mother, Eva Betz, learned about her interests.
She married Marvin Schaffer, an American soldier who was stationed in Germany. They had three children: Pat, Peggy and Lynda.
The family moved around often because of the military, but Pat lived in Germany until about age 13. She was born in Frankfurt in 1960 and remembers visiting her grandparent's home. She also expresses a love for food.
"When our family went on vacations, my sisters would go to the beach, and I would hang out in the kitchen. I've always loved cooking -- I should have been a chef," she said.
The Schaffers moved to Augusta because Marvin was stationed at Fort Gordon. Their home wasn't ready when they arrived in the U.S., so the Schaffers stayed with Marguerite Harmon, who has been Anneliese's friend for 47 years.
The women worked at Fort Gordon's NCO Club together as waitresses, along with another longtime friend, Gisela Wilson.
"We started a friendship that was instant," said Ms. Harmon, who is from France. She considers Anneliese to be her closest friend.
Among her friend's many attributes, she says that Anneliese is extremely giving.
"She's always there to do things for you. Somehow she'll get it done," she said. "She's my jewel."
Anneliese worked her way up in the restaurant industry and landed a new job at Dine and Stein on Walton Way.
In 1974, she was named the manager at Pizza Villa, a prosperous Italian food chain that was purchased by Frenchman Fred Ozanne. At the time, the restaurant had locations at Deans Bridge Road and Wrightsboro Road.
"The two of them, a Frenchman and a German, that was a strong mix," Peggy said. "He was a typical Frenchman, and he would want to throw knives when someone complained."
Mr. Ozanne recognized Anneliese's talents and allowed her to add German food to the menu. In 1975, Mr. Ozanne changed the restaurant's name to Roman Villa, and two years later, Anneliese was appointed general manager of both locations.
Throughout the years, Anneliese and Ms. Harmon raised their children together and both went through divorces. They supported each other through difficult times.
Years later, Anneliese married Joe Neises, who died in 1999.
"We called him Papa Joe," Ms. Harmon said. She said he loved his wife dearly.
Pat joined her mother at Roman Villa in 1976, when she came for a summer job. She quickly rose to a position in management.
"It was my first job," she said. She went on to pursue undergraduate studies in business management at Augusta College.
She and her mother continued to operate Roman Villa until they received an opportunity to purchase the Deans Bridge Road location. The restaurant on Wrightsboro Road closed in 1988.
Mr. Ozanne decided that he wanted to retire, and the mother-daughter pair bought the business on Oct. 1, 1989. They renamed the restaurant Villa Europa.
Good friends, food
The pair said they operate their restaurant by a central German principle: Gemuetlichkeit, the German word for "hospitality."
"That's pretty much what Germans do. I'll never forget the times when we were in Europe and people opened their restaurants after they were closed and still fed us," Pat said. "The Germans are a very hospitable people and believe you can cure anything with good food, good drinks and good company."
Pat says that she works to make everyone feel welcome, and even has a special table for regular customers, known as a "stammtisch" in German.
Terry Elam, the president of Augusta Technical College, compliments Pat's business savvy.
He has dined at Villa Europa for about 14 years because of the restaurant's proximity to the school. He serves on the Development Authority of Richmond County with Pat, and also works with her on the Rocky Creek Springfest, an event held at Augusta Tech that promotes businesses and talent in south Augusta. Pat serves as the event's chairwoman.
"She's very focused, very efficient. She likes to get the job done and work to a consensus at the end," Mr. Elam said. "She has a gleam in her eyes at all times. It's very refreshing when you're around her. She brings a presence that is very positive."
Pat admits that it was never her plan to work at the restaurant permanently.
"I went to business school, and I thought I would get away from the business and Augusta, but I ended up really loving Augusta, staying and committing to the family business," she said.
The restaurant is often a topic of discussion at family gatherings.
"We'll start talking business, and someone will say, 'That's it -- no more.' It just kind of happens, but we try not to," Peggy said.
She compares her mother's and sister's cooking techniques. "The two of them in the kitchen together is quite interesting to watch and listen to. My sister and mother never seem to agree on recipes because they're both good cooks and they have their own ideas," she said.
Any day of the week, Anneliese can be found cutting or grinding her own meat.
"She's the hardest working person that I know," Peggy said. "It's hard for her to delegate because she feels that if you want it done right, you've got to do it yourself.
"That's the work ethic of people who grew up in that era, because they didn't have a whole lot."
Peggy said she visited a food show a few weeks ago to find items such as vegetarian dishes.
"Somebody would show me a vegetarian lasagna, and I'd say, 'There's no way that my mom would put that on a table.' If it's possible for her to make it from scratch, she can't see putting something else on the table. That's why she still works so hard," she said.
Fans of Anneliese's cooking extend beyond the restaurant. Every Sunday after church, her home is full of friends and family, all eager to get their fix of "Omi's" signature dishes.
Peggy said that her son's friends will also call to ask, "Omi, did you cook today?"
Even the competition praises Villa Europa's cooking.
Larry Sconyers, the owner of Sconyers Bar-B-Que, says that he's known Anneliese since the late 1960s.
"They're just really hard working people. They take a lot of pains to make sure the food comes out right, and they do a great job. Anytime I can send somebody over there, I do that," Mr. Sconyers said.
A family affair
Employees at Villa Europa are loyal and often stay with the restaurant for the long haul, Peggy said. The restaurant has a staff of 45.
"One employee just celebrated her 30-year anniversary," she said.
The 70-year-old bartender is "running circles around the 20-year-olds," Peggy said. Many others have been with the restaurant for 20 to 25 years.
"It's kind of a family affair around here, for the most part," she said. "For a lot of employees over the years, a third generation of many families have worked here. We call them Villa Babies -- the kids of people who have worked here."
When someone passes away, it's like a member of your family has died, said Ok Cha Hutchins, who has worked at Villa Europa for 25 years.
"It's heartbreaking because we work together so long. We love each other," she said.
The restaurant has other traditions, such as its annual Oktoberfest celebration.
Oktoberfest is a German tradition that began in 1810 to celebrate Crown Prince Ludwig's marriage. He later became King Ludwig I. In Germany, Oktoberfest festivities are held in Munich with millions in attendance. The 16-day festival is considered an important part of Bavarian culture.
During Villa Europa's weeklong festival, customers gather for food, music and fun. They frequently request the "stiefel" or "beer boot."
"There's a movie out now called Beerfest , and it's a parody of a German Oktoberfest. People have been asking for the boot since they've seen it," Pat said. "We keep the boot mostly for Oktoberfest, but people drink from it year round."
The "beer boot," or a large glass container that is shaped like a boot, can hold about three liters of beer. It is passed around the table for friends to share.
Pat said that one must drink from it correctly or "it will splash in your face."
"The toe has to tilt toe right or left at a 45 degree angle," she said. "I've seen many a person get splashed. It's fun."
All about service
Despite her busy schedule, Pat makes an effort to give back to her community.
"I do a lot of community service. That's one of my passions," she said.
The Rocky Creek Springfest is now in its third year.
"She's the driving force behind it," Mr. Elam said. "She's a very civic-minded person. She pushes the community to do more."
The event, which is held in Augusta Tech's courtyard in late April, is designed "to showcase south Augusta's diverse talent, culture and resources."
"We grew up on this side of town, and she's always been a big advocate for south Augusta," Peggy said.
One day after Rocky Creek Springfest, Pat throws her energy into fundraising for Golden Harvest Food Bank, along with other local restaurants.
"Restaurants often get asked to do things like that," Pat said. "One thing I really respect about local restaurateurs, for instance, people like Craig Calvert, is they get very involved."
She also donates time and food to other organizations, such as the Masters Table soup kitchen, Augusta Mini Theatre Inc. and Historic Augusta.
Mr. Garrett said he and Pat work together with South Augusta Redevelopment, a nonprofit organization designed to provide quality housing to low- to moderate-income families in south Augusta, trying to redevelop the Lyman-Dover neighborhood and rename it New Dover.
"It's been a terrible neighborhood for years, and we have tried to organize an effort to get the houses that are vacant either torn down or rehab them for poor families," Mr. Garrett said.
Pat said she enjoys the challenge of her restaurant. In the course of one day, she wears many hats, including banquet manager, human resources manager, menu designer, dishwasher, trainer and cook.
"There's a certain amount of glamor associated with the restaurant industry, but that's only superficial. If you really get down in the trenches, there's not a whole lot of glamor about it.
"It's hard work, but it's exciting and rewarding. The rewards are not always financial -- they're emotional rewards," she said.
Reach LaTina Emerson at (706) 823-3227 or email@example.com.
BORN: Dec. 28, 1937, in Frankfurt, Germany
TITLE: Co-owner, Villa Europa
EDUCATION: Trade school in Germany
NICKNAME: "Omi" (grandmother in German)
FAMILY: Husband, Joe (deceased); daughters: Pat Schaffer, Peggy Schaffer and Lynda Tesney
HOBBIES: Gardening, cooking, reading German cooking magazines
BORN: June 15, 1960, in Frankfurt, Germany
TITLE: Co-owner, Villa Europa
NICKNAME: "Aunt Pat"
EDUCATION: Augusta College, bachelor's degree in business management, continuing education in restaurant industry
FAMILY: Mother, Anneliese Schaffer-Neises; sisters: Peggy Schaffer and Lynda Tesney
CIVIC/EXTRACURRICULAR: Chairwoman of Rocky Creek Springfest, board member of the Development Authority of Richmond County and South Augusta Redevelopment Inc.; culinary board member at Augusta Technical College
HOBBIES: Hiking, boating, golf, yard work, food and wine pairings, community service, cooking