One of the most fascinating aspects of many B&Bs is the history within their walls. Some B&Bs were built in the last few decades, but the majority are in historic homes with architecture that just isn’t used anymore. I recently visited one such inn, 1908 Ayres Inn in San Antonio, TX. The neoclassical gem tucked in the Monte Vista Historic District was built in 1908 by Atlee B. Ayres, one of the most famous architects in Texas. One of my colleagues actually stayed there as her very first B&B and loved it, so I was eager to I sit down with the innkeepers, Michael Eifler and Hector Llanas. They allowed me to come visit with them and learn about their experiences as innkeepers and what it was like renovating and opening this historic B&B. My photos don't do it justice!
Emily Gerson: Mike, I saw that you used to work in IT, and Hector, you were an aspiring interior designer. Why did you decide to change careers and become innkeepers?
Michael Eifler: Well, we always wanted to do it. But this was a good time and a good place. We lived next door. I worked at USAA. We decided we wanted something different, and this opportunity presented itself. We said, OK, let’s try it! We were aware of it because we lived next door and it went up for sale. We finally decided to do it. We were looking at other places, but it was cost prohibitive.
EG: Were you only looking for a B&B in San Antonio, or were considering you elsewhere?
M: Oh, we were looking everywhere. Statewide, anywhere, and everywhere, even in Colorado. We were looking at cost, and it made more sense to take this and convert it.
E: I saw that you are both from Texas--was that a big factor in choosing San Antonio?
M: Well, since we could do it here, since it was in the historic district, then it really did make sense to stay here. And there was a lot of character in the house.
Hector Llanas: And there’s a lot of tourism here already, so it made sense.
E: Hector, did you do all of the interior design here? It’s beautiful!
HL: We both did. I think we went to every furniture store in the state!
M: I think he has a good grasp and really is good at fabrics, colors, furniture, and how it all goes together. More of my stuff was materials, like the tile.
E: How did you balance wanting to be true to the history of this home with wanting it to be a contemporary B&B?
M: What we try to do is keep the character, but then provide the modern conveniences. Each room has flat-screen TVs, iPod docking stations, Blu-ray disc players, and there is wireless Internet. So we tried to take the existing character and add those features to it to make it feel more modern.
E: Could you tell me more the history of the inn?
M: The house was built for the Hartung family. They owned a grocery store. It was built starting in 1907 and completed in 1908, and they lived in it for 50 years.
E: So it was loved!
M: Oh yes, it was very much loved! The family spent a lot of time here. In fact, we got some pictures from the granddaughter of the original owner. She found us online by searching the address and said she’d love to come see it and bring some pictures. We were expecting one or two, but she brought 12 or 13 of these amazing pictures from it back then.
E: [They showed me black and white photos from the early 1900s.] These are amazing—San Antonio has such history! When did you actually open the inn?
M: We started renovating it in late 2006 and it took a year to complete.
E: How much did you change?
M: The overall layout of the house remains about the same. What was changed is was taking the additional space and adding bathrooms. Two bathrooms—a lot of bathrooms were already here. In the upstairs, we had to re-do a bathroom, add a bathroom in the bottom room, and re-do the carriage house-that needed the most work. It was pretty much gutted.
E: What has been the most gratifying part of being innkeepers so far?
H: We meet a lot of nice people that we would never meet otherwise, and from all over. We’ve had folks from Singapore, UK, a lot of Canadians, Australia, Mexico…
M: To meet them and hear their stories and talk to them for a bit, it’s great!
E: Did they come to San Antonio as a destination for tourism?
M: Yep, sure did. A lot of them make their way across—they have a good amount of time for vacation, so they start at one end, work their way down and work their way back up.
E: I wouldn’t think people from Singapore would be interested in San Antonio, Texas!
H: You know what, that was the best experience we’ve had. They were a family—there were three generations. They brought a little kid. Normally we don’t accommodate children, but it was fine. But the kid, as soon as they walked in, he took off his shoes and put them on the side. It was so cute.
E: Wow. What do guests say they love most about staying here?
H: They love the fact that we’re so close to downtown, but far enough that you can enjoy the neighborhood, and it’s quiet.
M: you can get right in the middle of things, but it’s quiet, and their ability to relax. And people love the memory foam mattresses. They say, we love this mattress! This is great! A lot of them try to go out and buy them themselves—what brand is it? I love it!
E: When somebody comes and stays here and asks what they have to see, what do you tell them?
H: They have to do the River Walk, The Alamo, the missions. We’re very close to the Pearl, which has become a very cool culinary center.
M: They have apartments on top and it’s very unique. All of that is right there—the Culinary Institute of America with the five or six fantastic restaurants. It’s a great destination.
H: And of course the water parks, and we’re close to the Hill Country.
M: A lot of people base themselves here, then head out to Fredericksburg and the Hill Country, then come back. You have a lot of different options when using this as a base.
E: Had you stayed in a lot of B&Bs before deciding to be innkeepers?
M: A few. But we did have a really good friend in Houston who opened a B&B two years before we did. It’s since been converted to a hostel. We even got to babysit one time and see what we did and didn’t want to do. His was a lot bigger, 12 rooms, plus they did weddings. So we jumped right in and got to see and get the whole jibe.
E: Has there been anything about being innkeepers that has surprised you?
H: I think it’s weird that a lot of people don’t have fruit. We serve fruit in a little cup, and they don’t want it! I think it’s weird!
M: Even on pancakes, they’ll eat everything but leave raspberries and blackberries, and I’m like, that’s the best part! Also, the kindness. A lady made quilts, and she had always wanted to stay at B&Bs, and she gave us a brand new quilt. It was so sweet.
E: Which of you does the cooking?
M: Hector does most of it since I’m still a consultant. I’ll help the food cups and baking, and he’ll take it from there. And he can do omelets blindfolded. He does them really well. I’m more nervous when I’m doing them.
H: But you should have seen the first one I made—it was so shaky!
E: Did you have a culinary background, or did you learn as you went?
H: Not at all. I think we go out to eat a lot, so you get a lot of ideas.
M: We experimented. Because before we opened, we did have our friends over as guinea pigs. And they’re not shy about saying what they do and don’t like. We bounced ideas off them. One of our friends, Robert, is a good cook himself. He gave us ideas.
E: What are some of your guest’s favorite dishes?
H: I think the waffles and the eggs.
M: We have buttermilk Belgian waffles, and we looked a long time to find a recipe that didn’t require yeast to rise and sit overnight. That took a little bit of effort, but once we found it, buttermilk without the yeast, we’re really happy with it. I think they like the presentation because we do it with powdered sugar with the fruit on top with the whipped cream.
H: it almost looks like dessert!
M: It looks so good. Also, the scrambled eggs. We had seen all over the place with truffle oil. We were like, ok, we have to try this stuff. The first time we tried it was on French fries, and it was not bad! We wondered how it would taste on eggs. Hector experimented, and it doesn’t take much, just a little bit. That with the fruit cup and the croissant, and bacon—all that together! And his patience when he scrambles the eggs, he’s very patient—he doesn’t overcook them and doesn’t try to cook them fast. He has a nice low heat, and it almost turns into ribbons when you’re using the spatula. So you get a really good texture, and then with that texture and the drizzle, it’s an experience. People say, “There’s something different about these! I really like these!”
E: When somebody asks why they should stay at a B&B instead of a hotel, what is your answer?
M: Really, it’s the environment. There’s no waiting in the lobby. There’s no waiting to get your room. It’s a more home away from home experience. We always make sure to introduce them to the gathering areas in the house. We tell them this is open for you. Just relax, read a book, have coffee. We have DVDs--a huge collection that we show them. It’s interesting, some people will do a staycation from San Antonio, come here, and for several hours they’ll just enjoy watching three DVDs because they just never get to do it. They’re away, they get to relax. The breakfast, going back to their room, then going out to dinner is a great experience because they have a chance to do it otherwise.
By Emily Starbuck Crone