Lily Soos’ German grandmother lives in California now and only speaks a few words of English, but that hasn’t stopped her from offering advice to the fledgling restaurant owner.
“She calls — makes my aunt call — and goes over recipes and you know, ‘Hey, don’t forget this.'” Soos said, chuckling. “She’s all excited and she’s 85 and she’s just like, ‘I’ve got all the family recipes.'”
Soos and her husband, Scott Eshelman, are opening The Wandering Lily Diner at 819 E. Main St., Crestline, offering a combination of traditional German cuisine and Americana diner classics.
Soos, who also was born in Germany, learned to cook from her mother and grandmother.
“My grandma and my aunt had a diner in Cleveland, and so they taught me a lot,” Soos said. “My grandma had a small candy-making store at one point, so she taught me that. My mom had a bakery and for a couple of years I took over doing that.”
Eshelman is from the area — when they first met in the village 10 years ago, he was working as a Crestline police officer.
“We wanted something that we could kind of bring our kids in on together and more of a family business,” Soos said. “So I was from Germany, that’s we got the German side of the venue and he’s from the U.S., obviously. So that’s how we kind of got the American diner stuff. So we combined them together.”
The restaurant started with a soft opening with limited hours and is gradually adding hours. When the staff is ready for full operation, hours will be 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. seven days a week, plus a dinner service from 5 to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
A grand opening tentatively has been scheduled for May 20, so they’re hoping to be up to full hours by then, Soos said.
“We are working on getting a liquor license and once that happens, we’ll stay open later and probably increase dinner service, but that’s our goal for right now,” she said.
Food prepared using traditional techniques
They’re giving the staff time to learn how to prepare the food properly, using Soos’ traditional recipes.
“Dinner in particular, since it’s all German,” Soos said. “I’m from Germany; I know how to make it. But we can’t really find a lot of German cooks here and a lot of the dishes take a long time. Our sauerbraten, it takes us three days to make. So it’s a very labor-intense process and I want to make sure they’re up to speed before we offer the full hours.
“Because I can make a lot of it, but I can’t make all of it.”
Eshelman handles the “classic Americana diner stuff, like sausage and gravy and biscuits,” she said.
“So what we did is we have some stuff that’s very traditional on the menu, like the sauerbraten, the jaeger schnitzel — it’s very traditional,” Soos said. “And then we have some of our things that we’re doing that are kind of like a German-American twist. Currywurst traditionally in Germany is just chopped brats in a currywurst sauce with a side of fries. So we offer that, but then we also offer kind of our American version. We changed it to be kind of a currywurst-bratwurst sandwich.”
The Wandering Lily’s version of chicken schnitzel is a sandwich. Its spaetzle is hand-made, with fresh batter. The menu also includes käsespaetzle — essentially a German take on mac and cheese, she said.
“It’s so different, the processes in that; what goes in it. That’s just night and day,” Eshelman said of the German cuisine. “I mean, it really is a lot different from the American-style food.”
In its first few days, the Wandering Lily was opening for breakfast only, and by the most popular item on the menu was the German farmer’s breakfast, Soos said.
“It’s ham, bacon, eggs, potatoes, German spice mixture and then it’s served over two pieces of rye toast. That’s been our most popular item so far,” Soos said. “And then I think our second most popular item has been our stuffed French toast. It kind of has a lemon vanilla cheesecake-esque filling and then it’s served with a fruit compote that we make and our homemade whipped cream.”
Almost everything is being made in-house, right down to the ranch dressing, honey siracha dipping sauce or currywurst sauce we’re making ourselves. That was our goal, was making something where everything is fresh and made every day and by hand.
‘A space for the food allergy community’
Eshelman said it’s hard to know for sure what goes into commercially produced items.
“Since she’s doing the nut-free, fish-free, addressing the allergen issues, you never know what you’re going to get,” he said. “So why not, if you’re going to come out to eat, might as well get some handcrafted stuff.”
“We are trying to make sure we provide kind of a space for the food allergy community,” Soos said.
While they were researching trends and interests, Eshelman and Soos said they heard from a lot of people who were struggling to find places where people who have peanut or tree nut allergies could go out to eat. One of her children has allergies, too. So they decided to keep the restaurant peanut-, tree nut-, shellfish- and fish-free.
“We’ve had a really positive response. … We had a family that literally called their kids off of school because they’re like, ‘We’ve never been able to take our son anywhere to eat in 13 years.’ So they’re like, this was our first time being able to enjoy a sit-down breakfast out to eat like a normal family,'” Soos said. “So we’re definitely excited that we’re offering that.”
“It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s really huge to those people,” Eshelman said.
That decision has made finding some items — such as coffee creamer — challenging. Many items carry cross-contamination warnings, they explained.
“But it was important to us all of our products we source don’t come from shared facilities,” Soos said. “That was a challenge.”
Their efforts already are paying off: They received a Facebook message from a teen who’d never been able to eat anything at a bakery because of a nut allergy.
“We’re doing all the bakery stuff from scratch, so we added a little bakery case and our hope is as we expand, we’ll add a second one and kind of have this as a little mini-bakery within the restaurant,” she said. “So we’re doing a lot there and we’re working on adding in sugar-free diabetic-friendly desserts to kind of work with that part of Crestline as well … So we’re working on creating some of those recipes, too.”
Cooks had to learn how to prepare German foods
It’s taken them several months to get the new restaurant open.
While the basic bones of the dining room haven’t changed since the building was home to Hunger Paynes and then Main Street Grill, Eshelman and Soos have done extensive work, reupholstering booths, reconfiguring the room and repainting the walls.
“We wanted this to kind of be our project and our baby together,” she said. “So instead of hiring a company to do all of the painting and fixing it up, we ended up doing it together.”
They’ve also dealt with supply chain issues along the way. For example, they waited three months for the new dessert case, and a gyro boiler they ordered in February isn’t scheduled to arrive until July.
“Plus, we wanted to make sure since we were doing the food by hand … We had to find cooks that could cook, and we did about two months of training,” Soos said.
Over the course of eight to to 10 weeks, Soos taught the new staffers German cooking techniques.
“You know, rouladen involves twine and rolling and hand-pressing … So there’s a learning curve,” she said. “We didn’t want to open before staff was ready.”
The restaurant has 52 employees, both full- and part-time, they said.
The dining room seats 156 people, “so we wanted to make sure people were getting the quality service and kind of having that diner experience for your server has time to sit. You know, have that back and forth engagement,” Soos said. “We didn’t want servers to be totally overwhelmed.”
“And not be able to keep up with the tables that they do have,” Eshelman added. “Again the little things. Refills and coming around.”
They’re hoping to draw customers from a fairly wide area, given the scarcity of both traditional German cuisine and allergen-free dining options in the region. There aren’t many places offering a sit-down breakfast anymore, Eshelman said.
The restaurant is “perfectly located” for people in both Richland and Crawford counties, he said.
“OK, so we’re four to six minutes from Ontario. About the same Shelby, about the same to Galion and about the same to Bucyrus,” he said. And even in their second day of business, they were welcoming diners who’d heard about the Wandering Lily by word of mouth.
“I think people want something new,” Eshelman said. “They want something different.”