Quaint, Modern Sulten Belly a Downtown Waupaca Gem

Man in black shirt and hat with two women in checked shirts in front of chalkboard menu at Sulten Belly restaurant in Waupaca Wisconsin.

The name on the front facade – Sulten Belly – seems a little odd at first until you learn the heritage and backstory of the family behind this downtown Waupaca restaurant/deli/market with a quaint feel and modern vibe.

“My late father was Danish and lived in Denmark until he was 12,” said Waupaca native Eric Vestergaard, who pursued professional culinary training in part because both of his parents loved to cook and each worked for a time as chefs years ago.

“Dad passed away from cancer when I was young so I wanted to incorporate some of his heritage into this,” he said. “We found that Sulten means hungry in Danish, so Hungry Belly here we are.”

Family Venture

After working as a chef for several years, Eric and his wife, Amanda wanted to return to their hometown and the tourist-friendly Chain of Lakes region to venture out. The timing worked well for Eric’s mom, Jackie Rickel, who was stepping away from her role as an IT manager for a large health insurance company, to help Sulten Belly get off the ground.

Their search for the perfect location ended when a downtown breakfast place/coffee shop went up for sale at 220 S. Main Street. Prior to opening in August 2017, they completely revamped the interior to achieve their vision for a unique small-town bistro. “We painted, we cleaned, we removed some of the booths to get more of the open atmosphere,” Eric said.

Besides being co-owner, Jackie serves as business manager and drops by occasionally throughout the week to “offer up my services. Anything I can do to help prep or wash dishes, otherwise it’s all behind the scenes.”

The last few years have provided some significant challenges for the business – the reconstruction of Main Street and the pandemic that upended people’s personal lives and normal dining habits.

Yet Sulten Belly was able to adapt, innovate and survive with expanded deli and market offerings, plus renewed emphasis on catering and private dining bookings. Community support and larger deli cases “helped us get through COVID,” said Amanda. “That is what we survived on.”

They enjoy summers when the local population swells with tourists, but serving the locals year-round has been key to its success. The reception from the community has been wonderful.

Loyal Locals

“When Main Street was torn up (for several months), the regulars kept coming in even though they had to go down the alley to get in the door,” said Amanda, who worked nights, weekends and summers while teaching kindergarten in Kimberly the last 11 years.

Eric and Amanda have been together 14 years and were married nine years ago. She quit teaching in 2022 and joined the business full-time, serving as front-of-house manager and catering coordinator.

Sulten Belly offers a place to stop in for a quick tasty bite, relax with a savory meal boosted by a craft beer or a glass of wine, or grab a craving from the deli case to take home. Eric takes great pride in the cleanliness of his kitchen and the skills/cooking techniques he uses to accentuate the flavors of the fresh, seasonal and local ingredients that inspire his menu.

The restaurant is open 10 am to 3 pm Wednesday to Friday and 9 am to 3 pm Saturday (closed Sunday to Tuesday). “The first almost two years we were open for dinner service as well,” said Eric. “Everyone just got burned out; it wasn’t sustainable.”

When Sulten Belly is closed, there’s still a lot going on in Eric’s kitchen.

“Our business hours are Wednesday through Saturday but we’re here working a lot more, doing off-site caterings and hosting private parties here,” said Eric, including a recent five-course wine dinner for two nights “that went over really well.”

Besides the influence from his parents, Eric’s culinary path mostly started at the Wheelhouse in Waupaca, washing dishes and making pizzas and sandwiches. He assumed a lead role for a time before deciding to pursue it more seriously with an apprenticeship and professional training/certification at Colorado Mountain College. He worked a few years at Zuppa’s in Neenah and later started his own personal chef business, mostly offering private parties and catering in private homes or event places.

Eric admitted he was glad to get away from Waupaca as a young adult only to realize that “wow, it’s pretty nice around here – a small community and country living.”

“The food is consistent. I pride myself on that. I don’t think food is super complicated. It’s just using quality ingredients and good techniques – doing things the right way,” said Eric. His made-from-scratch soups earn high praise and are big sellers through the deli as well. “The beef stock for soup simmers for 48 hours and the poultry stock for soup goes 24 hours. Our caramelized onions cook for 9-10 hours. It’s really just taking the time to do things the right way.”

Grateful for Support

They are thankful for local support that has been almost like having an extended family that always has your back. “That’s the cool thing about Waupaca,” Amanda said. “And, the community helped make it more welcoming with the murals and all the things going on to try to make sure none of the businesses down here failed.”

Approaching their sixth anniversary this summer, Eric knows it’s a challenging industry with no guarantees. But they feel good about where they are and the path forward. Jackie credits Eric’s culinary training/kitchen expertise and his “vision” as the key ingredients.

Eric and Jackie have been Community First member-owners for over 20 years and are grateful for the support from their financial partner. Jackie especially enjoys the user-friendly digital banking that makes handling Sulten Belly’s finances so seamless.

When Jackie noted that restaurants have “an 80% fail rate in the first two years and 50% success rate in maybe five years,” Amanda said, “It was kind of scary knowing that.”

Amanda added, “I just know in the beginning I said, ‘Who is going to take a chance on us?’ We didn’t have much of anything. All we had was an idea.”

Community First Credit Union is proud to call Eric, Amanda and Jackie long-time member-owners and pleased to help provide business financing for the family’s venture. As you consider your business needs, contact our Business Lending professionals for guidance and opportunities to pursue your dream.

Contact our Business Services Team

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