Last month, upstart beer baron and longtime provocateur Mike Brenner (you may know him from such films as The Great Bronze Fonz Dust-Up Of 2007) stayed true to his shit-starting ways by penning a doozy of a Facebook post: “IF YOU WANT TO FOLLOW YOUR DREAMS…MOVE TO ANOTHER CITY!!!!! The City of Milwaukee HATES small business.” The post was in regards to a city inspector who decided, seemingly on a whim, that Brenner’s newly constructed, 6,900-square-foot Brenner Brewing Company qualified as a “storage room,” and would therefore have an occupancy of only 49 people. This setback followed nine months of “constant battles and tens of thousands of dollars” for Brenner’s adjoining Pitch Project, which houses artist studios and gallery space. Add to that an unexpected visit from the police a few days later, and it seemed like the City of Milwaukee was doing everything in its power to stop an intrepid entrepreneur—one who had secured over $750,000 for his brewery just one year prior—from succeeding. Or, more likely, the hassles were simply business as usual.
Brenner’s occupancy issues have since been worked out, and Brenner Brewing is open for business. Still, his troubles with the city are not unique. Milwaukee Record spoke to the always-candid Brenner about his experiences dealing with the city, publicly shaming people into doing their jobs, and being the squeaky wheel.
Milwaukee Record: So where did your problems begin?
Mike Brenner: Basically, we were told for over a year that we were going to get an occupancy of around 194. And we were thinking it would eventually be even higher. 194 would have been here [the tasting room], and it would be different in back. The code is written so that the field inspectors can come in and override what the planner says. So an inspector came in and said, “I don’t necessarily see this as a brewing area. I see this whole back area as a storage facility. And the code says you can’t exit through a storage facility.”
Once they made that decision, they had a supervisor come down. He apparently had the job four to six weeks. I know the city is doing this big shakeup where they’re tying to be all “by the code.” “We don’t want to play favorites, and we don’t want to fuck with certain people but be cool to other people.” And so they said, “Because it’s a storage facility, your back fire exit is null and void. So we’ll base it all on what we have here [in the tasting room]. We have 1,500 square feet and one exit, and that equals a capacity of 49 people.”
MR: What did you do after hearing that?
MB: The only thing we were left to do was appeal the city commissioner. I don’t really understand what that is. Architecture commissioner? Commissioner Gordon? I have no fucking idea what it means. So when the architect was here, the inspector was arguing this point in the code that says you can’t exit through a manufacturing facility. And after the inspector left, we were looking at it again and it says you CAN exit through a manufacturing facility. And so they called him, and he was like, “Oh yeah, well, I fucked that up. But I still see it as a storage facility.” It’s like no matter what you say, it’s “Fuck you.”
So then they called the plan examiner and said, “Listen, how can this be such a drastic difference?” So then the plan examiner went to the commissioner and pled our case. She came down and looked at it out of courtesy, and she was like, “Yeah, I think if we add another fire exit sign and put lines on the floor I don’t think we should have any arguments.” So she pled the case for us, and the architects met with the commissioner. Then we got this letter that said we had to put up two more fire exits in the back, we had to change the hardware in one of the doors, and we had to paint lines on the floor so people know the path to the exit.
MR: And how much is that going to cost?
MB: I have to buy two signs. That’s $300 or $400. I have to pay an electrician to come in, they have to pull a permit, and I have to get THAT inspected. I can do tape or paint on the floor. Tape is a dollar a foot, so you figure if it’s 100 feet and you have to do two lines and crosshatch all the way back, you’re spending a couple thousand dollars. These are things that if they had told me on day one I needed another exit in front, I would have done it. But now we’re a year into the project, and all this money has been spent.
MR: It sounds like there’s a serious communication breakdown here.
MB: It’s a weird process. Instead of being like, “Let’s help you through this,” they’re like, “Let’s fuck you over however we can so we can cover our asses.” And I understand that nobody wants to be, “Oh, I was the inspector on that building that caught fire and 150 people died!” I understand that. But like I said, if they would have told me a year ago that I’d need to cut a door in the front of the building, it would be done. But when you come to me after I’ve already spent $2 million on this project…
MR: Did you get any blowback from your Facebook posts?
MB: What I wrote on there is that in my experience in Milwaukee, the only way to get people to do their jobs is to guilt them into it and shame them. Publicly shame them. After I posted that, there were all these other people posting on there and linking and tagging their aldermen and the mayor. I think some of that stuff helps. “This guy has always done non-profit stuff and is always trying to help the community, and he’s trying to do this thing for the community, and everybody is making it as difficult as possible.”
MR: What was the deal with the police dropping by a few days later?
MB: Yeah, they came in checking permits and questioning whether or not I was able to sell alcohol. I don’t even understand how that happened. If you read the comments [on Facebook], some people were like, “I had a bar for nine years and nobody ever came by.” And then you have people who had an art gallery and they came in once a year. I had my gallery for five years, and nobody ever came in and checked my permits.
I understand the value of open communication with the police. You want to tell them what’s going on and work with them. But when you open your business and you have a bar full of people, and all of a sudden the police come in and take you aside, everybody’s like, “Oh, what did he do?”
MR: What do you think can be improved in this entire process?
MB: Well that’s just it: What is there? Nobody is coming in and saying, “Oh, you’re starting a business? How can we help you?” There are all these groups, and they’re like, “Oh, join our group! And pay a bunch of fucking membership fees!” And they don’t really do anything. You go to a meeting and there are 10 people trying to sell you ad space, and 10 people trying to sell you credit card processing equipment. And you’re like, “What am I doing here?”
Once I posted all that stuff on Facebook, I had attorneys reaching out to me who wanted to make money. “I can represent you!” A couple of neighborhood people were like, “Yeah, I can help out.” Which is cool that people reach out. But the hard part is on the front end. You have architects who are helping you, and they know what they’re doing, but then all of a sudden somebody at the city throws a curveball, and everything’s thrown out. From what I understand, the city is really trying to make it easy for people. But they’re just failing at it. You saw from the stuff on Facebook how many people were like, “It’s impossible to do anything in this city.”
MR: Where would you suggest other business owners turn to if they’re experiencing problems like yours?
MB: It would be wise if the city funded something. A lot of these groups, in all fairness to them, they probably have some part-time person who’s doing it out of the goodness of their heart, like every other non-profit, or they’re being paid a very minimal stipend to do it, and they don’t have time to deal with stuff. Why isn’t there a “I’m starting a business!” hotline or website that says you can’t park your beer delivery truck on the street or we’ll tow it, and the towing fee is going to be $350, and you’re going to get charged $50 a day for it to be parked here?
MR: I take it that happened to you?
MB: Twice. The second time they were trying to charge me $3,400 to get my truck out of the impound lot. They sent me a letter that said it’s $20 a day, and it’s $120 for the tow. So I went to go get it. It had been a month, because I couldn’t find anybody that would let me park my truck on their lot. I finally found somebody, and I’m thinking it’s going to be $600, $720. They say it’s $3,380.
They’re like, “It’s more money.” I say, “How is it more money?” “Well, it’s a big truck. It takes up more spots.” I say, “You sent me a registered letter that I had to sign for that says this is how much it costs. And now you’re telling me it’s actually two-and-a-half times that amount, and it costs twice as much for the tow?” And she says, “Well, the city only has one letter. We don’t have a letter for trucks. We only tow two or three trucks a year.” I’m like, “If Time Warner sent you a cable bill, and it said you owed $100, and when you went to pay it they said they were going to charge you $3,000, wouldn’t you be upset?” And she says, “Well, Time Warner would have multiple letters.”
MR: So is there anything positive that has come out of this?
MB: I’ve met a lot of people who have reached out, and a lot of people who are willing to help, or who are concerned. Everybody who has opened a business has gone through stuff like this. “Oh yeah, the city totally screwed me over on this, too!”
MR: At least you’re not alone.
MB: [Laughs] I’m not alone in my misery! Well, I think with me being the squeaky wheel, hopefully the city makes some changes. I think it’s a pretty obvious thing that we need to create help for local businesses and help them start up, grow, and hire more people and create jobs. Obviously money comes from increasing the tax base, so if you’re keeping businesses from growing, you’re shooting yourself in the foot. How much does it cost to make a website that tells people basic shit?