Sunday, September 17, 2000

Mr. Oktober gets grilled

Covington restaurateur always takes to the streets with beer, brats and pig tails

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Mick Noll is no centerfold, that's for sure. Wiping away sweat, curly black hair plastered to his forehead, his arm-hair singed off, lederhosen getting a bit, uh, snug in the middle.

        So why do they call him Mr. Oktober?

        Fests, that's why.

        Mr. Noll, cook, caterer, strudel shop owner, has manned a grill at every one of Cincinnati's 25 Oktoberfests. And all 22 of Covington's. All day, every day, early morning to beyond midnight, tending to a mountain of sausages while wife Pat, his three sons and his siblings work the front end. When his parents were still alive, they were there, too.

        “That is a lot of sausage flopping around, isn't it?” he says, running his hand along his now hairless left arm. “You reach over a grill this much, it's first to go.”

        Second to go is the morning's layer of Ban: “It's always 15 degrees hotter back there leaning over the grill.”

        So why does he do it? Nobody gets rich slinging hash at street festivals.

        “They are successful for us, but for me, it's about the ambience. Summer's about over, people are getting in to the season change, they're happy, they're looking for a good time and they're ready to party.”

        Zillions of people are looking to party, and Mr. Noll knows them all. He has spent his life in the restaurant business, ever since high school when the 58-year-old Covington resident washed dishes in the snack bar at Summit Country Club.

        Since the mid-'70s, right after a five-year date with the Peace Corps, he has been running his own places in Covington. First it was Bavarian Tap Room, a small place in the old Bavarian Brewery (now Jillian's), then Covington Haus in the rehabbed fire station that houses Tickets.

        “It was in the restaurants that I started getting interested in our German heritage. I started bringing in Bavarian bands and beers, then German cuisine.”

In his family

               It didn't take Covington Haus long to attract a cast of regulars, always ready to tilt a stein in the key of oom-pah. Mr. Noll was one of the readiest.

        “I come by all this naturally. My great-grandfather came over from Germany and settled in Covington. Used to sit right here on MainStrasse and drink beer.”

        All of which made it inevitable that this fourth-generation Covingtonian would open one of the city's first German restaurants.

        By then, he was already an Oktoberfest institution, but he still hadn't hit upon his greatest discovery. That was 1988 when he was feeling, well, impish.

        It was Cincinnati's Bicentennial and there was a ton of controversy over Sawyer Point's flying pigs. People were so needlessly outraged that Mr. Noll decided to tweak them at Oktoberfest.

        Flying pig tails were born.

        Today, they're his signature. And so popular that if he's going to sell out of anything, it's pig tails. Like last week at Covington's Oktoberfest.

Oktober daze

               Pig tails, for the one or two who haven't scarfed down a tub, are strips of cinnamon dough, deep fried, then rolled in sugar and more cinnamon. The hot fat makes the dough curl like a pig's tail.

        Hmmm. Tell us more ...

        One Oktoberfest moment I'll never forget ...

        Most probably when the Crown Prince of Bavaria (Ludwig) came in. He owns a brewery and brought his beer over. We sat in the beer tent, having one, listening to him talk about how impossible it was for him to get his beer into Munich's Oktoberfest.

        One Oktoberfest moment that I wish I could forget ...

        When the car ran through last year. It was a sad, really sad incident. Just a block away from my booth.

        Sometimes I look at a grill full of brats and metts and I think ...

        That this is going to make someone happy. So I think let's do it, let's do it right, let's get them out there nice and hot and give them what they want.

        Only at Oktoberfest will you see ...

        Young people, old people, men, women, children, all at the same table — even if they don't know each other, talking and enjoying the air of Oktoberfest together.

        When all the Oktoberfests and fall festivals are over, I like to ...

        Spend time with my family, kick back, maybe cook. And I like to go fishing in Louisiana or Florida.

        The biggest change I've seen in 25 years ...

        In Covington, it's improvement. The looks, the food quality. In Cincinnati it's how the Downtown Council runs it. You know they call it the rock 'n' roll division of the Chamber of Commerce. That's because of Buz (Buse, Chamber public relations director) always out there looking for something fresh. The food's more authentic now, too.

        If I do nothing else at Oktoberfest, I always ...

        Give someone a hug, drink a cold beer and eat a brat with horseradish. No kraut.

        For someone who's never been to a local Oktoberfest, here's how I'd describe it ...

        It's the excitement of the music in the air. Then the excitement of the people enjoying the festival. And the aroma of the food, all leading to that huge spirit of comraderie. It's a place where everyone is welcome with open arms.

        Build a better brat and the world will ...

        Be a better place. I mean, to sit down, enjoy a good brat with a good friend. Even with a bunch of strangers, you're bound to get involved and make friends, even if it's only for the day.

        I attribute my Oktoberfest longevity to ...

        Dedication to the concept. It's like my family all the years in this area. They've been dedicated to supplying a product or a service and doing it well, because that's how you should do what you do.


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