Gary Seiler celebrates his 30th year as the owner of the Maple Tree Supper Club in McFarland this spring. At age 60, he’s spent half of his life keeping the venerable restaurant thriving.
He has lived in McFarland since 1978 with his wife, Mary, a vice president at WPS. Their daughters, Erin Coogan and Amber Luebke, live in neighboring communities. Seiler sits back at one of the Maple Tree’s many tables, where a company’s group of 100 retirees just finished a special luncheon. He’s a happy owner, but he’s also a relentless worker, who anchors the legendary dining spot along Highway 51.
Q: Go back to 1985 and describe when you wanted to buy a restaurant.
Seiler: “I had been looking for a year or two. I was a manager at McDonald’s (in Madison) for almost 10 years. I wanted to get out on my own.”
Q: And you spotted this place?
Seiler: “This has been a restaurant since the mid-’50s. There have been three other owners before me. It was called Rosi’s, then it was Herbie’s, then it was Conrads’. There was a year (1984) when a group of people bought it from the Conrads. Then that new partnership broke up. That’s when myself and (former co-owner) Ron Calloway came in as working partners.”
Q: It was called the Maple Tree when you bought it, right?
Seiler: “Yes. We didn’t want to close down and reopen when we took over. We didn’t want to change the name. It was doing fairly well.”
Q: How has the restaurant changed over the years?
Seiler: “The clientele has pretty much stayed the same. We have a little bit older clientele, but that is changing some. When I say older, one customer celebrated a 95th birthday then, on that same day, we had a baby celebrating a first birthday. We’re starting to see a younger crowd: late 20s to 40s – people who have moved into (McFarland) and are buying houses or condos.”
Q: Why is Maple Tree’s original old-school style popular?
Seiler: “Everybody feels comfortable. People know what to expect when they come in. A lot of first-time customers come in and say, ‘We drive by all the time and always see the parking lot full.’ We still have the older décor. It’s a supper club look and that lends itself to the older clientele.”
Q: What about menu changes?
Seiler: “(Chefs are) always suggesting new ideas. But I say, ‘We’re a supper club.’ We’re going to keep the soup and salad bar going, keep the cheese spread out there that you always see. We make our own soups. And there’s the prime rib four nights a week.”
Q: You do one night of buffet.
Seiler: “That’s Wednesday nights. We’ve been doing that for 25 years. The same Wednesday night buffet. We’ve changed a few items around, but you don’t want to get known only as a buffet place. … We have pickled herring out there. That’s from the mainstays of the supper club era.”
Q: Your family has helped out?
Seiler: “They’re the first to come in when I’m short staffed. … My daughter, Amber, met her husband here. They were working together here.”
Q: Did you work at McDonald’s while going to Lodi High School?
Seiler: “I did. Then I got promoted to assistant manager. McDonald’s treated me very well. At the time, people looked me, ‘You work at McDonald’s?’ Well, I was doing all right for a salary. That’s how I was able to buy into this. I had my profit sharing from all those years. I still had to put the house up and everything else.”
Q: Sounds scary to buy the Maple Tree 30 years ago?
Seiler: “I had everything I had on the line.”
Q: How long did it take before you could take a deep breath and realize you made it?
Seiler: “There were periods in that first 10 years that were tough. Road construction hurt. We were practically cut off from Stoughton. The convenience level was low. It was very, very tough. Then things started turning.”
Q: Is it competitive between McFarland restaurants?
Seiler: (Green Lantern co-owner) Al Wheeler just retired and I consider him as a good friend. I know Tim Blum from the Park Side. I don’t know the people from the 5100 (Bar & Grill) that well. But everyone has their niche. We don’t try to battle one another. It’s friendly competition. When we first moved to town, my wife worked for Al as a waitress.”
Q: This is a non-stop job. How tough is it to own a restaurant?
Seiler: “It’s a challenge. You’ve got to love what you’re doing. Otherwise, this will eat you up. You won’t sleep nights. You won’t take care of yourself.”
Q: Are you able to step away from the restaurant for a day?
Seiler: “I will take vacations and some weekends. But I’m here every day unless I’m out of town. During the summers on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I’ll be here for a couple of hours helping to clean up and do some book work then I go golfing.”
Q: You open at 4 p.m., except on Sundays, but you must be here early, right?
Seiler: “I’m here at 8 a.m. to do clean up and book work and scheduling and answering emails. It’s not a job where I arrive at 3 p.m. People say, ‘What do you mean you’re there at 8 a.m.?’ Well, there’s a lot to get done.”
Q: What do you like the most about the restaurant?
Seiler: “I like being upfront. The comment I like the most is when I ask the customer how it was and they say, ‘It’s always good.’”