Every other year, 24 of the best golf players from Europe and the United States go head-to-head in match play competition for the Ryder Cup. The 2020 Ryder Cup, which was held in 2021 due to pandemic delays, took place at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wisconsin. Although many well-known American names played, two Knox alumni took a much more subtle role during this past cup. Stefano '91 and Whitney Viglietti '92 own and operate four restaurants in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, a neighboring city of Kohler. These restaurants—Trattoria Stefano, Il Ritrovo, The Duke of Devon, and Field to Fork—were the gathering place for many golf fans during the six-day event.
“The Ryder Cup really builds a city. I mean, it's incredible. We can see it from where we live along Sheboygan on the lake, several miles to the north, you can see these big red tents and everything,” said Stefano.
To prevent an outbreak of COVID-19 among the teams, golfers were kept locked down at the American Club in Kohler. Restaurants in Kohler were shut down as well, so the Vigliettis saw a significant presence of fans in their restaurants in Sheboygan. “It felt to me as busy as the past events that we've had, just as we were cooking like crazy all the time, but it's hard to say. They were sure having fun, they were into it. It's a different kind of company, they're able to cheer and yell,” said Stefano. “It’s a different golf event than the very sort of quiet normal things. It was kind of fun, a lot of rowdy happy people coming in at night.”
Even in a normal year where golfers are not locked down, the Vigliettis prefer to see the fans and regular patrons. “When you really think about it, [the golfers] don't eat a whole lot, they go to bed early, they don't drink much. Yeah you want to see them, but at the same time, I want the big groups in there buying $600 bottles of wine, and eating, and partying, and having a good time, and those are people who are going to be here all the time,” said Stefano.
This Ryder Cup was a very convincing win for the U.S.—the American team took the cup with a score of 19-9, the largest margin since 1979. “There were a lot of happy people Saturday and Sunday around Sheboygan and Kohler,” Stefano said. “It was pretty neat, the whole environment was a blast.”
Some fans even took their patriotism to the next level. “We had some crazy fans, this one group had the blazer with the Stars and Stripes and it was flashing, very patriotic,” said Whitney.
The Ryder Cup changes locations every time it's played, but there are other large events at Whistling Straits, according to Stefano. “What's so great about it is now all the years going forward, and of course from the past events, those people want to come. So we see the big jets coming in, the private jets coming to the airport, landing, all that deal, like ‘Oh, it's golf season, they're coming back,’” said Stefano. “We're kind of a vacation spot now for a lot of people. It's pretty awesome in the fall.”
The Vigliettis believe the success of the golf course, owned and managed by Herb Kohler '61, is a large part of why they have been so successful. “Golf is a huge thing for us, and it's partly why we can exist and do what we do here,” Stefano said.
The Vigliettis and their restaurants have been featured in multiple magazines and on several TV programs. “We felt pretty strongly that good food could be served in different cities...we had learned that in Italy, people ate well in all sorts of towns. It wasn't just Milan and Venice and Rome where they ate well. They ate well in little towns of 500 people,” Stefano said.
After their Knox graduation, the Vigliettis moved back to Stefano’s hometown of Sheboygan to enter the restaurant business. “We really wanted our town to have something like this that we felt would add value, and I think we did,” said Stefano. “That feels good, when you improve where you're from and make it a more livable place.
The Vigliettis attribute their ability to fight through hardships to their Knox education. “I really learned a lot, I think, on pushing through because there were things I really had trouble with and I struggled, because I did a lot of high-level economics classes and things that I never thought I would really be able to take, and I did. I was taking 300-level classes, and German class, I was always pushing. I feel like that was the first time in my life where it took everything I had to get through and to do well. Not just get through, but get through and do hopefully pretty well at it, and so I feel like Knox really did give me that,” said Stefano.
When the pandemic hit, the Vigliettis had to make the choice of pushing through or closing down. “We looked at each other and said, are we going to stay open and do this, are we going to try to fight through this, and we did. And part of it was probably because we learned how to fight through stuff there at Knox. [...] I always think back—if I can make it through statistics with Marty Eisenberg (a former Knox assistant professor of economics), I can do anything,” Stefano recalled.
Lastly, the Vigliettis attribute part of their success to each other. “There we were in 1994, just out of school, and I'm in the kitchen making bread, which I've never really done, and she's out there balancing the books, which she's never really done, but you figure it out, you get through it. [...] it was just a matter of really putting your head down and going, and just working through things,” Stefano said. “It's been a great time.”