20 years of Otto’s: Covington couple reflects on growing a family, community, culture

Kenton Hornbeck
Kenton Hornbeck
Kenton is a reporter for LINK nky. Email him at [email protected]

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Emily Wolff and Paul Weckman have built their businesses around the values of family, community and culture. They’ve committed to these values since they co-founded Otto’s together in 2003.

Since then, their restaurant business has expanded to include five brick-and-mortar locations, each offering different cuisines. Earlier in March, Italian eatery Mama’s on Main, their latest restaurant, celebrated its one-year anniversary. In Covington’s MainStrasse Village, the couple grew together as young adults and business owners.

On March 23, the restaurant that started it all, Otto’s, turned 20. In an interview with LINK nky, the couple reflected on their multifaceted journey together.

“We’ve been here since we graduated college and we had kids the same week we opened. We’ve been living this crazy lifestyle for 20 years, which seems really weird to say,” Wolff said.

Prior to Otto’s, Wolff and Weckman were a young couple looking to find their way in life. Both were students at the University of Kentucky; Emily concentrated on art, while Paul studied economics. They met in front of their dormitory freshman year. 

Weckman was more interested in preparing food than studying economics. In college, he worked part-time in kitchens around Lexington, enthralled by the appeal of the culinary world. He even considered pursuing culinary school after graduation. For date nights, Wolff often visited his apartment only to be greeted by elaborately prepared meals.

During their senior year, Wolff discovered she was pregnant. At the time, Weckman was interning at Morgan Stanley. They had offered him a job with a potential move to Florida on the table. Not wanting to be far away from his future family, he had a choice to make: Pursue a financial career or start a family.

Wolff’s father, Otto, was a longtime attorney in Covington. He grew up in the city and was aware of the local commercial real estate market. Interested in helping his daughter, he scoped out a property for sale at 521 Main St. in MainStrasse. Otto suggested they buy the property and open a restaurant.

“If we’re going to take a risk that’s crazy, we should do it now,” Wolff recalled telling Weckman. “Because once we have our kid, we will probably be too busy.”

The week of their college graduation, Wolff had a scheduled ultrasound. The couple already signed the purchase agreement for the building. Lo and behold, another unexpected twist was about to reveal itself. The doctors informed the soon-to-be-parents they were having twins. 

“All of our money metrics that we had figured out for this space went out the window,” Wolff said. “Paul looked at me and said, ‘We have to sell fifty sandwiches a day to pay the mortgage… Actually, we’re gonna have to sell 100.’”

Despite never having run a restaurant before, coupled with the exhilaration of becoming parents to twins, Weckman described themselves at the time as “excited” and “ready for the challenge.”

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“We were young. We were just getting out on our feet as adults, getting ready to write our own story,” Weckman said. “We were very excited – nervous but excited.”

Wolff and Weckman decided to dedicate the name of their new restaurant to Emily’s father Otto, the man who first encouraged them to take a chance on themselves. Otto, himself, had roots in the hospitality industry, having bartended in Vermont for several years.

“I have to personally give him so much credit for looking at a young 22-year-old and saying, ‘Hey, don’t go take the safe bet.’ He knew that I was passionate about cooking and that’s really what I wanted him to do,” Weckman said. “I just thought it was absolutely the right thing to call it Otto’s.”

The name also fit the surrounding neighborhood. Otto is a German name, while Mainstrasse is based on a German village. The pieces fit together like a puzzle.

Otto’s served not only as the couple’s first business venture but also their first family home. Wolff and Weckman were raising their kids on the floor above their restaurant which made for an unusual, albeit memorable, experience. 

When they first bought the building, the first floor was still filled with old vestiges from Doug’s Deli. Wolff said the space resembled a bodega and featured a random tiki hut-type structure inside. Weckman mentioned there were tin can lids covering holes in the floor.

As an artist, Wolff took on the responsibility of rejuvenating the space. While in college, Wolff said she would find undervalued furniture or paintings and refurbish them. Her thriftiness came in handy for a young couple running a restaurant startup on a lean interior decorating budget.

“We got our chairs for $5 a piece at a salvage sale and that’s what we used when we opened,” Wolff said. “We still have a couple of those original chairs. We took the creative approach of ‘we have no money, how are we going to make it work?’”

While Wolff was in charge of the interior decorating and design, Weckman was hard at work crafting the menu. Otto’s describes itself as a New American neighborhood bistro on its website with a menu that offers an array of entrees like pistachio-crusted halibut, cajun cream pasta, shrimp & grits, and braised short rib. Lunch is served Tuesday through Friday with brunch on Saturday and Sunday.

“To create a physical space and then to be able to create a menu, that came naturally to us. It was just sort of something that we can do with ease,” Wolff said. “We’re very lucky that it worked. There’s a lot of luck involved.”

One of the most critical aspects of running a successful business is finding fantastic employees. From the beginning, Wolff and Weckman set out to hire people who were committed to their vision. Molly Costello, one of the Otto’s first employees, is an example. Alongside Wolff and Weckman, Costello grew into adulthood alongside Otto’s.

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Originally from central Kentucky, Costello spent time in Chicago and Indiana before she ended up in Covington. Ironically, Costello actually started her career at Chez Nora’s, a restaurant right across the street from Otto’s. She told LINK nky Otto’s was the first restaurant she ever ate at in the city. When she finally decided to settle down in the city, she applied to Otto’s as a server.

Costello would pick up shifts to familiarize herself with their kitchen. Over time, she learned all eight stations. Weckman noticed her dedication and offered to train her to be Otto’s next chef. He was looking to transition away from being the chef to focus more on his fatherly duties and running the business. She took Weckman up on his offer. For the next eight years, Costello was Otto’s head chef.

Eventually, Costello decided to start her own family. She also recognized it may be time for some new blood in the kitchen, so Weckman offered her a job in the office. According to Costello, her role has changed numerous times as the restaurant group expanded. She’s their jack-of-all-trades.

“We have a ton of employees that have been with us for a very long time because they treat us like family,” said Costello. “What better way to promote than from within. You can build a great team that way.”

For Wolff and Weckman, hiring from within is a practice they’ve deployed from the beginning. They search for people who can grow alongside themselves – who want to be a contributing part to their business family.

“The growth was driven by these people that showed up, and us realizing each person brings something different to the table,” Weckman said. “Let’s build a company to work for the people rather than having them bounce all around. It wasn’t an option to not grow and keep these people.”

Steve Taylor, the restaurant group’s director of operations, is another example of this. He’s worked for Wolff and Weckman for five years. Like Costello, he began as a part-time server and worked his way up the ranks. Taylor moved into a lead role during the pandemic.

COVID-19 exposed the restaurant industry to enforced social distancing and lockdowns, forcing proprietors to adjust. As the operations director, he and his team were tasked with figuring out day-to-day operations while simultaneously dealing with pandemic restrictions imposed by the city of Covington and the state of Kentucky.

“The struggle of the pandemic was trying to figure out how to continue revenue with half the tables in the restaurant, having only carry-out for a while, and then having outside dining,” said Taylor.

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Taylor described the situation as “challenging” but noted there was a silver lining as the team was able to band together. The entire Otto’s staff helped propel them through the pandemic. From Wolff and Weckman’s perspective, everyone adopted the mentality of “we’re all in this together.” 

“From the newest person to the oldest person, from the person that’s here in the morning to the last person to leave, we couldn’t do any of this without all of them,” said Weckman.

Wolff and Weckman’s businesses have impacted not only their staff but also their surrounding neighborhood. MainStrasse’s historic architecture attracted the couple to the neighborhood. There was an urban core revitalization movement happening within Covington for several decades. Their youthful energy was a catalyst for that movement.

“MainStrasse was designed to be business, commercial and residential,” Wolff said. “You’re seeing that revitalization. We’re just being honest and truthful to the past. I do think there was definitely momentum for change.”

Walking down Main Street today, the couple’s influence on the rest of the neighborhood is visibly clear. Besides Otto’s and Mama’s, the couple owns three other establishments in MainStrasse: Larry’s, Frida 602 and The Standard.

Each of their brands and buildings try to link elements of the community’s past with the present. In many ways, their restaurants serve as physical timestamps for the continuously changing neighborhood.

For instance, The Standard is a bar and restaurant located inside of an old service station. The establishment’s theme pays homage to its past life as a local garage. Décor like mechanic’s tools, mural of garage’s former owner with his wife, and classic Standard Oil iconography add to the overall atmosphere. Wolff and Weckman want patrons to be acutely aware of the building’s history.

“Frida’s, The Standard, Larry’s: they all have different feelings but it’s all very genuine. I think we’re very intentional about looking at buildings because there are historic buildings, and they are brand identifiers for our community,” said Wolff. “‘How do you feel when you walk in? What is the story of this building?’ I think in each spot, you can relate to an element of the past and I think people crave that. It has soul.”

In the beginning, Wolff and Weckman set out to build a business and their family. They accomplished both goals, boasting multiple successful restaurants while raising five kids. Reflecting on 20 years, it’s fair to say that they also cultivated a committed culture and enhanced a community.

“These people are so dedicated to this cause because what we’ve built is bigger than food,” Weckman said. “It’s about hospitality. It’s about loving your community. It’s about making the area that you live in better. Food is just one of the ways we do it.”

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