Bay View’s a-changing. It’s hard to muster vitriol against the outstanding restaurants popping up (and those soon to open) in the transitional southeastern Milwaukee neighborhood, but some longtime residents still long for the days when what’s now Little DeMarinis Pizza was a legion hall…that served pizza; when Guanajuato was on Howell Avenue instead of two doors south on Howell Avenue, and a post-meal movie could be seen at the Avalon Theater—which was still in business, opposed to nearly being in business again.
Though that weird meat shack on Kinnickinnic has been demolished to make room for Dwell Luxury Apartments, and Rushmor Records is now neighbors with a gourmet dog treat business, there are still ample relics of the old neighborhood. Bay View Bowl is still racking ’em. There continues to be barber shops and stores specializing in microwave oven replacement parts. Wild Flour Bakery’s vibrant mural hasn’t stopped brightening up the corner of Lincoln and the KK offshoot of Allis Street. But now that we think about it, why does it say “Refuge Smoothie Cafe” on the canopy of a building otherwise labeled with a painting of Wild Flour’s logo?
In late June, two-year-old local franchise, Refuge Smoothie Cafe, went about adding a third location to its arsenal when it decided to co-exist in the same space as Bay View’s Wild Flour Bakery. Having never visited either establishment, Milwaukee Record opted to head to the newest Refuge (422 E. Lincoln Ave., 414-727-8145)—until a fourth location opens next month—and drink it all in.
The space: Save for the aforementioned mural and dissimilar canopy, the corner shop’s exterior is pretty nondescript. Inside, things weren’t much different. There was a cooler touting water in paper cartons instead of plastic bottles. Loaves of bread and discounted day-old muffins were strewn along half-full wooden shelves, and the rear of the restaurant/smoothie shop widened to a head to allow for ample seating…none of which was being used at the time of our visit. A small short-order kitchen area was nestled adjacent to the register and was outfitted with blenders. Blenders aside, the only true mark of Refuge’s arrival came in the form of crisp and clean signage and posters displaying specials in addition to the franchise’s uplifting mission to help people enjoy their lives and “make a ripple of kindness in the community,” much like a pebble makes a small ripple when thrown into a pond…or whatever.
The service: Once we took in the scenery, we sidled up to the counter. There, a shaggy 20-something was handing three customers their smoothies, each one a different flavor. After the trio departed, he was quick to assist us. He was able to field our questions. We placed our order and handed him our debit card—only to be told the Internet was down and that only cash would be accepted. As active participants in this increasingly cash-free society, we were a bit light on non-plastic currency. However, we’d decided on a smoothie and we were going to have a smoothie, dammit! We left to get some cash, and quickly returned, cash in hand, which snapped the lone employee on staff out of the between-peak-hours doldrums.
Milwaukee Record‘s drink: Aside from delicious-looking breads and pastries, along with basic egg dishes listed on a chalkboard behind the counter (all of which seem to be part of what Wild Flour’s continued affiliation provides), Refuge offers eight combination smoothies (not counting the build-you-own option). Each specialty offering is named after somebody making a positive impact in the community, ranging from City on a Hill‘s Executive Director Diane De La Santos (composed of pineapple, papaya, banana, mango) and Lake Geneva humanitarian Sal Dimiceli (grape, peach, pineapple, basil), to Ribbon Of Hope cancer foundation co-founder Meg Fay-Steinhardt (blueberry, raspberry, strawberry).
We decided on the concoction created to honor Growing Power CEO and all-around urban farming extraordinaire Will Allen—whose book is available for purchase at Refuge, by the way—that comes complete with spinach, kale, apple, and mint leaf. If a poster taped to a window is to be believed, the Will Allen is the smoothie shack’s top seller, and with good reason. For one thing, it’s really tasty. If one can move past the goopy green appearance, they’ll enjoy a surprisingly sweet, refreshing and revitalizing (possible placebo effect notwithstanding) beverage that’s highlighted by the effervescent kick of mint leaf. A second—and perhaps chief—explanation for the Will Allen’s popularity might have to do with it being that it comes closest to being worth the cost. At $4.65 for a 16-ounce “Refresher” and more than $6 for a 24-ounce “Recharger” size, patrons likely want to stock up on big-money ingredients opposed to a humdrum Fay-Steinhardt that can more easily be recreated in bastardized inorganic form at home.
To ensure you’ll be getting your money’s worth, consider investing $15 in an “Energy Week,” which is good for one Refresher-size smoothie per day for seven consecutive days. Facing the prospect of dropping $6 plus tip on just one glass of liquified kale, $15 for up to seven glasses of liquified kale seemed to make more sense.
The verdict: With its uplifting mantra, comfortable interior, and great smoothies with human names, Bay View’s Refuge Smoothie Cafe is a place we can see ourselves visiting…at least six more times. With an Indian restaurant, a growler bar, and a gourmet brat shop/tavern joining the already burgeoning Bay View culinary climate in the near future, Refuge is unlikely to usher in an absolute lifestyle change. Still, Will Allen and his blended friends may be called upon to provide a slight ripple of nutrition in the dank and festering pond of self-indulgence for time to time.