HAWTHORNE, NJ - For a quarter of a century, Virginia "Ginger" Phiefer, of Wyckoff, and her family have owned and operated Kirker's Inn, an iconic restaurant on Diamond Bridge Avenue which offers a mix of casual German fare as well as its own famous thin-crust pizza. During a lull in the lunch hours, TAPinto Hawthorne sat down with Ginger to get some of her thoughts as Kirker's changes hands, while she tended to the bar for patrons having lunch in the front dining room.
Prior to owning Kirker's, the Phiefers owned "The King's Ransom" in Waldwick for 25 years as well, putting a total of fifty years into the business. "I absolutely love this business, I love cooking, I love everything about it," Phiefer said. "My husband passed away two years ago, so without him here it's a little different. Plus, I have grandchildren now, and I love them. So it's time while I can to get involved in their activities."
When asked what her plans were going forward, she smiled. "I've been working many, many years, so I'll figure it out as I go. Wing it!"
German restaurants are relatively few and far between in north-east Jersey, making Kirker's particularly unique in an area saturated in Italian restaurants and pizzerias. The German element is the product of the Phiefers themselves, who took over from the first owner. "Mr. Kirker used to mostly do early bird business and some bar business. We evolved it into a different kind of restaurant and then when the kids grew, I could come in and do the cooking. We brought our German food in from our other restaurant, The King's Ransom."
While the new owners will be taking over the restaurant, Phiefer said that customers can expect a continuation of what they have come to know and enjoy over the years. "All the German cooking, that will all remain. The new owners will be continuing the thin crust pizza that Mr. Kirker was known for, too. They'll have other items they'll add in. They're adding some steaks and some other different items. The new owners are family people, and the Kirker's name will remain the same. It'll run pretty much how it's been for years."
Kirker's has been a Hawthorne institution for decades, known for its welcoming and relaxed atmosphere ideal for family and friends. "We get in grandparents when they're in town for the holidays with their grandchildren. Same thing with mom and dad, they'll come in here. The restaurant is comfortable, the bar's comfortable. You could come in by yourself if you want, you'd never feel out of place. A young lady could come here and be fine, we're not a shot place, we're really a restaurant with a bar. There's a big difference." The Phiefers' time did change the direction of Kirker's, orienting the establishment to the family restaurant it is today. "Years ago when Mr. Kirker had it--he was here for sixty years--he had a very busy lunch crowd, then he went into early bird dinners, and then closed for the night. He did some pizza business, so when we got the restaurant, that's where the restaurant was at."
Phiefer recounted some of the moments during her ownership of Kirker's that stood out. "Many years ago, at Christmas we used to have a fun thing. We'd put a Christmas tree up and we'd pick a customer and they would light the tree. Henry Van Ry used to come in dressed as Santa and they'd sing Christmas carols and light the tree. It was mobbed in here, people came in from all over. They all brought their own ornaments, we had a lot of fun here."
Just over a year ago, Governor Murphy visited the establishment. Over the years, a number of notable personalities have settled into the booths or barstools of Kirker's, and others who used to work there. "One of the guys on the Mike and Mike sports radio show," Phiefer said, "his first bussing job was here at Kirker's. Joe Bender is the grandfather of Tyler Higbee of the L.A. Rams that went to the Superbowl this year." On the walls are pictures of baseball personalities who frequented Kirker's and one septegenarian customer is said to have made a record for holes-in-one in golf.
The new owners will be only the third in the eighty-plus years of the establishment's existence, themselves, like the Phiefers, veterans of the business. "We ran Kirker's much like our other restaurant was. We treat everyone as family. And the same kind of feeling, casual, relaxed. You want to change up the dishes? We'll make whatever you want."
And the staff? "All my employees are re-employed," Phiefer was happy to say. "So customers who have gotten to know the waiters, waitresses, bartenders, and the guys in the kitchen will stay. I'm the only one missing. That'll keep the flow and change-over smoother."
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