Give or take a week or two, it’s been one year since COVID-19. It’s been one year since “pandemic” became an everyday word. And for countless Milwaukee bars, restaurants, and music venues, it’s been one year since everything changed. We checked in with some of them and asked two simple questions: What were the biggest challenges you faced over the past year, and what are you looking forward to as things finally begin to improve?
AMILINDA (Gregory León)
We shifted to curbside March 17 until present. We reopened for dine-in for a month but it wasn’t worth the cost, so we shut back down to just curbside. We started helping to feed those who needed it with organizations like World Central Kitchen and The Tandem, and we started The Hungry Hearts program.
We are reopening for dine-in service this weekend. We will only be open for dine-in Friday and Saturday, and we will continue curbside service Wednesday through Saturday. We are also continuing to cook meals for The Tandem and Hungry Hearts.
BLACKBIRD BAR (Holly Doar)
First off, the pandemic hit just as our son Henry became obsessed with Frozen II. I remember just letting him watch it on repeat as we watched our lives fall into a chaotic mess, losing all control of what we knew as reality. I think I paced wear spots into the carpet. That soundtrack has haunted me ever since. Take a listen and you’ll know why. Into the unknownnnnn…
As the dust settled. The biggest challenge we faced was figuring out how to protect our staff and navigate this crazy year without losing our asses. Last March we had to lay off all our staff, which was heartbreaking. I remember writing up an “official” laid-off notice and thinking this is the craziest shit ever. I just wanted to make sure they could file for unemployment ASAP. Then we spent months shaking our heads and trying to come up with ideas of how we could reopen safely. In the end we chose to stay closed and cut down whatever overhead costs we could. We just couldn’t figure out how to return safely.
In September we decided that we should try to reopen, as many bars were and there was no for-sure end in sight. It took us a couple months to prep for reopening. We bought product, installed plexiglass and wall barriers, we built a patio, purchased a HEPA air filtration system, designed new single-use menus, added hand sanitizer stations, bought 300 PENS…and by November shit was looking real baaaaad. At that point we could not fathom having our staff come back in and possibly being exposed, even with all the changes we made. We decided to pull back. There might have been some tears.
In the end we were fortunate to be able to stay closed throughout the madness, but it has been a very costly year to our business as a whole. For now we have decided to wait for our staff to either get vaccinated or for patio season to reopen. We would probably look to open the patio in May. We would also allow distance seating inside this summer, if case loads stay relatively low.
Sidenote: I do not blame people for trying to be open safely during the last year, as this is nothing any of us deserved or ever imagined happening. Owning a service industry business is tough, and this has just been flipping insane. I feel for all my friends in the industry and support the decisions they made, because I know they were some of the toughest decisions any of us have had to make. There is no right way. We all just had to follow the best path based on our unique situations.
BOONE & CROCKETT / THE COOPERAGE (John Revord)
Obviously, an industry dependent on large gatherings of people was not the industry to be in this year. COVID hurt. It hurt bad. We were looking at an amazing year of growth before the pandemic hit. A new project, the Horned Hare, was nearing completion, Snack Boys was in the process of expanding into our recently completed North Avenue location, and we had a full calendar of weddings, events, and shows booked out at Boone / The Cooperage. COVID halted everything.
The Horned Hare sadly never made it to open. We were too new to take advantage of any of the rescue packages made available to established businesses, and without an opening date in sight, the writing was on the wall. (This still keeps me up at night.)
Snack Boys had to cancel our closing parties scheduled for the old location, and to this day has yet to celebrate a grand opening in a style fitting for the brand. Boone and Coop’s calendars were wiped clean.
As the world began to understand how to navigate the pandemic, we found hope (and financial stability) through the PPP, EIDL, and a number of grants made available at the State and City level. It cannot be understated…without these I would not be talking to you as an owner of anything. They were, and continue to be, integral to our survival.
With summer, we were able to open our patios for limited outdoor service. While this alone would not have paid the bills, it did give us a glimmer of a future for the world that had been taken from us so suddenly. It felt really good to see people, even if it was only to yell at them to put on a mask.
Come fall, COVID numbers once again came knocking, and for obvious reasons we made the decision to switch to online and carryout sales only. (A huge thanks to the community for supporting us this winter. We love you.)
While we remain closed for indoor service at this time, we will be monitoring case numbers and vaccination rates as we determine our path for a crawl back to in-person operations. Bars and restaurants are starting to see a much welcome light at the end of the tunnel (no thanks to the Wisconsin GOP, Tavern League, et al.) due to a (surprisingly) effective vaccine rollout. We are confident that spring will be a refreshing upgrade from the slog we’ve been through for the last year. We will continue to concentrate our efforts on outdoor programing this summer, and hope to return to indoor service sooner than later. Fingers crossed. While there is hope in the above, we are still nervous about the future of large events. They will return, no doubt, but when is still a big question. We patiently await the science on this one.
As a silver lining, we did get a totally useless (at the time) capacity increase for The Cooperage during COVID, and we can’t wait to stand in a loud room with (now) 400 sweaty drunk people. Get those vaccines, people. We want to party again.
That all said, we are super proud of our staff’s handling of the ever-changing landscape we’ve navigated over the last year, and more than anything else in the world, we can’t wait until everyone is back. We miss our family. We miss our customers. We miss our bar.
HEAVEN’S TABLE BBQ (Jason Alston)
The biggest concern was adjusting to online ordering, and getting that system together. This is something no one’s ever experienced before. As a cook and a restauranteur you’ve kind of seen it all, so you know how to adjust, but planning for and having to handle something that you’ve never went through before can be challenging. Ultimately, I think if your concept wasn’t already in the position where it could be carryout, and you could benefit from it financially, you were probably suffering. The good thing about barbecue is that 60 percent of my orders are carryout anyway. So it was just figuring out the curbside online ordering. That’s probably going to be a part of our lives for a little while. Not to mention it’s convenient, period.
If I’m looking to the summer, it sure is going to be better than last summer. And if it’s still minimal to mid-level capacity for some things, at least the vaccine is out. I think people are more sure of themselves and their safety with the vaccine.
LINNEMAN’S RIVERWEST INN (Jim Linneman)
By far, the biggest challenge we’ve had over the past year—hell, over our almost 28 years in business—was having to close our doors entirely for three months, and then, when allowed to reopen in a limited capacity, with a very limited turnout, generating enough revenue to pay the bills. To stay in business, we applied for several grants made available from both the City and State, invested in equipment to stream live shows to folks at home, and decided to open to the public just one day a week (for our Wednesday Acoustic Open Stage) in a very limited, safe, City-regulated basis. Even with those efforts, revenue has been way off that of normal times.
Experts are expecting this to continue into at least fall, if not late winter and beyond. Incredibly, that’s going to take us to 18 months to maybe two years of very limited revenue. It’s a daunting challenge. We plan to do everything we can to survive this dark period, and can’t wait to see everyone on the other side when things finally return to “normal.”
MAYA OPHELIA’S (Chase Roldan and Jack O’Grady)
Honestly, one of the biggest challenges we faced was becoming a regular, actual “mobile restaurant,” and having to occupy our own space. Our pop-ups thrived in the bar/entertainment industry, but with the pandemic we had to think fast about what we wanted to do. We worked out of our prep kitchen and served food to-go style when it first hit, and we ended up being actually really busy. We were one of the very few all-vegan spots open at the time, so it really plunged us into a more high-volume state of mind. Coming from pop-ups where we were fairly limited on supply, and getting used to having to make more food because we can was a huge change for us as a two-person, from-scratch operation.
Not only did we need to adjust how we operated as a pop-up, but we were also starting to create our own community events such as Pay What You Can/Food Drive (collaborating with various spaces around the city) and teaching classes at the Mitchell Street Public Library. We feel these events are important to our communities in creating and promoting safe spaces. As of now, we operate Friday through Monday in the Boone & Crockett parking lot out of our food truck. We host a monthly Pay What You Can from the truck, and we are currently configuring a way to deliver these meals to folks who are unable to reach this location. We are also working on creating a series of short recipe zines to be distributed at the Mitchell Street Library, free of cost.
Although it’s been a wild year and we really miss interacting face to face with the community, we are constantly discussing new ways to continue our mission. We are extremely grateful for everyone’s willingness to take part and try these new ideas with us.
We are still very cautious to indulge in events and social gatherings within this upcoming year. We’d like to expand our hours in the truck and potentially organize various other community meal events. We plan to extend Pay What You Can to weekly or bi-weekly takeout and hope to host these in other locations once the weather permits. As of now, we plan to take it day by day.
ODD DUCK (Melissa Buchholz)
Our entire industry just sort of went away in a minute. I think the hardest thing wasn’t necessarily COVID, it was the response to COVID. It required us to keep pivoting and pivoting and pivoting. I think we’re lucky to be in Milwaukee where we’ve had a mask mandate. But it also seemed like that would get thrown out, but then it wouldn’t get thrown out, and then you could be at 25 percent capacity, and this and that…We’re trying to just figure out how to save our business and save our employees. One day we were doing well and we were one of the most popular and busiest restaurants in Milwaukee, and the next day we just had nothing.
But we’ve survived so far. We have a decent staff intact, and we’ve kept all of our managers at full time and full salary, and quite a few hourly people at part time. I guess what we’re hoping for this year is that it’s not last year. Last year we didn’t open our patio until July. We just didn’t know what was coming. “Okay, it’s going to be another two weeks, it’s going to be another month, we’ll be back to normal soon, so why reconfigure?” This year, we can open the patio as soon as patio season begins. So even though we’re not doing dine-in, we will do in-person patio dining as soon as we possibly can.
We also have a parklet out front from Milwaukee Active Streets, so we’re going to do patio dining out front and out back. Out back it’ll be reservations for the most part, and out front will be walk-ins. If we’re still in a place where we haven’t been able to get our staff vaccinated, we won’t be doing dining inside, we’ll just be doing dining outdoors. But if it’s spring and we can open all the doors and windows, we’ll have reservation tables as backups indoors, with fans and stuff, which is a lot more safe than in winter when everything’s closed off.
But our priorities will still be outside dining, with inside only as backup. Unless we can get our staff vaccinated. As soon as my staff and I don’t have to risk our lives to feed people fancy food, we will do that.
PABST THEATER GROUP (Gary Witt)
I think we learned that to pivot is to survive. It wasn’t only about changing and doing different types of events in our venues, it was also about pivoting to becoming constant cash managers. We’re a business that essentially, in 2020, lost 96 percent of our revenue, so we had to learn how to survive during that timeframe. That pushed us towards different things.
And we did it. We had to find ways to one, bring some amount of money into the business, and number two, we also had to still be a part of the public discussion. We went from sending out 165 million emails a year, talking about things that we were doing…we didn’t want to fall off of a cliff and lose that community. That’s a part of your business overall. So whether it was moving from weddings to elopements on stage, or whether it was a run of holiday photos at the Pabst and Turner where people could come in and take their holiday card photos, all those things were helpful.
As a business, we do 700 shows a year. There’s not a lot of time for us to be able to look at the work that we’re doing and try to consistently find ways to improve operations and things like that. A pandemic, on the good side, is a blessing. COVID is an accelerant that allows you to make changes faster, changes that previously would have taken a much, much longer time. So it allowed us to look at our internal infrastructure and how we did things. Now all of our focus wasn’t solely based on what’s the next show, how we market this show, is it selling or is it not selling, whatever it is. Our focus became our operations. If we waste this time that we have—a real time to analyze how we do things—and we don’t try to find ways to do things better, we’ve truly wasted the real benefit of what this pandemic is about.
Its biggest lesson is teaching us about time. We do have time, and how you use that time is what’s important. Look, it’s important for you that you’ve had time to be home and be with your family more. For me it’s the same thing. Right now I’m looking at my backyard…I generally don’t ever get to see my backyard, it’s always dark when I come home. So I know now that I have a backyard, and I get to see my wife more, see the dogs more, see my grandkids more. Time is important. I think it’s one of the things that we’ve learned. And I think that it’s taught us that if we do that correctly, and we manage our time correctly and find new ways to manage our operations, we can come out of the pandemic stronger and smarter and better. And we’re going to need to, because we have to find ways to make up what will essentially be two years of revenue that’s been stolen away from us.
We don’t plan to come out of this quietly. We plan to come out of this like a dragon slayer, a death eater. Our goal is to come out and make sure that we can operate on the highest of levels.
THE ROMAN COIN (Teri Regano)
In February, as the virus began to take hold, I sensed that taverns and restaurants would be the first to be shut down, so it came as no surprise when it was announced that March 16 would be the day. It made perfect sense to me, but I know that many will not agree. Unfortunately, the pandemic was politicized by the former administration. I maintain the belief that the entire country should have been shut down for at least a month…and I mean a serious lockdown as some countries in Europe did. Had this been done, I believe we would have had far less businesses fail and we certainly would not have had more than 500,000 dead Americans.
That being said, I welcomed the shut down because my priority was the safety of my staff and customers, but the biggest challenge was I feared for my staff and how they would survive this before government help became available. For several weeks, I was delivering envelopes with cash so that they had money to at least purchase food. Eventually the loans and grants came through and I felt a bit relieved. That relief was short lived, as it was announced in July that we could reopen. I waited until late August to open because I was not willing to expose my staff. At that point, all the grant money had been used for payroll and for several weeks I had again been paying them out of my account with no money coming in. I made the difficult decision to reopen and held my breath. I purchased high-end HEPA air purifiers, touchless hand sanitizers, changed the inside and outside seating configurations, and instituted strict safety protocols.
My hope for 2021 is a weather pattern that will be conducive for people to sit outside. Our Business Improvement District board, of which I have been a director for more than 16 years, is discussing the possibilities of expanding outdoor seating on Brady Street through the City of Milwaukee’s Active Streets program.
I also hope that people continue to social distance and wear masks—both of which have been proven to reduce the spread of the virus—and that when it is available, everyone gets the vaccine. My greatest hope is that we learn from this…trust the science, change our habits, and move forward. We can’t go back to what was.
THE TANDEM (Caitlin Cullen)
We closed our doors to the public and laid off almost three quarters of our staff in March. We had staff self-select who had support systems they could lean on if they were laid off and asked them to voluntarily get shitcanned in favor of giving the remaining skeleton crew slots to six employees (four of them with children of their own to support) who needed the employment to survive. We cut our menu in half for efficiency, and started cooking off the extra perishables that didn’t make the cut and turning them into free meals for our neighbors and for laid off staff and their families.
We realized that the demand for our free food assistance was so deafening and so immediate. We chose to stop selling food and focused on making food that was free to the public—on donations alone (which made both my staff and my partner look at me like I had three heads).
We reckoned with the fact that the pandemic was not going to end after summer, and thus Milwaukee’s food insecure were going to be even hungrier and colder in the winter months, AND our independent restaurants were going to face a serious threat of permanent closure if they didn’t get relief in real time. We partnered with the City of Milwaukee and used federal CARES Act dollars to put 40-plus restaurants to work making food for Milwaukeeans in need.
I woke up every day this winter to go to my empty restaurant to sit at Table 1 to do spreadsheets and kiss ass for money to help our friends and neighbors. But I just keep doing it.
I’ve learned not to make concrete plans for the future, but instead to remain malleable as we don’t know what the future holds anymore. One thing I know for sure, though, when this is “all over”—whatever the fuck that means—we are throwing the biggest party this city has ever seen. Like some shutting-down-Fond-du-Lac-Avenue-between-Walnut-and-North-for-a-whole-day-block-party shit.
THE VANGUARD (Chris Schulist)
Honestly, the biggest challenge we faced was figuring out how we were going to keep the business afloat while keeping our employees safe. Even with the CDC guidelines, we never felt it was safe enough to be “open to the public,” so we had to transform Vanguard into a glorified hot dog stand. We are extremely grateful that people have been so cool with us while we were learning new ways to take orders, or have orders delivered. I’m glad people still crave our food, and thankfully our Chefs Paddy and Sean have been coming up with interesting specials and new menu items to keep people excited about carryout.
But I really miss the bar side of our place. I feel sorry for bars around here that did not have food. They had to get extremely creative. Carryout cocktail kits will never replace the bar experience of being served. No one wanted to come up with cocktail kits. It was just something every bar had to do to generate sales. And I don’t just mean the act of being served by the bartender, I mean the environment, the music, the full experience. That’s what’s missing. And it would be nice to have work for our bartenders! I’m looking forward to getting back to that. Getting back to what made Vanguard fun. I miss the loud music, the videos, the vibe. We really have great customers and regulars that make the place fun. I can’t wait for that to be back.
Our hope is that soon we can all get vaccinated and get back to what made Milwaukee bars and restaurants so unique. I feel like we created a place that was unique to Milwaukee, and somehow very familiar to Milwaukee at the same time. We really wanted to make a place where everyone felt welcome, and I’m proud of what we created. There are countless bars and restaurants here that offer a unique experience beyond food and drinks. That’s what I miss the most. Milwaukee puts a lot of thought into the experience of going out, which is what makes our scene so awesome. The beauty of this “scene” is that on any given night you would see service industry homies, cooks, and bartenders out patronizing all of the bars and restaurants around town. It really felt like a community. And I do feel like we will get back to that someday. So shout-out to all of our bar and restaurant homies that had to change their entire businesses just to stay afloat. We can’t wait to be back at your spots, and we can’t wait to have you back at ours.
X-RAY ARCADE (Eric Baskauskas)
As a business that hasn’t been able to do the number-one thing it’s supposed to be doing—gathering large groups of people to enjoy live music—the biggest challenge for us has been staying engaged. There’s a real sense of alienation that comes with having an empty building with your name on it, and it can be hard to motivate yourself to push ahead. Especially when we’re about to pass the crappy milestone of having been closed for COVID longer than we were open before it! It can be really tempting to just let everything sit there and gather dust.
Looking back on the last year, though, I’m kind of amazed at what we’ve managed to do in the face of this. We have a creative group of owners and staff and I think we’ve never stopped looking for interesting ways to keep ourselves and our friends and fans entertained. We’ve fought that creeping feeling of hopelessness by constantly throwing ideas out there and following what’s interesting to us. This didn’t actually happen, but it’s almost like we closed our doors last March, exasperatedly said, “Well great, now what,” and then spent the last year actually trying to answer that question. Now, we’ll make a bunch of merch. Now, we’ll open the patio for socially distant weekends. Now, we’ll record bands on our stage and sell pizza bagels to go with live performance videos. It hasn’t been super strategic, just whatever we think might click with people and be fun to throw ourselves into. It really helps to stay busy, to gather some momentum.
That probably makes it seem like it’s been really simple, when it definitely hasn’t been. The challenge, as I mentioned, is still mustering the strength to follow through on these ideas. Every time we come up with a new thing to try out that isn’t something we did before, we have to figure out how to do it. And then hope people care. It can be exhausting and stressful. But there’s a good sense of team spirit among us, and we still hold on to the knowledge that whenever we get back in there for that first live show back, it will all have been worth it.
We hope that we (as a country) get to a point where bands are playing shows again. Local bands, touring acts, new projects that started during the pandemic…certainly because this is very important to our business, but also because it’s very important to our happiness as people. I really think going to shows is the most fun thing you can do.
That’s probably still a bit away for us, though, so until that’s a safe and sustainable option we’ll keep pursuing our silly ideas. We have X-Ray Takeaway right now, our series of live video recordings and pizza bagels, and we’re looking forward to warmer weather and the possibility of more Patio Days in our yard. Probably some more dumb stuff that we haven’t thought of yet.
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