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Today is July 12, 2020

Mississippi’s oldest restaurant

150 years of Widemann’s

By Steven Ward

Mississippi’s oldest restaurant

The year 1870 is notable for a few markers in American history: John D. Rockefeller incorporated Standard Oil Company, The National Weather Service issued its first

weather forecast and construction began on the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City.

Down in Mississippi, a Swiss chef on a transatlantic steamship decided to put down roots in Meridian by opening a restaurant in the Union Hotel.

That chef was Felix Weidmann and that restaurant, Weidmann’s, is still open in Meridian and remains the oldest operating restaurant in the Magnolia State.

Although Weidmann’s has had various owners throughout the years and switched locations to its current downtown spot on 22nd Avenue in 1923, the restaurant remains a popular business as well as a touchstone of the past for residents of Meridian and the state.

Past employees and customers of the restaurant have witnessed momentous events in history: two world wars, the Great Depression and the 2001 attacks of 9/11.

Today, Weidmann’s is experiencing another moment in American history that will seemingly change everything — COVID-19.

Current owner Charles Frazier said he’s doing what he can to adapt to the new, restrictive conditions dictated by the virus.

“COVID-19 has certainly brought some challenges to the restaurant industry,” Frazier said. “We have transitioned to all curbside and delivery, and this has meant that we have had to do some menu redesign and add new items that are more conducive to curbside and delivery service.”

The restaurant now has an increased presence on social media and also sends out an email twice weekly to their 15,000 email subscribers.

Frazier moved from New Orleans to Meridian in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina.

“I was managing a restaurant in the French Quarter and we closed due to the uncertainty after the storm,” Frazier said. “This, coupled with about 8 feet of water in our house, precipitated our move. My brother in law had an interest in the Crescent City Grill located in Meridian and so I accepted a ‘temporary’ position with the company while New Orleans sorted out the rebuilding process after the storm.”

Uncertainty in the restaurant business is something Frazier has some experience with.

“People have mentioned the hurricane in relation to what’s happening now with COVID-19. But it’s different,” he said.

“I think that comparison has come up a lot over the past six weeks,” he continued. “Katrina was different because we knew the endpoint of the trauma, and then we could focus on the rebuild. COVID-19 has no clearly defined conclusion, nor do we have a roadmap for a rebuild. We are anticipating new mandated safety measures, as well as changes in the expectations of our guests, but it is difficult to predict what those changes will be and how to make the adjustments.”

Frazier takes some solace in the longevity of Weidmann’s.

“The restaurant has seen a lot of adversity over the years and I think that the community has supported it before and will do so again,” Frazier said. “It’s very important that we as a community support all of our locally-owned businesses — whether they are restaurants, retail or service.”

“Charles Frazier’s commitment to ensuring a great meal for his patrons, a pleasant atmosphere to enjoy friends and family and his top-notch customer service continue to amaze me. He is not only dedicated to Weidmann’s but to the community he calls home,” said Randy Carroll, CEO, East Mississippi Electric Power Association.

Emmy-winning actress Sela Ward, a Meridian native, has been going to Weidmann’s her entire life.

Ward, who said she is passionate about the historical preservation of her hometown’s past, said she’s happy Weidmann’s is still around and thriving.

“It’s the first place I would go to whenever I came home,” Ward said. “It’s a mainstay. It’s part of a rich tradition that has always had a way of wrapping its arms around me and the community. I think it’s that kind of history and our memories of that kind of place that’s crucial to our souls.”

Ward, who was one of more than 50 investors in the restaurant in 1999, said she has a bittersweet connection to Weidmann’s. She wanted to “preserve and keep the great lady intact” but said all the investors back then were not on the same page in terms of specific goals of preservation.

“Somebody asked me once, ‘Why do you care so much?’ I think we all need a guidepost from the past to the present,” Ward said.

Ward said the multi-investor turmoil predated the arrival of Frazier, who started running the restaurant in 2010 and eventually bought out the investors.

“I’m thrilled with Charles,” she said. “He is why it’s successful today. He’s done such a great job. He has definitely helped keep the spirit of the original Weidmann’s alive today.”

Part of that spirit is the look of the restaurant including the vast collection of photographs of celebrities, employees and local guests. Another part is the modified menu which still includes one of the restaurant’s most famous dishes — Black Bottom Pie.

And then there’s the peanut butter crocks.

Each table is set with a handmade peanut butter crock and assortment of crackers. The tradition dates back to the 1940s, when, legend has it, there was a shortage of butter due to World War II, according to Weidmann’s website. A guest told then-owner Henry Weidmann that peanut butter would be a good substitute. He found a potter from Louisville to make the crocks. Today, a local Meridian potter makes the crocks by hand and the restaurant will sell the crocks to customers.

When asked if she’s worried about the future of Weidmann’s due to COVID-19, Ward said the restaurant will be fine.

“This too shall pass,” she said. “People will be able to come back. Even though it won’t be exactly the same, there are those connections — the name, the sign, the location. Those will always be important connections for people.”

Frazier said, “The longevity of Weidmann’s does provide inspiration and a certain amount of obligation to the community to see it survive and thrive in the future. I think the future of Weidmann’s will be to carefully balance our history and legacy with the new normal of social distancing, healthy menu options and increased sanitation. I certainly feel like we are getting closer to opening up our dining rooms and bars, although I believe it will be an incremental process.”

The hope and plan is that Weidmann’s will be in Meridian for a long time to come.

“When we took over the restaurant, we understood that we are merely stewards of this establishment — it was here 100 years before I was born and will hopefully be here 100 more after I am gone.”

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