It was more than 24 years ago when Ludger and Julie Szmania sat on the wall along McGraw Street, looking at a storefront across the street, saying it would be a great spot to open their restaurant. Now, after countless dishes served to Magnolia and beyond, they’re are moving on. But Szmania’s (3321 W. McGraw St.) will still go on, at least for another year.
The duo decided after they signed their last lease extension that they’d look for something else. When they bought Brender Canyon Farm (their family farm-turned-winery in Cashmere, Wash.) and Warm Springs Inn (their bed-and-breakfast in Wenatchee, Wash.), the future was set.
Former Szmania’s employee Michael Rogozinski and his wife, Carolyn, took over the restaurant on Tuesday, April 1. The Rogozinskis have up to one year to use the Szmania’s name. Eventually, the restaurant will become Rogo’s.
Ludger wasn’t new to the industry when Szmania’s first opened, with a 20-year career in fine dining under his belt, but he was “young enough and crazy enough,” he said.
Julie had lived in Magnolia on her own for years, and Ludger joined her when they married. They knew they wanted to open a restaurant in the same neighborhood they would raise their family, but restaurant consultants told them they were crazy. Luckily, those consultants were wrong.
“The restaurant business always has its ups-and-downs,” Ludger said. “As long as they come in equal amounts, you’re OK.”
What became of the restaurant was even more than Ludger expected. It has had its iterations: For a while, it was modern and minimalist, then had fancy tablecloths. It served breakfast and lunch and went through many renovations. Deep down, it was always a casual neighborhood restaurant with great food, Ludger said.
Szmania’s also saw many iterations of the economy, Julie said. It saw leaner times during the early 2000s and when the recession hit. They also saw dining change following Sept. 11, 2001. The year following was slow; “everyone felt kind of sorrowful,” Julie said. People eventually started coming out for dinner again, but they were more spontaneous, making reservations a lot less frequently.
In the new iteration of their own lives, Ludger and Julie will turn their attention to their farm, wine and B&B. When they were looking for another property, they searched everywhere that was up to a two-hour drive from Seattle — so they could rush back to Szmania’s quickly if anything happened.
They purchased the farm and its 100-year-old farmhouse in Cashmere in 2007, and it became a place where the family could work together.
“We considered it ‘on vacation,’ even if we could work in the field,” Julie said.
On the farm, they’re growing grapes, which they’ve used to produce their own wine. At the B&B, they’ll host weddings, event-weekends and wine tours. They already have nine weddings and three weekends booked for the summer. Ludger will still get to flex his culinary muscles, catering those events. The Szmania’s corporation name will continue on as the catering arm of those ventures.
The Szmania’s won’t sell their Magnolia home quite yet. They’re keeping it for their sons and possibly other family members. “We [still] need a home here in Magnolia,” Julie said.
Ludger and Julie have spent more than two decades dedicated to the restaurant, and with that has come sacrifice.
“Somebody said yesterday…‘Wow, you guys have sacrificed a lot,’ and I never felt that way because I always did what I loved to do,” Ludger said. “But looking back and seeing it from her point of view, we sacrificed a lot; our kids did, too.”
Those sacrifices came on nights and weekends, when they had to work at the restaurant, instead of having dinner with friends. Family vacations were limited to cities nearby, so they could get back to the restaurant quickly.
Julie wishes she could have been more involved in the local business community — something she might do now that she has more time.
His own take
New owner Michael Rogozinski has known Ludger for a long time: He apprenticed under him and worked as his lead line cook during the ‘90s. Like Ludger, it’s been Michael’s dream to own his own restaurant. So he and his wife jumped at the chance to buy Szamania’s.
It is the right formula, Michael said: an established, small neighborhood place, with personal relationships and lots of possibilities.
“It’s the kind of place we’ve always wanted to have,” Carolyn said.
Michael will cook, work in the back of house and run the operation; Carolyn plans to keep her job at T-Mobile.
The staff will stay 99.9 percent the same, Michael said. Within a year, they’ll rebrand to Rogo’s. And along the way, they’ll tweak a few things and inject some new flavors.
“We want to serve the same type and quality of food, with a fresh twist,” Carolyn said. “A Northwest contemporary cuisine that will allow Michael to flex a few of his flavor muscles but keep some of the German dishes on the menu.”
As with any business, it will be trial-and-error, she said.
“We want to respect the community that’s been so faithful and foster that friendship and loyalty,” Michael said. “We want to be part of the family as they’ve been part of the family of Szmania’s for the last 24 years.”
The Rogozinskis know they have big shoes to fill, saying Szmania’s is an institution.
“That’s the biggest fear for me, so far: being able to walk along the same steps that Ludger went on,” Michael said. “I don’t want to let him down. I’m buying his baby.”
A short goodbye
The Szmanias purposefully kept the announcement short, just weeks before the Rogozinskis were to take over. It becomes too “teary” if they have time to sit and think about it, Julie said.
“It’s going to be different,” she said. “I don’t know how that’s going to feel, waking up on April 1.”
Over the past few weeks, the community has stopped in to share a last meal with the couple.
“It’s been a wonderful ride,” Ludger said.
Ultimately, Julie is proud that they proved those restaurant consultants wrong.
“I think we’re proudest that we made it this long through thick-and-thin and lean years and great years, and the relationships we developed are lifelong,” she said. “It’s not going to end when we turn the keys over.”
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