Winds of change

Jack von Rutenberg plans for calmer seas.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Had Jack von Rutenberg, 59, pursued what he first set out to study years ago, he would be known as “Dr. Jack.” But after graduating from the University of Iowa and attending the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health for a short while, he realized his heart wasn’t in it. Lake Mendota was beckoning.

“I remember daydreaming during orientation at Tripp Commons. It was a gorgeous spring day, the windows were open, and I couldn’t take my eyes off the lake. Maybe it was an omen I should have paid more attention to,” he laughs. “I needed to be near water.”

Now he and his brothers Bill and Robert co-own von Rutenberg Ventures (vRV), a hospitality dynasty launched by their parents, the late Bill and Betty von Rutenberg, in 1961. Together they’re carrying on the lakeside dining tradition with The Mariner’s Inn, Captain Bill’s, the Nau-Ti-Gal, and Betty Lou Cruises, as well as another co-venture, Westport Marine. Each summer, the employee count doubles to nearly 200, mostly part-timers.

In mid-March, just prior to COVID-19’s grasp, we interviewed Jack about a life in hospitality. He’d spent the morning planning for the unknown, creating an action plan focusing on transparency, communication, and education, and crossing his fingers for another summer on the water.

Tell us about your childhood.

We had two wonderful parents who were great at balancing work and life. They set a tremendous example for us, because this business can eat you alive if you’re not grounded.

They owned the Nibble Nook, a tiny burger joint in the old Pahl Tire building just off the Capitol Square. I’d go in with my dad to help him cut onions until I cried so hard that I’d have to go upstairs into this really cool attic to play. At lunch, he’d have a cheeseburger and chocolate shake waiting for me, and if I was good, I’d get to pick out a Life Savers candy. It was a kid’s dream.

How did Mariner’s Inn become the flagship?

Jack Burke, owner of Burke’s Supper Club, approached my parents hoping they’d buy it. Back then, there was nothing out there — no homes or businesses — and my parents weren’t prepared to purchase a restaurant. But what they lacked in cash, they made up for with their knack for hospitality and good food.

They bought what is now Mariner’s Inn with a $2,500 down payment from my grandfather and a 20-year, $70,000 land contract. Dad was the bartender, mom did the cooking, and they kept one waitress from Burke’s. That was 54 years ago next month. Nau-Ti-Gal (1982), Captain Bill’s (1993), and Betty Lou (1998) followed.

Was Betty Lou Cruises considered a radical idea?

The decision to launch a dinner cruise took 14 years, and there were plenty of doubters. People couldn’t understand why I’d want to serve food on a seasonal boat because similar ideas hadn’t panned out in the past. That’s why I knew it would have to be special enough, not just a boat ride. Fortunately, it worked out.

Now it’s mostly a private charter with two boats each on Lakes Mendota and Monona.

Besides your parents, whom would you most attribute to your success?

As an athlete I had many wonderful coaches. I played football for Hayden Fry at Iowa — a brilliant man, motivator, and psychologist. We made it to the 1982 Rose Bowl but lost to Washington. I’m very much a Badger fan now, of course, but with a unique perspective.

With COVID-19 looming, how will you prepare?

We are certainly in unchartered waters, but we have to stay relevant and proactive. Our priorities changed overnight, but like the serenity prayer, we can only worry about what we can control.

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