Auf wiedersehen: Family decides to retire, close The Rheinland restaurant

Debbie Coleman-Topi
Special to The Examiner
Heinz and Rosie Heinzelmann are retiring and closing The Rheinland after 29 years of serving food inspired by their native Germany. The coronavirus pandemic forced them to shut down the restaurant and they have decided not to reopen and will likely return to their native Germany, they said.

When they launched their ethnic restaurant, Heinz and Rosie Heinzelmann were enthralled by the legacy of the historic building that housed their family-owned business.

Locals told the German immigrants’ tales of outlaw Frank James hosting a wild brawl at a beer hall on the Main Street property just before he reported to the nearby Independence jail to serve time.

What Rosie and Heinz did not anticipate at the time was how they would create their own legacy in the building, dishing up slices of homemade, authentic German cuisine, coupled with friendly European service. For 29 years, weekend crowds often lined up outside The Rheinland (named for Germany’s Rhine River and the area of the same name in Germany).

The couple hung an “Open” sign in the window in February 1991 at 208 N. Main Street near the Independence Square (over the years, they expanded into 206 N. Main, as well). A few years ago, they added another that read “For Sale,” though they continued operations. But when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of restaurants this past March, the couple decided it was time to retire and close.

Their American journey began in 1981 when, drawn by the prospect of plentiful jobs, they applied for work visas. An uncle who had taken his own immigrant journey to America had reported to Heinz that opportunities were available in America for those willing to work.

The Heinzelmanns waited five long years for work visas to arrive and when they did, they moved to Kansas City, bringing their 16-year-old daughter, Sandra. They eventually settled in Blue Springs and though Sandra had just graduated high school in Germany, she attended Blue Springs High School, where she graduated with another diploma two years later, Rosie said.

The family’s transition was not seamless, though.

“When you’re in your 40s and have to go to another country and learn everything, it’s a problem,” Rosie said of the hardships they faced.

Their first hurdle was learning English. To learn, Rosie worked as a nanny to a Kansas City area family, where she taught the three children in her charge German while they reciprocated by helping her with English. For extra money, she worked a weekend job at a German restaurant on the Plaza, where she cooked traditional fare.

Heinz continued his previously-held career in America, working as an auto mechanic, repairing German-made Porsches and Audis. Because German auto mechanics are required to have higher education, including a master’s degree, Heinz was well-educated, even about running a business.

Once settling in the Kansas City area, the Heinzelmanns stopped in at The Scandinavia Place, a shop on the Independence Square, where they met owner Nina Anders, who said she “immediately felt a connection.”

Their longstanding friendship started with their commonality of being transplants. Anders, who was born in Iceland and emigrated to America with her parents when she was 2 years old, said, “we understand each other.” While she does not remember her living there, Anders instead has memories of spending summers with an aunt in her native country.

After hearing their story, Anders suggested the couple open a restaurant serving traditional German cuisine. She even suggested a location for the new venture – across Main Street from her shop, the building that eventually became known as “The Rheinland.” When the couple toured the 130-year-old building, they immediately noticed several unique features, including an original interior brick wall that reminded them of German pubs and restaurants.

When Rosie and Heinz discussed Anders’ idea, Rosie emphatically stated she “could not cook for a restaurant.” But her experience cooking at the restaurant on The Plaza convinced them to reconsider. Rosie soon discovered herself spending many hours in the kitchen preparing dishes such as yage schnitzel, sauerbraten, potato salad, and red cabbage from scratch, which “not many people want to do … ours takes a lot of work and a lot of time.” She believes that accounts for the lack of traditional German restaurants in the area.

Rosie and Heinz recruited several friends and acquaintances to serve as The Rheinland’s staff of about 13. Rosie said theirs truly was a “family restaurant.” The couple give much credit to their employees, including chef Kenneth Robbins, whom she personally trained in the art of German food, and his son, Chris, whom they watched grow up and eventually also added to their staff. Margot Gieseke, also originally from Germany, was business manager for several years.

While the recipes and dishes were all Rosie’s, Heinz also had a key role. His studies preparing him for a career as an auto mechanic included business expertise, and he used those skills to act as operations manager. His duties included traveling to pick up traditional ingredients throughout the Midwest. Heinz, sometimes accompanied by Rosie, regularly drove to St. Louis and Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he purchased sausage from German butchers, and Colorado Springs to acquire rye bread. “It’s not easy to get things,” he said of the specialty ingredients.

Many loyal customers appreciated the authentic, home-cooked cuisine. Lonny Borchers of Blue Springs, who was born in Germany, said The Rheinland was always a favorite destination for special events, which the couple hosted in a party room they added to their space.

“They made it always so special … like you’re back in Germany, like you’re back home,” Borchers said. Borchers also attended German club events at the restaurant, including special parties for Mardi Gras and Oktoberfest. They also were a favorite among many Americans, including those of German heritage, who fondly recalled their parents or grandparents creating the familiar, savory dishes.

But recently, in light of the pandemic, the two knew it was time to close shop.

“We have a high age now,” Rosie said, adding that they both are in their 70s. While they are ready to retire from busy work, they will miss the people – their customers and staff. The Heinzelmanns paid homage to these groups in a Facebook post announcing the restaurant’s closing: “It has been our honor and privilege to serve you and meet so many interesting and wonderful people who have been our customers,” they wrote. “We will miss you most of all.”

When asked about the future, Rosie and Heinz hope to return to their homeland to join their remaining relatives and friends, as well as their daughter, who moved back several years ago. He said they miss the scenery, including a nearby lake and the Alps.

“To retire, we want to go back,” he said. “It’s home.”