We jump on a call with Libby Weber, Chief Executive Officer of The Weber Group. We talk about hospitality, wellness, restaurants and rentals, and dive into what the Weber Group is all about, touching on their philosophies, their place in the community, their variety of businesses and employees.
Amy Gabay 00:00
This podcast is brought to you by People’s Food Co Op, a community owned grocery store in downtown La Crosse, Wisconsin and Rochester, Minnesota that promotes local farmers and producers through an emphasis on fresh, healthy, sustainable food. Anyone can shop, everyone is welcome. For more information, visit them online at PFC.coop. We jump on a call with Libby Weber, Chief Executive Officer of the Weber Group. We talk about hospitality, wellness, restaurants and rentals and dive into what the Weber Group is all about including their philosophies on their place in the community, their variety of businesses and employees. You can find more conversations, food reviews, live music and events on our website acrosselocal.com. I’m Amy.
Brent Hanifl 00:48
Amy Gabay 00:49
And this is La Crosse Local.
Libby Weber 00:52
My name is Libby Weber, born in La Crosse, Wisconsin, the good old God’s country. Been around a few places, but this has always been home, it’s a good place to call home. What led me down this path? Probably a combination of signing up to clean up after my brothers and my father’s mess. You know, fell in love with the hospitality industry when I was my first job at Quillins. And then Buzzard Billy’s and then always just loved the concept of hospitality. So always found my way somehow working in a food and beverage. And at one point I thought maybe I’ll go to culinary school, not because I wanted to be a chef, but I wanted to like learn that part of the business. But then we kind of had this opportunity to open up the Waterfront, so that got derailed. And that was kind of the big first domino of what is now our Weber Group.
Brent Hanifl 01:45
So talking about the hospitality component, and just kind of digging into the Weber Group a bit more, you know, you guys cover hospitality, wellness, you have restaurants, rentals, what is your whole angle? What is the Weber Group all about?
Libby Weber 01:58
You know, we never really like set out this plan to be like, let’s become this holding company of all these different unrelated businesses. Everything has happened completely organically. And just by opportunity of buildings for sale, we don’t want to see it torn down, let’s buy it and figure out what to do with it later. Those kinds of types of situations. So, you know, we have about 20 LLCs that we manage, not all of them employ people, but we have over 400 employees. So our biggest sector is hospitality. So we have the two hotels, we have the Charmant and Home To Suites, downtown La Crosse. We have the Waterfront restaurant, and a catering business that is part of that, that is a huge component of that company. We had River Rocks Coffee, which has kind of fallen victim to COVID and probably won’t reopen. Our most recent endeavor is Schuby’s Neighborhood Butcher, which is one of my favorites. And then you know, we have a couple other in the family not managed directly by the Weber Group but supported by Weber Group. So I have a brother that has the La Crosse Distilling Company, and then another brother has Restore Public House. So it’s kind of somehow a little bit on all of our DNAs, but that’s like the biggest part of Weber Group. The second biggest part is the health care and wellness companies that originated by putting together a corporate wellness program for not our own employees, it became for our own employees. Very corporate minded, how do we service people that are desk job Monday through Friday, nine to five, get them to be more healthy, more active. But that kind of just spurred this whole concept of workplace wellness long before that was even a buzzword, long before pandemic stuff. And so that’s still an active part of what we do. And something that’s kind of on our docket to expand further, which is really cool. The other component of the wellness company, in response to COVID, we were able to help support the state of Wisconsin with a couple different efforts. One with DHS and a call center as soon as the pandemic hit. And then the second major one is our COVID testing program that we work with the UW system. So we’re at 17 campuses doing COVID testing, we’ve been doing that for the last four semesters, you know, that definitely has a hopefully a short shelf life of COVID programming. But I think it’s at least an opportunity to kind of get in the door with some future wellness and health care programs for that type of a population. So that’s the other kind of big sector. And then like you said, we do a lot of real estate development, both residential and commercial, and that’s always just as opportunities arise and we see some cool ideas. We kind of take advantage of that. So collect them all together, and you have the Weber Group. We have support centralized services, HR, accounting, which up until a couple years ago that was never really a concerted effort to kind of bridge all those services together. But, you know, we like to find cool things that we like to do in an amazing town of La Crosse. And whether it’s hospitality, whether it’s wellness and health care, what can we do with the resources that we have that can make this a happier, healthier place to live and work? And that’s kind of the premise on how we just kind of exist, I guess.
Brent Hanifl 05:29
It’s interesting to know how many different sort of facets and things that you guys are into. But one thing I noticed, you know, about seven years ago, coming back from living elsewhere in New Mexico, and Oregon was the food scene just seemed to get elevated with some of the different places that you started opening. I think it started with the Waterfront. Correct? Was that one of the first endeavors?
Libby Weber 05:48
Oh, yeah, we’ve been open 15 years, which sounds like that’s just aged us. You know, and that was kind of our first attempt of, it’s evolved a lot over 15 years, which is kind of cool. But we were kind of one of the first food and beverage restaurants that were not the traditional Wisconsin supper club, nice place to eat, where it was kind of pick your protein, pick your starch, soup or salad. There’s an element of that, because we definitely don’t want to try a whole lot of new things and be unapproachable. So there’s a huge concerted effort number one in our training and how our staff represent what we’re doing really well, because we’ve brought in some cool concepts and just different ingredients and food sourcing some things that were unfamiliar to the area. But you can’t just put things that you can’t pronounce on a menu and expect people to be interested in ordering that. So there’s a science kind of behind how you design that, how you present that, you know, Waterfront was the first and there’s still that kind of element of supper club, you know, roots to it. But that’s kind of a more classic American steak, seafood house. And now that we have multiple food and beverage outlets, it’s collectively how do they look together, we don’t want to duplicate anything, we want to complement everything that we do. And if we can pull resources in the meantime, like an extra wind. So Charmant, for example, is more of a rustic kind of a French inspired because that’s kind of the theme of the property. But a very different approach to the menu, design and build and you know, the teams work really well together, which is super cool. We’ll swap chefs over if needed and, or even just for cross training, because people want to learn something cool. Or we have a sous chef that wants to learn a lot more about butchering and so they’ll go hang out at Schuby’s for a little bit. And that concept was a lot of the roots from decades ago. You know, my parents remember going to the local butcher shop and there’s sawdust on the floor and the butcher knows your name and usually remembers your order week to week. My great grandma was a Schubert. There were two Schubert Meat Markets in La Crosse at one point, they were cousins, I believe one was directly related to my great grandma. And so you know, her father raised cattle over in the Caledonia area, brought it over, had the butcher shop here. So Schuby’s has kind of been an honor to the Schubert Meat Market heritage from La Crosse. And so we kind of combined concepts of bringing back that like local butcher shop concept, but also doing some cool sandwiches, sourcing really cool wines, the coolers, beers that you know, can’t really find other places. So make it a little bit more niche. But again, as approachable as we can.
Brent Hanifl 08:40
You know, I worked at one of the last I guess privately owned butcher shops, Bridles about 15 years ago, I remember that. But I remember your family coming in and grabbing the certain pieces. And there was always a story about back in the day, family owned Meat Market and stuff like that. We actually did have some sawdust on the floor on occasion.
Libby Weber 08:58
Brent Hanifl 08:58
Too much blood spilled, you know.
Libby Weber 09:00
Brent Hanifl 09:02
Yeah. It’s interesting to hear how you know, doing these, like you said, sort of like taking these traditional concepts and just kind of twisting them in some ways.
Libby Weber 09:10
Yeah, I mean, La Crosse has so much history, which is fascinating. I don’t think you know, growing up here, you never really understood it. And you certainly didn’t appreciate it until, like you I left a few times and came back. And I’m so happy that this is always a place to call home, even if you you know venture off again, there’s no place else like it’s a cool area for a reason. And it’s not only beautiful, but it just the products that are produced here, you know, agriculturally, arts, I mean, education, it’s just, it’s so great. And so why not take advantage of not only the story that La Crosse has to tell, but all the tools, the resources, the people that are here. I mean there’s a solution to everything, is always kind of my mantra. And, you know, sometimes you just have to put the people in the right places and let them do their magic.
Brent Hanifl 10:07
So kind of talking about the people component. You know, one thing that I’ve always, you know, either heard or talked about was like the hiring practices, pay insurance for employees, you know, the ground up, where does that practice come from? It’s just something that kind of, I guess, just something that was known if people worked with your different businesses?
Libby Weber 10:27
Yeah, I mean, a lot of it when my dad had LHI, and his whole value system was built in the people. And going through businesses like the hospitality you depend on a huge team of people to execute any of your roles, even just to get through a single shift, the value that every single employee has no matter what their role is, is equally important. And so why not prioritize your staff number one. And I don’t believe that the customer is always right. I love Danny Meyer, its a restaurant tour based out of New York, who has this great book that the whole concept was you prioritize your employees first. Happy employees make happy customers, happy customers eventually leads to happy owners. That is the absolute truth. So investing in, in our staff, and really their families included has always been the number one priority. And a lot of times that starts with benefits, health insurance, you spend so much of your life at work. And so you want people to like it, number one, and number two, if we can help influence anyone’s lifestyle in a positive and healthy way, why not do that? And especially going through the COVID whole situation. You know, that’s never been more true. Because you end up being a source of information, you end up being an educator in some regard, there is a purpose for everyone being here. And so I want to get the most out of everyone. Let’s make them like I said, the healthiest and happiest that they can be. And so our corporate wellness program expanded at one point to include fitness facilities, which we have one here and elsewhere that is offered to all staff and their families at no cost. We developed a primary care clinic that we are actually rebuilding a new one and expanded one in downtown La Crosse. So that is offered to employees and their dependents at no cost. We have a lot of alternative therapies, massage, chiropractor, acupuncture, physical therapy. And then most importantly, we do a lot of health education. And so that runs the gamut of nutrition and dietitian services. Mental health is a big one, we’re in process of kind of rebuilding a lot of those wellness programs to be much more robust, much more fitting as the workplace is completely shifted over the last few years. But also how do we better serve populations like the service industry, who aren’t a corporate, easy to reach, get emails all the time population. So it’s financial coaching, it’s substance abuse support, it’s group counseling, it’s all of that stuff. And number one, it’s the right thing to do. And number two, you invest. And sure it’s an investment to start. But what you see in the long term results is I mean, we have the data, it’s amazing. Longevity of employment, turnover is drastically reduced, sick days are drastically reduced, and you get more productivity and happier people. And when you’re in a situation like everyone is now, trying to fight so hard for good talents. You want to be an employer of choice, and we’ve always wanted to be that. But yeah, that’s always been a huge part of our value system. Because its proven, you know?
Brent Hanifl 14:00
You know, speaking of staff and you kind of reference COVID, were you happy with you know, offering kind of those pieces because you’re kind of already set with the the kind of talent attraction sort of components? Or was COVID just threw you for a complete loop? How did you guys process that or you yourself?
Libby Weber 14:16
I mean, being in hospitality and healthcare at the same time as probably two of the more challenging industries to be a part of during COVID, it definitely threw me for a loop. I think we’re still somewhat living in an upside down world to a degree. But it was how do I, as a Weber Group coordinator, implement new policies, guidelines practices that is equally relevant to align staff at Charmant or Waterfront as it is to our nursing staff at Weber Health Logistics or the maintenance crew or the accounting team. Everyone has such a different type of job that sometimes not all practices and policies are easily applicable. But when we’re all one company, you kind of have to have everything, even field. So that was kind of tricky to kind of just figure out how that works. But we were definitely looked as a source of guidance and information because no one knew, I mean, people still are trying to figure it out. And there are plenty of health care providers, especially in our area that have a lot of great knowledge. But sometimes that type of healthcare jargon doesn’t translate very easily to the workplace. And especially for smaller companies. We’re big enough where we now have an HR department, but think of all of the companies, the small companies in our area that don’t, your boss, your employer becomes kind of that go to person, like, what do I do? What do I do if my kid can’t go to daycare? What do I do if you know my wife confirmed positive and I have to quarantine or isolate? What’s the difference between the two. So I think there was a lot of additional pressure that was kind of put on a lot of business owners just to kind of help navigate the messaging and that education components. So when the shutdown initially happened, for me, it was like, it’s not cool that this is happening. But I love that there’s a huge problem to figure out. And we’ve got to just, I mean, it was almost like invigorating to kind of be like, let’s problem solve all this stuff. And maybe I’m just wired that way. But yeah, it’s been taxing on everyone, especially, you know, I’m about to open on a Saturday night or busy a shift at Charmant. And four of my bartenders just called in because they tested positive, what am I going to do with my staff? So there’s a lot of, you know, kind of reeling from that burnout. But I think at the end of the day, if you haven’t found the opportunity to find a lot more creativity, a lot more opportunity or anything positive out of that you’ve totally wasted two years of borderline torture, whether that’s personally, professionally, in a relationship, socially, however, you know, there’s something that can be learned from this whole circus of, of events. So I feel like we’ve come out of it a lot more efficient, a lot more creative, we found new opportunities to kind of redesign some of our programming that maybe never would have happened if this wasn’t the case.
Brent Hanifl 17:28
So that just seems to be a common theme, you know, talking to about 250, 99.9% of them all locals, you know, a lot of these people took this time to kind of reassess kind of reevaluate what was important to their lives. You know, some found it to be a very creative experience, some kind of just freaked out for about 90 days, and then got back to it. But it seems to be that there has been a transition that’s kind of accelerated to us. And in some ways, is there something like, you know, using that knowledge that we had the past two years, is there something coming down the road that you’re excited about, or the Weber Group that’s coming along?
Libby Weber 18:02
Yeah. So what I’m going to transition to a lot upcoming now is kind of redeveloping our wellness program. But really kind of diving into seeing the workplace environment has shifted, certainly, for a lot of people. Access to your employees is different now than it was two years ago. But even the expectation from employees on what they should be getting out of their workplace and their employers is no different. I think the standard is higher for a business owner or an employer to kind of be a lot more proactive with some of these new initiatives, at least be cognizant of the fact that toxic work environments aren’t going to fly anymore. And so I’m excited to really dive into a lot more of a robust wellness programming and start focusing initially with the service industry, and how do we reach those populations that have a different type of need than your typical corporate population? Depending on how successful that can be? How else can we bring this to the community and either educate and onboard other local businesses to offer some of these programs just to you know, the La Crosse market in general. And so we’re kind of diving into some of those different program ideas on how that can look, it’s holistic, it’s not just health insurance and medical, t’s spiritual. It’s definitely mental, diving into the whole mental and behavioral health and especially focusing on children, pediatrics, and so any of our staff with kids at home. That’s been such an added stress that it’s part of our responsibility to help at least support them in some way. So that’s kind of fresh on the docket.
Brent Hanifl 19:51
Cool. Yeah. A lot going on, man.
Libby Weber 19:53
It’s fun, man.
Brent Hanifl 19:54
So if people want to find out more, what’s the best avenue for them to go to? Should they go to the individual businesses or?
Libby Weber 20:00
Yeah, I mean, we kind of have a blanket, really short, tiny single splash page of a Weber Group website. If people are looking for career opportunities, we have a webergroupcareers.com website where we’re always posting amongst all of our properties. But yeah, I mean, I kind of like to lay it under the radar the best I can and not over publicize our stuff. So definitely any of our singular businesses. They have lots of information online, so they got good websites.
Amy Gabay 20:38
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About La Crosse Local
La Crosse Local is an arts, food, and entertainment podcast and publication for La Crosse County and its surrounding communities.
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