Maple Tree owner: 'We are the phoenix'

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Maple Tree owner: 'We are the phoenix'

February 23, 2020 - 22:10


Erich Wennberg gives his wife, Katie, a kiss after the ribbon cutting ceremony on Wednesday, Feb. 12, marking the opening of their restaurant, Maple Tree Inn, in Homewood. (Eric Crump/H-F Chronicle)

Maple Tree Inn opened its new location at 18849 Dixie Highway in Homewood to the public on Feb. 7 and had a successful opening weekend, serving more than 800 diners, according to co-owner Katie Wennberg. But the ribbon cutting ceremony on Feb. 12 still proved to be an emotional occasion, putting an official seal on the restaurant's rebirth following a devastating fire at its Blue Island home in August 2018.

"The day of the fire I talked about rebuilding. In the months that followed we talked about rebirth," Wennberg said. "Our core staff has stayed with us the entire time. In the midst of all this we were compared to a phoenix rising from the ashes. To all of our staff members and my husband, we are the phoenix. The heart is still here." 

Wennberg, whose father, Charlie Orr, started Maple Tree Inn in 1975, said the key to the restaurant's success and its resilience in the face of adversity was the culture of the business, which is marked by a passion for service to customers and a dedicated, loyal staff.

Not to mention a Cajun and Creole menu that has a high reputation in the region and the nation. Maple Tree Inn has received a number of honors, including a listing in 2018 as one of the top 50 southern restaurants in the country by OpenTable.

Among the core staff are mainstays Emily Bohn, bar manager; Mark Smith, head chef; and Morgan Gansauer, manager. Gansauer is the newest member of the team, and he has been with Maple Tree for five years, Wennberg said.

Although Wennberg, with her husband and business partner Erich, noted that the people, not the building, are the heart of the Maple Tree experience, the couple did do extensive renovations to the former Cottage on Dixie restaurant to make it feel more like the Maple Tree, and they aren't done yet.

Katie was in charge of interior design in the dining room, which evokes New Orleans, famed for its Creole cuisine.

Some features from the Cottage remain, including the familiar wood beams overhead and the tables, which Erich said were hand crafted by Cottage co-owner Dudley Elvery. The rest of the dining room's features were designed by Katie into the Maple Tree's New Orleans feel. 

Erich was primarily responsible for kitchen renovations, but he noted that hand crafted copper light fixtures in the dining room came from a New Orleans coppersmith. 

The couple has plans for more changes that will help complete the atmosphere, including a tangible feature from the historic Blue Island building. The bar back and bar top that were salvaged after the fire and which date from the late 1890s will be installed along with and new wood treatments and flooring in the dining room.

Erich said those changes would probably be done in early summer after the rush of Mardi Gras and other spring dining traditions are past. 

The ribbon cutting event was an opportunity for the Wennbergs to reflect on how their business landed in Homewood. The loss of the building in Blue Island was one reason, but the couple initially planned to rebuild there.

After finding a smaller temporary home in Blue Island, where they operated the Maple Tree Inn Bistro for about a year, they found out about the opportunity to buy The Cottage.

The idea of running a restaurant in Homewood had been around for more than a decade. Erich said Homewood Mayor Richard Hofeld approached them about opening a second location in Homewood. Although that did not materialize at the time, immediately after the fire, Hofeld contacted the couple to offer help in the crisis.

"The village at that time owned a building that had been a restaurant. It had hoods in there and grills. I called Erich and said, 'I know you're rebuilding. Whatever you want, it's yours,'" Hofeld said. "We wanted to just say we believe in the Maple Tree Inn. If you weren't going to come into Homewood at that time, we wanted you to be successful wherever you were."

That connection helped the Wennbergs make the decision to relocate.

"We knew we loved this wonderful community," Erich said. "Homewood is a very special place. Most of you know that because you live here, but as transplants, we're amazed on a daily basis."

Maple Tree Inn is open Wednesday through Friday from 5 to 10 p.m., Saturday from 3 to 10 p.m. and Sunday from 3 to 8 p.m. Reservations are recommended. 

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Katie, left, and Erich Wennberg, right, help Homewood Mayor Richard Hofeld cut the ribbon on Feb. 12 officially marking the opening of the Maple Tree Inn in Homewood. (Eric Crump/H-F Chronicle)