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Five generations take restaurant through 131 years

Weidmann’s continues, but it’s a different world

MERIDIAN — When Weidmann’s restaurant served their last meal under the previous owners, it was lunch on Thursday, Oct. 4, and it was packed. It was a historic occasion and all knew that Meridian would never be the same. It was festive, but also sad.

The former owners, Gloria and Poo Chancellor — the fifth generation of the Weidmann family to own the historic downtown landmark — can regale you for hours with wonderful stories.

“Not many businesses last 131 years, especially a restaurant,” Poo said.

The Chancellors were operators or owners for 31 of those years. And the stories come gushing out. There’s the one about Gloria’s grandfather, Henry Weidmann, during World War II. In those days, Weidmann’s was open 24/7 except for Christmas Day. As Henry drove past the restaurant that particular Christmas Day, a serviceman was peering into the window in obvious disappointment. Mr. Weidmann pulled over, opened up and fixed the soldier his meal — no charge.

It was also during WWII that Weidmann’s couldn’t get butter, so peanut butter was served as a substitute. When butter returned, peanut butter was removed. Customer outcry was such that the peanut butter was restored — and the container jars are collector’s items.

Tradition marches on

Weidmann’s was closed for the Chancellor daughter’s wedding reception several years ago. A couple from Atlanta spotted Gloria and she picks up the story. “They said, ‘Hey, what are we going to do? We’re on the way to New Orleans, but we had to stop and have dinner at Weidmann’s,’”

Gloria recalled. Carrying on her grandfather’s tradition, “I explained why we were closed, then invited them to the reception.” The couple declined with thanks, but promised to stop when they passed back through.

Weidmann’s may be the only restaurant where the same tables were reserved everyday for the same two customers. Those customers would call only when they weren’t coming.

When Circuit Judge Howard Pigford, a longtime regular Weidmann’s customer, passed away, the church wanted to serve the family the post-funeral dinner.

Gloria again remembered: “One of his daughters told me, ‘No. Daddy would want us to say goodbye to him at Weidmann’s. That’s where we celebrated every family occasion.’ So all of their family drove over from Alabama (where the funeral was held) and the whole back dining room was full of the Pigford family from infants to the oldest. And it became a joyful occasion. That’s what the restaurant was — part of the births, the deaths, the marriages and everything in between.”

That’s what came to an end on Oct. 4.

The Chancellors admit that the last few years have been a struggle. The Weidmann’s building had severe maintenance problems and between the opening of the new mall and all the accompanying new restaurant competition plus the usual headaches, it was time to make some radical changes or move on.

TV star, and Meridian native, Sela Ward was a frequent customer. Several years ago, she told Poo, “If you ever get ready to sell, let me know,” and then she said it a second time. Poo called her the next morning. Prolonged negotiations began and last January, insurance executive Bruce Martin hosted a luncheon of prominent Meridian businessmen and others. Sela Ward told them how important it was to keep Weidmann’s as a fine dining establishment under local control.

And the string of connections began. Among those attending the luncheon was Mississippi State University president Malcolm Portera who, via the Meridian MSU branch, was heavily invested in downtown Meridian. He, too, stressed the importance of Weidmann’s continuance.

At Portera’s invitation, Viking Range CEO Fred Carl was at the luncheon. Soon after, Carl flew a group, including successful Jackson restaurateur Nick Apostle, over to Atlanta to meet Willie McGehee, a successful chef who was between posts. As Meridian industry executive Fred Wile, who was also part of the group, said, “Everyone connected.”

If the restaurant could be purchased, Apostle would be the operator and McGehee would be the chef. Nine people put up $5,000 each for seed money

A core group was formed with Wile as the focal point (self-described as “the detail guy”) that included Martin, real estate executive Myles Frank and contractor Rick Snowden. With realtor Larry Dudley representing the Chancellors, a two-month option on the restaurant was signed on May 17. The group would pay $225,000 for the building and the Chancellors would receive 13/4% of the gross receipts of the new

“Weidmann’s Square LLC” for the first seven years. All of that was contingent on selling 50 shares in the new corporation at $20,000 each.

As usual there were legal complications, so the share-selling couldn’t begin immediately. That resulted in an option extension of the “drop dead date” to Sept. 30 which was a Sunday. It’s simplistic now to say that 54 shares have been sold — the deadline was worthy of Hairbreadth Harry.

Most of the sales were made by the core group and a few other recruits.

“That last week (before the deadline), that was all I did,” Wile remembered. “I about abandoned my day job.”

When Wile had to go to a Florida wedding on Friday, Sept. 28, he left with the project in doubt. Wink Glover, the local project attorney, called him that afternoon and told him that the 50th share had just been sold. The project was a “go.”

Most of the buyers are instantly recognizable community leaders, e. g., Sela Ward, but some remind you of the book, “The Millionaire Next Door” — you never heard of them.

Why Weidmann’s is priceless

The core group continues to meet twice a month to monitor progress and Chef Willie McGehee has already moved with his family to a Meridian suburb. A new roof has been installed on the building and other improvements and changes will start about Dec. 15 when the results of the required asbestos investigation are known. Project completion is scheduled for next July.

“It won’t be the same, but the project is worthwhile because of who it is and where it is. It will be a fine dining concept operated by Nick Apostle, who’s experienced and successful, “ Wile said. “Weidmann’s is part of the fabric of who we are as a community, and that’s priceless.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Bill Johnson Jr. at lanjohnson@aol.com or (601) 485-7046. Johnson served as an economic development consultant in Starkville from August 1999-April 2000.

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