It took me a while to track down Skender Liedl of the Red Onion. I had recently heard the Red Onion was celebrating their 50-year anniversary and I thought it was as good an excuse as any to pop in (and leave with some delicious antipasto salad). I stopped in the restaurant and asked his daughter Monika several times over the week where he was but I always wound up arriving either too early or too late, and just kept missing him. It’s hard to catch someone who is always on the go.

I finally caught him on the phone and arranged a time and a place we could meet up in person. We eventually met at the Red Onion on one of the few days the restaurant was closed. I offered him a chair. “No, I don’t sit. I don’t sit.”

He was nice enough to arrive early so he could locate and bring out his very dark, hard, cardboard box (they don’t make them like that anymore). He took out files filled with all sorts of memories in the shape of photos and articles and significant documents, all in the hopes that I might get a feel for his fifty years in Rangeley as owner of the Red Onion. “I’ve got all kinds of stuff! Red Onion history! Rangeley history! Info, etcetera!”

“What’s that?” I asked as he was moving the photos about. “Hmm? That’s the Red Onion. The original. When we moved in. That’s the way we bought it.” He explained the name started in the late 1960’s.

The Red Onion when purchased in 1970.

 

The Red Onion today, as charming as ever. Stephanie Chu-O’Neil

I asked again if he would like to sit down. “You can sit down, I’ll move over.” I said. “No! No! I don’t sit. I don’t sit”, he replied. He looked at me as if I was crazy (or lazy), or I should know better. (Maybe he thought I wasn’t paying attention), I laughed. Skender always winds up making me laugh one way or another.

Skender and Bruni

We flipped through various articles from throughout the years. “Here,” he said “1970, Skender and Bruni Buy the Red Onion”.

I asked him about the early days and how he coped with the struggles as they arose. “You just keep moving. And Bruni, my wife, was really the backbone in the beginning to keep the place going. I mean I was in the back in the kitchen but she was always running the register. She did bookwork, because her business, she learned bookkeeping. She didn’t know English either, but numbers are numbers.”

We continued flipping through photos. There were a couple of photos of a group of young women at a scenic summer location. “Oh that’s a cool one…when we took the kids.” He continued, “See here. Once a year we would close down for a day, for the whole crew.” He explained how they used to take the staff on outings like an overnight trip, a mini cruise. “For years we did this. And then one time also we rented a place in Kennebago.”

Looked like there were many group photos showing Red Onion pride. One looked like probably a softball team. “When the mopeds came out in the late ‘70’s, then all these ladies had mopeds and were parking here and came in.” He explained. “But why do they have ‘Red Onion’ on them I asked. We guessed it was probably a softball team. (On the other hand, maybe they just loved the pizza?….hey, is that Connie Copp?) Some answers will have to be found after the article comes out. Right now, I’m too close to my already extended deadline.

Another thing that might have made him popular was his generosity of giving plane rides to the youth. (He showed me a photo he took from is plane that wound up becoming a postcard.) It turns out he used to fly quite a bit. He had his plane for 42 years and used to give the youth in the area rides for various reasons including to go get their passports in Waterville, as there wasn’t anywhere to go close by. He also mentioned he had workers who had come from all over the world like Russia, South America, Poland. Boy must they have loved their private airplane ride and wow, what a great boss!

He happily pulled out another photo. “There. Look at that.” A lovely picture of him and his granddaughter, Britt. (Wow, haven’t seen her in a while. FYI, she’s doing well!)

The files and photos were really a lot. Shriners events at the Red Onion, Festival of Trees, Oktoberfest feasts sharing authentic fare of their German heritage, a 47-pound squash(?) he had grown. He even showed me a map of Maine pasted on top of Europe so his sister in Germany could get a sense of where he wound up moving to so many years ago.

I realized I was never going to get a feel for the decades since buying the business, but I thought I could at least get a handle on how he came to be a restaurant owner.

Skender Liedl started learning his trade at the age of 14.

He was forthright in letting me know that he originally had more interest in mechanics. “This is not what my real occupation would have been. My real occupation would have been anything mechanical. But in that time, when there is no food and so forth, you know, my aunt happened to know somebody in the restaurant business, and so she told my mother, ‘Hey, I have a job for the kid.’ So he learned the trade when he was just fourteen. After four years, at the age of eighteen he had learned most of what he would need in the coming years.

Aside from the food business, and machine business, for about four years he was in the Norwegian merchant marines. He wound up learning Norwegian (and can still read some of it) as not many people knew German. He told me how he was “On a banana boat, tankers, and so forth. Went to Africa, went to Russia….” What a life.

However, when he moved to the United States, to Irvington New Jersey, when he was almost 25, he got back into a machine shop.  He shared with me a nice story about how an Irishman gave him a shot even though he didn’t know English. He wound up getting the job just by motioning with his fingers in response to a translated question that proved he knew the difference between an inch and a centimeter. Turns out the “imports” as he calls them (rather than immigrants) helped one another back then. He worked there for several years until unfortunately he had a little accident, “a little bit of steel in his eye”, and so he was laid off.

Skender and Bruni on their way to the United States from Germany.

He was just around 30 then, and a friend whose uncle was in the real estate business told him about a luncheonette for sale. It seemed feasible it would be a reasonable venture as he really had learned the trade and everything it took to run a restaurant at a young age. So he said ‘Why not?” and then asked his wife Bruni, and she said, ‘Why not? So they took to running Liedl’s Restaurant in Irvington, New Jersey for seven years.

How they wound up moving from New Jersey to Rangeley comes with a fairly common answer. First they purchased and enjoyed a summer place, the Fawn Inn, Herbie Welch’s shop, at the end of route 4 and Bald Mountain Road. The couple had hoped to build a restaurant there eventually, but when the opportunity arose to buy the Red Onion, and since there were so few food establishments, it seemed like a good idea to open a restaurant there in Main St., not only in the heart of downtown Rangeley, but with less need of renovation. So in his mid-thirties, after several years of enjoying their vacation camp in Oquossoc, he, his wife Bruni and young Monika, all moved to Rangeley and lived in the apartment above the Red Onion restaurant.

Purchased in 1970 the restaurant wound up expanding fairly quickly. “In ‘75 we put the first addition on. This one here.” He indicated the part that is now the dining area directly outside of the bar. “And in ’85 we put the other addition on.” He motioned towards the tables that are street side. “And there was no bar here. We just put that in.” It was the same bar counter they originally brought from New Jersey; the counter where they made their first dollar. “There were a couple of tables here. It was kind of a hang out. And this used to be a sauna, you know that.” I totally didn’t know that. “Yes, before we moved in, in ’69.” He showed me a photo with the sign. We laughed as he recalled how he had heard some stories of people running from the sauna out into the snow. He put a pretend frown on and said he wasn’t there yet when that happened but added, “We did a lot of foolish things anyway”, and smiled again.

I let him know that I thought he had a really great collection of photos. He told me how he used to take photos and develop them quite regularly. He also made 8mm movies and to top it off he has since made a movie of all of the 8mm movies he had. I told him I was envious, “How do you find the time?” He paused, “I find all the time. Shut off the TV. Don’t listen to that nonsense. Isn’t it foolish what those people do nowadays?” Yes, I agreed, “It’s an addiction.” “An addiction?” he said, “It’s more than that.”

He showed me the following humorous passage about not taking responsibility that I thought was a good expression of both his sense of humor and his strong work ethic.

ONCE UPON A TIME, THERE WERE FOUR PEOPLE; THEIR NAMES WERE EVERYBODY, SOMEBODY, NOBODY AND ANYBODY. WHENEVER THERE WAS A JOB TO BE DONE, EVERYBODY WAS SURE THAT SOMEBODY WOULD DO IT. ANYBODY COULD HAVE DONE IT, BUT NOBODY DID.

WHEN NOBODY DID IT, EVERYBODY GOT ANGRY BECAUSE IT WAS EVERYBODY’S JOB. EVERYBODY THOUGHT THAT SOMEBODY WOULD DO IT, BUT NOBODY REALIZED THAT NOBODY WOULD DO IT.

SO CONSEQUENTLY, EVERYBODY BLAMED SOMEBODY WHEN NOBODY DID WHAT ANYBODY COULD HAVE DONE IN THE FIRST PLACE!

He even gave me a copy and I told him I’d hang it up in my house. He replied, “I hung it up in the kitchen but that doesn’t help any. Nobody reads it anyway. They read it, but they don’t live by it.”

I asked him how often he worked as I was hoping to catch Monika and him together to take a photo. “I never work, I never work. I make myself useful. If I call it work, I wouldn’t do it, right?”

Daughter Monika (following in her mom’s footsteps as the new backbone of the Red Onion) and Skender with their celebratory 50th anniversary pizza paddle! Stephanie Chu-O’Neil

As I was heading out the door I thanked him again for letting me meet with him on his day off, when the restaurant was closed, but he tsked tsked me and called out, “I don’t work, so I don’t take a day off!” I laughed. He always winds up making me laugh.


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