Flight Now Boarding To Munich. Err... Belleville, Missouri
In 2008, Avon Old Farms graduated Chane Keller – a student known to always be up for an adventure when it came to planning weekend excursions with the student activities club. Upon graduation, he returned to his home state to attend Eastern Illinois University where he studied business and immediately continued to earn his MBA. Impressive. But, even more impressive is his casual, friendly demeanor, all while he is on the cusp of opening the largest Hofbräuhaus in North America.
"The days are pretty long lately, but it's all worth it when we see the finishing touches to our Hofbräuhaus start to take shape," Chane said in an early-morning interview. "I've been working on this project for four or five years now, so knowing that we'll be open for business by the end of the month is very exciting."
It all started when Chane finished six years of classes at Eastern Illinois University and was feeling burnt out. Taking a couple of weeks off to reboot, he flew to Germany to visit his college friend, Lidia.
"We spent our days exploring Germany, including a visit to a Hofbräuhaus," he recalled. "I was immediately amazed by the space and the feeling it evoked. It was like Disney – I was immediately immersed in the setting and taken to another world."
Upon returning to the United States, Chane was reminded of his experience abroad.
"I was in O'Hare airport and saw a familiar logo, but couldn't immediately place it... once I realized it was an advertisement for Chicago's own Hofbräuhaus I had to go," he said. "When I stepped inside, I was amazed by how it completely captured the sense of the one in Germany."
Chane returned home with an idea developing in his head. The family business of hotel and restaurant development was already in the midst of planning a new project in Belleville, and Chane knew the opportunity to build his own Hofbräuhaus was too close to pass up.
"I took the entire family to Chicago to experience the Hofbräuhaus for themselves, and they all saw how immersive it was. They fell in love with the idea, so what I needed to do next was convince the owner of the Hofbräuhaus franchise to let me build one in Belleville."
At 24-years-old, the company may not have taken Chane seriously at first. But, when he flew the owners out to the site to see what Chane had in mind, they considered the idea. Now, the Belleville Hofbräuhaus is the largest in North America – the largest outside of Europe, in fact. And, with a quick look at the history of St. Louis and the surrounding area, a German beer hall seems to be a great fit.
"There is a long history of German tradition in the St. Louis area, even if the names of the cities don't seem to reveal as much," Keller said. "The area was settled by the French in the 1700s, but as soon as Germans began to immigrate, they settled in the St. Louis area because the land was so similar to their own country – they could grow the same crops, and, brew beer."
With its opening scheduled for the end of the month, the Belleville Hofbräuhaus is the first part of a larger complex to open which will include up to six restaurants, a convention center, four hotels, and a nine-field soccer complex.
"What was once a corn and bean field across from the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows is now a 26,000-square foot restaurant with seating for more than 1,100 customers at a time in the beer hall, private room, and outdoor beer garden," Chane described, explaining that while the Shrine had maintained a restaurant and hotel on their property, they were looking to get out of the hospitality business to refocus on their mission of caring for the impoverished. "I'm thrilled to finally open the cornerstone of the biggest hospitality district in the metro-east."
So, where did the knack for hospitality come from? It turns out that Chane's grandparents, Thelma and Lolami, were local figures in the industry. With a $150 bank loan in the early 30s, they bought a single gas station, and over years of hard work, built the Keller Oil Company. Their next venture was the AAA-rated Keller Ramada Inn and restaurant, Thelma's, in the 1960s. Chane explained that in its day, the facility was a mini resort, with 82 rooms, 10 luxury suites, an indoor swimming pool, two fine restaurants, and a banquet and convention center for 300 people. The hotel was widely known for its fine food and "luxury for less" lodging, receiving ever possible Ramada Inn honor.
After 20 years of the hotel business, Chane's grandparents opened the Thelma Keller Convention Center. When Eastern Illinois University launched its hospitality program, they bestowed on Thelma an honorary doctorate in hospitality to recognize her life-long success.
Regardless of how busy Chane is professionally, he has continued to make time for his alma mater and is a member of Avon's National Council.
"Chane Keller was one of those Avonians who always went the extra mile to make the Avon experience better," commented Kevin Driscoll. "Chane Keller was one of those rare individuals who would rather work under the radar and get things done and done well without praise or fanfare."
Chane returned to campus most recently for a meeting last November.
"As much as things have changed on campus, it feels exactly the same," Chane said. "My class witnessed the old Avon and the new Avon – we were freshmen who enjoyed the old gym and morning meetings in the Adams Theater, but we also got to see the building of the new student center and field house. We witnessed the tragic fire in Brown House and returned our senior year to a new one. We lived through the transition years at Avon."
This spring, Chane and the rest of the class of 2008 will celebrate their 10th reunion on campus.
"Our class had some of the best – we got to see Jon Quick and Nick Bonino in action, along with classmates Cam Atkinson and George Springer," he recalled. "I remember going to my first hockey game at Avon and immediately loving it. It felt like the whole school would load up on buses and travel to watch them play wherever they were – and we won three New England Championships in my days at Avon. It was amazing."
Chane also fondly remembers his time with Jim Detora, Michael Stradley, Michelle Custer, and of course, Mr. and Mrs. Driscoll.
"When I was visiting boarding schools as an eighth-grader, I had three on my short list: Avon, Westminster, and St. George's," Chane explained. "I thought St. George's was it until I met Kevin Driscoll and his son Blaise by Avon's Refectory. There was an immediate sense of belonging when I met them, and the rest is history."
Chane continued to say that when he returned to campus as a freshman the next fall, he was greeted by name, by Headmaster LaRocque as he walked into the Adams Theater for morning meeting.
"He knew me by name, and despite the unusual spelling, pronounced it correctly," he recalled. "He even knew where I was from, and that I had attended Rumsey Hall. It was like he had my entire bio there in his hands. But he didn't – he had just taken the time to get to know all of the new students, which is just one more small detail that makes Avon so special."
We wish Chane the best of luck during the opening of his new venture, and look forward to seeing him with the rest of the Class of 2008 this spring for Reunion Weekend 2018. Online registration is now open at www.avonoldfarms.com/reunion.