StritchNews


Alumni Spotlight: Martha Eckstaedt, '97

Wednesday, October 30, 2013 7:55:00 PM

Wisconsin's oldest restaurant, The Red Circle Inn, sits in the heart of Waukesha County. For 165 years, seven owners have nurtured it and preserved its history. Martha, ’97, and Norm Eckstaedt, owners for the past 20 years, added their own special touches during the past two decades to maintain the restaurant's long tradition of serving the village of Nashotah and surrounding communities.

“Norm and I have worked hard to preserve the history of the restaurant,” Martha said.

And that work is evident right down to the original hard wood floors.

“We are caretakers of a historic restaurant,” Martha said. “You have to be on your game.”

Eckstaedt

A graduate of Stritch’s College of Business and Management, Martha hails from the Chicago area and comes from a strong food service background. Her father oversaw Walgreens’ food manufacturing business, serving in various roles for the drugstore chain for more than 60 years.

“I learned a lot of my business acumen from my Dad,” Martha said. “He taught me early on that you should take pride in your work.”

 Those strong business skills combined with Norm’s highly regarded reputation as one of the best general managers in the business help the couple keep The Red Circle Inn listed as one of Milwaukee’s best fine dining restaurants.

However, Martha’s start in the business was much different than the drugstore industry she knew growing up. Instead of pursuing a career in the corporate world, she began in the country-club industry.

“My uncle was in the private club business,” Martha said. “I was exploring things to do after spending a year in college and not liking it. When my uncle offered me a position, I saw it as a new challenge.”

Martha liked the fast-paced environment of the club and hospitality business.

“In those days people were doing business, making deals at lunch,” Martha said. “It was fascinating to sit back and watch these powerful people do what they did best.”

Martha went on to become a trailblazer in the male-dominated club management field. She worked her way up the ranks, eventually becoming the general manager of the Tower Club in Chicago and earning her Certified Club Manager (CCM) certification through the Club Managers Association of America, a difficult and notable certification to obtain in the field.

 “I was only the third woman to ever receive the CCM certification,” Martha said.

With her certification, she became very active with the Club Managers Association of America, serving on boards and learning from some of the best in the country.

“What was most fascinating was getting to travel and see the behind-the-scenes operations at some of the country’s largest city, country and athletic clubs,” Martha said. “It was a fascinating business. I got to see and learn about many different industries and meet a lot of powerful people.”

Through her work with the association, she met Norm.

“I was president of the Chicago chapter for the association and we would hold monthly meetings where those from Wisconsin would typically attend,” Martha said. “Norm, who also was in the business managing the Brynwood Country Club in Milwaukee, attended one of those meetings and the rest is history.”

The two married in 1993 and Martha relocated to Milwaukee. At the time, Norm and a business partner owned the Elm Grove Inn and The Red Circle Inn. At a pivotal point in her life, Martha had the opportunity to explore what she wanted to do and, in essence, establish a new identity for herself. Instead of jumping back into her career after marriage, she decided to finish what she had started years ago – her college degree.

“I went to college directly out of high school, but it just never felt right for me at that time,” Martha said.

And she never found a program that “fit” what she was looking for, until she discovered Stritch.

“I loved the accelerated program at Stritch,” said Martha, who was able to help Norm with the businesses while she finished her degree.

Martha also appreciated that Stritch offered credit for on-the-job learning.

“When I started college again, I brought with me many years of work experience that I was able to bring to the classroom and into the work I did to earn my degree,” Martha said. “At Stritch I learned why I knew the things I did in my job. Stritch made me more of a whole, well-rounded person.”

Stritch also helped introduce Martha to the business community in Milwaukee.

“Being born and raised in Chicago and then being heavily involved in the business community through my work in the club/hospitality industry, Milwaukee was very new to me,” Martha said. “Through my cohorts and instructors, I was able to learn more about some of the bigger companies and major stakeholders in the Milwaukee business community.”

Shortly after earning her degree, Norm’s business partnership ended and Martha decided to make the move to become a 50/50 shareholder of The Red Circle Inn. At that time the couple also took over the Pines, the restaurant located at the Bristlecone Pines Golf Club in nearby Hartland, Wis.

“Running two very busy restaurant operations -- one five days a week and the other seven days -- can eventually take its toll,” Martha said.

The couple sold the Pines in 2009 so they could focus all of their time and attention on The Red Circle Inn.

“Selling the Pines was the best decision at the time because it gave us the opportunity to do a lot of renovating and updates at The Red Circle,” Martha said. “We wanted to take it to the next level.”

Today, The Red Circle Inn operates with three distinct emphases: fine dining, bistro/bar, and banquet.

“We have added a new bistro menu and happy hour in the past few years and remodeled the main dining room and banquet spaces,” said Martha of their work to keep the historic restaurant current. “You need to have something new for people to talk about.”

Serving as the general manager, Norm works directly with the staff and guests and is the all-around go-to person who keeps things running.

“In the restaurant business, it is important for someone to be the ‘face’ of the business,” Martha said.  “That is Norm. He has such a following and people love him.”

Martha works behind the scenes taking care of all finances and administrative and human resources work.

“If we are both here, we would never get away,” Martha said of her role with the restaurant.

Though they have different roles, walking through the restaurant you can definitely see both of their unique touches. From planting all of the flowers and greens you see on the grounds, to creating their own sustainable vegetable garden, which they incorporate into signature dishes, the couple is very hands-on in running all aspects of the business.

“We try to take care of everyone as if they were family,” Martha said of their business philosophy. “In this business you are only as good as your last guest or meal.”

That service is clearly evident in how the couple runs their banquet and wedding business.

“You get first-class service and Norm handles everything from the first call to inquire on dates, right down to carrying presents out to the car if need be on the day of the wedding,” Martha said.

That level of service has kept guests coming back and has kept The Red Circle Inn profitable during a tumultuous time for the industry.

“Being able to stay current and competitive in the restaurant business for 20 years while maintaining the reputation of an historic restaurant is something we both are very proud of,” Martha said.

Martha says their mutual understanding of the restaurant business helps the couple makes it work -- both running a business together and a marriage.

“Because we both have been in this business, we both have an understanding of its expectations, including late hours and not always being available,” Martha said.

And they take Sundays off.

“We have always believed in taking a day off for rest and church.  Sunday is our day to reenergize, and regroup,” Martha said. “And we work well together, which helps!”

Whenever she has the opportunity, Martha encourages people to stop on in and check out The Red Circle Inn.

“Many people don’t know we have an historic gem like this right here in town, 20 minutes from downtown Milwaukee,” Martha said. “Our job is to help in telling and showing its history.”

And make sure to mention to Norm if you are a Stritch grad if you stop in – you just may have some award-winning toffee waiting for you!

Find out more about The Red Circle Inn by visiting: http://redcircleinn.com/.