The Abbey Resort: 50 years old, $50 million revamp

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With the job offer came a slim, pocket-sized employee handbook that was 24 pages, specific and no-nonsense.

“Don’t stand around in groups yapping,” it said. “Always keep busy. … If you must stand around doing nothing, stand erect with arms behind you.”

“Giving less than your best … is unintelligent and will weaken you morally and physically.”

A page of foreign cooking terms explained “au jus” to “souffle.” Then came a list of average cooking times for broiled chicken to veal chops. Diagrams showed the difference in table settings for breakfast and an informal dinner, right down to the toast and salad plates.

Of all these instructions, Beverlee J. Bartz Conrad circled just one paragraph: “Please remember that proper serving is a part of gracious living and the restaurant business has a tremendous influence on the welfare of our nation.”

The 5-foot-1 redhead took her job seriously at The Abbey Resort after it opened on Memorial Day 50 years ago, and that devotion still applies. At age 91, Beverlee continues as the resort’s ambassador, greeting groups and VIPs to familiarize them with the property, area and Lake Geneva history.

“I have so many wonderful memories of so many good people,” she says.

When hired, Beverlee was a five-year widow with four sons to raise and a need for health insurance. Her husband died about after sustaining severe burns during an Illinois fire on Valentine’s Day. She moved to Wisconsin to be closer to her parents.

The Abbey’s 225 rooms in 1963 made it the largest resort in the Midwest. Its 80-foot-tall A-frame anchor, which still stands, was the world’s tallest. Today the resort, which celebrates completion of $50 million in remodeling, has 334 guest rooms/suites and a marina with 407 boat slips.

Why the strict code of conduct, when it opened 50 years ago? Customers included dignitaries: U.S. presidents and pro football coaches, well-known actors and musicians. It remains a bit that way today, only suites are occupied by Dave Matthews or Carrie Underwood, not Bob Hope or Peggy Lee.

“We weren’t allowed to ask for autographs,” Beverlee notes, but several of her regular, seasonal customers turned into longtime friends. That includes a couple who paid her $100 per day for dog sitting; “she always wore a hat and floor-length pink mink, and he wore a matching jacket.”

Lake Geneva’s Playboy Club (now the Grand Geneva Resort) was rising in popularity around the same time, but Beverlee says it was a wilder, faster crowd compared to the refined but family-friendly reputation of The Abbey.

“There were so many job applicants – girls traveled from all over the country to work here,” she notes. “Everybody wanted to work for this fabulous resort, but they wanted just the best – this was an elegant place.”

How elegant? Waitresses wore “beautiful white dresses with aqua scrollwork and aqua aprons, to match the tablecloths,” until an unknowing brunch customer arrived in a fur coat that covered the same Sears Roebuck dress. “We all felt terrible for her,” Beverlee recalls, and shortly afterward, the crew was outfitted in more classic uniforms.

The work was a good fit for some women, but not others, because of the demanding schedule and high standards of service. Beverlee felt it, too, but she let the resort work into your blood. When that happens, it’s next to impossible to leave.

Soon Beverlee was dining room manager, then head concierge. She required her servers to work at The Abbey’s coffeeshop for two years before they’d be considered for dining room positions. Fine dining still exists, at Fontana Grill, but dresses and suit jackets no longer are required of customers.

“I miss the elegance” of the resort’s La Tour de Bois restaurant, Beverlee admits, “but this is what people want – more casual dress” and outlets to relieve stress on the customer’s terms. For visiting boaters, Dock and Dine refers to the resort’s on-water waitress service.

Gone is the Gutter Gang, dining room employees who bowled. They would play at the resort’s bowling alley, which is now AVANI Spa and home to water and other fitness classes; sauna, steam and inhalation rooms (eucalyptus in the latter opens sinuses); lounging areas and spa/salon services.

Staff say the resort’s overall goal is to stay modern but feel rustic. For Beverlee, sharing boxes full of photos and commendations, a lifetime of rich memories began with a modest wage of 85 cents per hour, plus pockets full of tips.

The Abbey Resort, 269 Fontana Blvd., Fontana, is on 90 acres that overlook Geneva Lake. theabbeyresort.com, 800-709-1323.

On summer Sunday afternoons, Matthew Whiteford of Chicago slathers his award-winning barbecue sauces on meats grilled during the outdoor Burning Down the Docks, which also includes live blues music. The chef’s product line is sold at the resort gift shop

The resort’s weekend activities for children include crafts, scavenger hunts and bonfires with s’mores. Babysitting is offered. Flick and Float, on Friday nights, means a movie is shown to kids at the indoor swimming pool.