words DOUG GEYER  |  photography DEOGRACIAS LERMA


For Paul Weckman and Emily Wolff, the impetus for growing their collection of eclectic restaurants has always been their love of family. Their primary motivation, to build a home where their own children could thrive, quickly expanded to include the well-being of the community where their roots were just taking hold. In one magical week in 2003, their twins were born and Otto’s was opened in Mainstrasse Village, Covington. Three more children and restaurants later, Adam and Rowan are preparing for college as Weckman and Wolff continue to create spaces for their family and the community.

The two met in front of their dorm in their first week at the University of Kentucky. Their friendship grew as Weckman pursued medicine then switched his focus to agricultural economics with an emphasis in finance while Wolff was set on art. Like their relationship, Weckman’s interests also evolved. He interned with Morgan Stanley Dean Witter during the day, and at night he worked under a classically trained French chef at Cafe Jennifer, where he was exposed to high cuisine for the first time. His disdain for his day job stood in stark contrast to his love for life in the kitchen.

Growing up in Lexington, Weckman learned to cook as he watched his mom, a New York transplant, prepare dishes that were atypical for her new Kentucky lifestyle. Wolff remembers that he was always using his home-grown cooking skills to prepare meals for her during their time at school. “I would go over to his apartment and there’d be this beautiful meal. I’d be looking for the carryout boxes, [thinking,] ‘He didn’t really make this!’ But he would. He’d make everything. I knew that he could create amazing food. I had no doubt in my mind.”

The summer before his last semester in school, Weckman traveled to Burgundy, France, to conduct a study of their food and wine economy, but he found that his interest lay more in the culture of the food and wine than on the economics.

“If I can link this to exactly one day in France where I was like, ‘I love what they’re doing here,’ it was when I was on the vineyard. We had lunch every day with the owners of the vineyard, which was very small and family owned. The parents of the owners, ninety years old, were plucking strawberries from their garden. We’d just had some white asparagus. There was something about the genuine act of eating together that I thought I hadn’t seen in the United States. It was very family-oriented and natural, getting together, visiting and talking. It was really centered around food being more than just eating. I thought, ‘I’d love to take this back.’ Gardens, this quaint cafe feel, making everything very genuine, just getting around a table and talking. I think that was the day when where I thought, ‘I really want to do something that embodies this.’”

Weckman built on his solid base of knowledge with books. Lots of books.

“I guess I can say this now twenty years later. I took a copy of the textbook from the Culinary Institute of America, like third edition, from some place where I worked. I really need to give that back,” he adds with a smile. “I had a nice kitchen for a college house with a huge island where I could roll out yeast rolls, twist them. I made almost everything in that book on my own. I was going to give myself a culinary education so I could catch up with this chef at work.”

Weckman and Wolff’s decision to move from Lexington to Covington after graduating was primarily a practical one. They already had one child on the way (or so they thought, an ultrasound later revealing twins), so they knew they needed to establish themselves quickly, and they did. As told by Wolff, the stars aligned for them to make a go of it and open Otto’s.

“The property on Main Street, the home of Otto’s, was for sale. It provided the opportunity to open the restaurant and live above it. For a young couple with no money, that was great. But it was sink or swim. With his financial brain, Paul was like, ‘If we sell seven sandwiches a day, we can pay the mortgage.’ We would do dishes until two in the morning and get up the next day to do it all again [while] feeding babies every two to three hours because they were preemies.”

It was Wolff’s father, one of the four Ottos in their family but who goes by Dan, who encouraged them to follow their dreams. He had already been eyeing the building and thought the young graduates should take a look. Both sets of parents, Randy and Karen Weckman and Dan and Cathy Wolff, were eager to empower the two in any way they could, getting their hands dirty as the restaurant was getting off the ground.

“There was a huge amount of family support on both sides. It was our magic dust,” Weckman confirms.

Weckman recalls the intensity of emotions and energy in those early days. “I think all of it was terrifying and beautiful at the same time. I think I had this awareness that it was going to be really hard, and it might not work out. But at the same time, if it does, we’re building this little family, we’ve got these little kids. How could it not work out?”

Though stretched beyond thin at first, they were selling a lot of sandwiches—and more. And while the line between their professional and personal lives was often blurred, they were indeed living their dream. As they worked hard to meet the needs of their family, they also met needs in the neighborhood. The consequences of simple choices rippled out into their community, which hadn’t seen young families in many years. When they painted Otto’s facade and planted flowers, others followed suit. After the family outgrew their small apartment, they bought a home to renovate. They advocated for and worked toward Mainstrasse becoming a safe and vibrant space for both the older, long-term residents and the younger singles and families that were moving in. Their efforts were recognized in 2017 when they were honored with the Covington Award from the Friends of Covington.

Twelve years after embarking on the odyssey that was Otto’s, they opened Frida after fully restoring a building that had been condemned. Serving Latin street food, tequila, and the region’s largest selection of mezcal, their second venture was another milestone for them and Covington. Frida showcases Wolff’s gift for design and the art that celebrates their many trips to Mexico and imbues the space with a unique vibe.

“Emily’s design and art background has been the most important piece to our restaurants’ success. When [they] walk in, you want people to start out their experience a certain way, sit down and be treated a certain way, and take a deep breath. The food doesn’t get there until far later. [The atmosphere] sets the tone for a great conversation.”

In 2019, the pair opened Larry’s. Part dive bar, part relaxed restaurant, the space has been a hub for locals. Weckman and Wolff intentionally invested there to help shift the momentum, as the area had seen its fair share of criminal activity through the years. One year later, with the same blend of creating something new while honoring history, they opened the Standard. Another community anchor, the former gas station and garage had been owned and operated by the Ostendorf family since the 1930s. Wolff’s playful design incorporates actual tools, forgotten keys, and an array of mementos that make it feel like a whimsical museum that just happens to offer an unexpected, Asian-themed menu and inventive cocktails.

“Why reinvent the wheel? This [community] worked really well when it was developed. Let’s honor that past. That continuation of storytelling is really important,” Wolff affirms.

Their own confidence in each other’s gifts and abilities has also helped them create their own stories. “Working together has been amazing. We both have these things where we can trust one-hundred percent and say, ‘You take the ball and run with this. This is where you hit home runs.’ We do that together.” They have also found a way to deal with the challenge of not bringing work home, a difficult task when you live with your business partner, but they have made that work as well.

Though their collaborations have been fruitful from the start, Weckman never imagined they would be where they are today. “I didn’t anticipate any of this. No multiple restaurants. I just wanted to put a roof over the heads of our family and feed our kids. That’s how we started. And we did that. And I think that we saw there was other good that came from that and it became, ‘Let’s do that again because it feels good, makes people smile,’ and our group gets a little bit bigger.”

As Wolff enjoys expressing herself with each building’s empty canvas, Weckman shares his talent through the varied vision of each kitchen. Like their kids, each menu has its own personality, each restaurant its own spirit.

With white tablecloths and upscale dishes, Otto’s lunch selections offer diners sandwiches like their Short Rib Grilled Cheese with red onion jam and white cheddar on griddled sourdough as well as salmon with Thai chili sauce, over sweet potato fries and roasted asparagus. Dinner guests face the difficult task of deciding between entrees such as Pistachio Crusted Halibut with goat cheese, pear risotto, and hazelnut cream sauce or Shrimp and Grits with onion, shiitake, red pepper and cherry tomato in Cajun white wine sauce, over fried bacon-blue cheese grit cake. At Frida, Weckman’s Oaxacan Chicken Sandwich with mezcal-and-lime-glazed chicken with avocado, queso fresco, chipotle mayo on local sourdough is available. And a la carte tacos like the Gobernador with seared chile shrimp, bacon, shaved lettuce, tri-colored cherry tomato, and aioli is one of many options. For those with a hankering for an all-beef hot dog with both traditional and inventive topping options, Larry’s hits the spot. And Bangkok Rice and Malaysian Noodle Bowls are served up at the Standard along with music and drink specials.

The whole family has gathered at the Standard for our chat. Adam and Rowan are joined by Olive, Archer, and Ari, with their grandparents, Wolff’s folks, in tow. Weckman’s parents, Randy and Karen, are there in spirit. Cathy Wolff muses about the way this venture has impacted their whole clan in such a wonderful way.

“It brought both families together in a whole new way that we never imagined. We never foresaw that. You saw your kids graduating, maybe Emily going into a different kind of art field, Paul going into finance. Then all of a sudden we’re not only supporting the idea of a restaurant, we’re supporting twin babies. It brought a lot of life back into us. We didn’t feel like empty nesters—we felt like we were really pitching in. We got the chance to enjoy everything they’ve done and produced. And five wonderful grandchildren. And ‘Oh! A new restaurant! Where are we going to eat tonight?’”