The Evolution of Black Forest Inn and the Oktoberfest Celebration that Doesn’t Take Itself Too Seriously

Like many of the restaurants on Eat Street in Minneapolis and in the City South area, the Black Forest Inn began with a couple of immigrants. Erich Christ was born in Germany and trained as both a cook and butcher before he followed his siblings to the United States in the early 1960s. “He was very young and enthusiastic and energetic,” his wife and business partner Joanne Christ says. “And he saw a future for himself in the United States. He describes the minute he stepped off the boat in New York as ‘It felt like home’ to him.”

He put his skills to use in kitchens in Boston and Milwaukee. Then, as a green-card holder, he was drafted into the Army. While he was in the Army, he got his American citizenship; his brother, Gerhard,  traveled to Minneapolis and found a 3.2 bar (licensed to sell only 3.2 percent alcohol-by-volume beer) on the corner of Nicollet Avenue and 26th Street.

Fresh out of the Army in 1965, Erich and his brother each put down $1,000 and they were in business. Fast-forward through a few renovations (like building a true kitchen instead of working out of a closet), Joanne entered the picture in 1967. “I was a German student at the University of Minnesota and came [to Black Forest Inn] to work, and ended up marrying Erich,” she says.

It was during this time that Black Forest Inn started gaining a following. “Restaurant business at that time was different,” Joanne says. “For the most part, the average Joe either went all fancy or a drugstore-counter kind of thing. There was no in-between.” But being European, Erich saw things differently. From the start he wanted a restaurant “that he could afford, that the people who worked there could afford … but it was good food. And it was handmade. And that was a phenomenon at the time.”

In 1970, the same year Joanne and Erich bought out his brother, Black Forest Inn got a write-up in one of the Minneapolis newspapers “singing its praises,” Joanne says.

“People came in droves. It was insane for a little while,” she says. “[People] would make the trip specifically to come here, and this was pre-Eat Street.” Good thing Joanne and Erich had help in the form of their four kids: Erica, Gina, Annelise and Thomas. “Each of them is involved in one way or another,” Joanne says.

Their eldest daughter, Erica, has seen the change in diner mentality around German fare. It has gone from “just like Grandma’s,” to “too old-fashioned and heavy,” she says. But it has shifted yet again. “Now it’s interesting—it’s ethnic food. … They’re like, ‘Veal kidneys? What are those? I want to have those!’ ”

With that shift has come a new awareness of the German celebration Oktoberfest. “About 10, maybe 15 years ago, Oktoberfest started ascending,” Erica says. Fielding calls to cater office parties with pretzels and sausages, the Christ family considered a different take on the Oktoberfest celebration.

“We’ve never been much of an oom-pah-pah place,” Joanne says, a perception which kept them away from what Americans think of as Oktoberfest for many years, “until the creative minds came up with the quirkiest possible Oktoberfest. And that’s what we try to do; make fun of ourselves, and the Germans, in a way that isn’t totally tasteless.”

They worked out 10 events in 10 days, Erica says. It all starts with Toast Night, where they tap the ceremonial keg. “We have a celebrity keg tapper, and every year so far it has been Sven Sundgaard from KARE 11.” The 10 days end with Drain the Keg night, where the prices drop and beer is served until it’s gone—or they close.

In between, you’ll find events like David Hasselhoff Night, Angela Merkel Night, the Wurst night (with sausages, of course), Grimm night (where attendees dress as fairy tale characters), a tuba promotion (bring your tuba, get a free beer), Freudian Slip night (Freud quotes on slips of paper), polka night with dance lessons and, since the history of Oktoberfest started with a royal wedding, the famous wedding night, where a lucky couple volunteers to get married at Black Forest Inn (no, really).

So if you’re in the mood for some wiener schnitzel and a hefeweizen, head on over—and don’t forget your tuba.  

Community Collaborator Tammy Wong

Tammy Wong has been busy making egg rolls. But not just for her business, Rainbow Restaurant. Wong has been celebrating Rainbow’s 30th year by looking beyond the restaurant and making egg rolls for the Linden Hills farmers market, chips and sauces for other small restaurants, and giving classes on cooking.

“I have a friend who tells me, ‘You’re like a hummingbird, just all over the place,’ ” she says. But after 30 years, “I’m thankful that it supports what I love to do and I still like it!”

In 1979, Wong and her family came to the U.S. from Vietnam as refugees. They moved to Minnesota in ’83, and her dad decided he wanted a restaurant, so she filed the paperwork and became the owner from day one. “So it was not my desire to start a restaurant,” she says, but it’s clear that food, and supporting local growers, became her passion.

“When you go to the farmers market you don’t really see many chefs actually going there and picking their own vegetables,” she says. They get them shipped to their door. “I’d rather do it myself. I hand-pick my vegetables like I would pick my clothes. It all depends on the material, how comfortable it feels.”

Through her commitment to community and quality food, she’s joined collaborations that spread the word of Rainbow outside of the Eat Street area. “I was cooking for Tollefson [Family] Pork food truck,” she says, and created a dairy-free Asian slaw for the pork sandwiches that gained a cult following. And the new Rise Bagel is using Wong’s sweet-and-sour sauce and wonton chips for an open-face bagel sandwich.

While she’s keeping busy with collaborations, the fact that Rainbow is still thriving after all these years keeps her going, she says. “It’s a really nice compliment to see people who keep coming back after 30 years.”