This month marks The Vanguard‘s ninth year in business. Since opening in October 2014, the Bay View bar and specialty sausage emporium has earned oodles of local and national attention, has been a favorite dining destination for touring comedians and professional wrestlers passing through town, and has kept things interesting every Halloween with ambitious one-night restaurant transformations. It’s now difficult to imagine Milwaukee without a place like The Vanguard. We don’t want to imagine it.

However, while having our annual chat with co-owners Chris Schulist and Jim McCann about this year’s Halloween pop-up theme and menu, we were shocked to learn that all is not well at 2659 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. According to Schulist, “sales have dropped off so dramatically that, frankly, doors could close next month” if things don’t turn around.

In an effort to improve things, The Vanguard has appointed a new chef to address the inconsistent food quality of recent months (which the owners admit was an issue), expanded its hours of operation, and is finally offering table service. And yes, they’re still doing a great Halloween theme with a brand new menu. In advance to that October 26 pop-up, Milwaukee Record spoke with Schulist and McCann about recent struggles amid the rising costs of running a restaurant post-pandemic, new chef Hansem Castillo, the restaurant’s Halloween plans, highlights from nine years in business, and what’s needed to get The Vanguard to year 10.

Milwaukee Record: If I’m not mistaken, Vanguard’s ninth anniversary was a few days ago. Congrats! Looking back, what are some of the highlights so far?

Chris Schulist: For me, it’s a bunch of the ridiculous things we did for Halloween. The Seinfeld night was huge because I’m such a Seinfeld nerd. We got a mechanical bull for the patio when we went as the Cheating Heart Saloon. The Punchline Comedy Club, Kyle Kinane doing stand-up for our anniversary, last year’s Prince performance by Gabriel Sanchez when we went as the Prince-themed “Paisley Pork” restaurant, hanging with professional wrestlers who would stop in—Jimmy Mouth of the South Hart, Al Snow, Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson, Alicia Fox, Jinder Mahal, Baron Corbin, Otis, Brian Kendrick, John Morrison, Braun Strowman just to name a lot—and giving them Silver Vanguard Satin jackets that are only available to professional wrestlers who stop in.

And on the more general note, a big highlight of the business is all of the past people that have worked here. There have been lifelong friendships made in this building. Two people met working here and ended up getting married!

Jim McCann: Because the Halloween party and the anniversary party both occur in October, it was a heavy lift planning wise, so we moved the anniversary party to November. So I haven’t really thought about it being nine years, but thank you. You think of all the ridiculous stuff we have done like Chris touched on. My all time favorite wrestler, Stan “The Lariat” Hansen, came in and was very gracious and a class act. He was waiting to go to the airport, so he had time to kill and was very talkative. I spent two hours talking to him about family, being a dad, and ‘80s wrestling. I tried not to be a nuisance and give him space, but as I tried to slip away, he would hit me up with a story. Like experiencing Andre The Giant trying to get into a tiny Japanese cab. I still can’t believe that actually happened. But really, it’s the friendships that have grown out of being at the restaurant. Getting the opportunity to work with people you love. I feel pretty lucky about that.

MR: Looking forward, what are some hopes or plans you have for the years ahead?

CS: Well, to be quite honest, the future has been scary to say the least. Surviving after the pandemic was not easy and has been a struggle with staffing, which causes inconsistent hours, and general burnout. While we’re grateful for our opportunities and proud of what we created, there are days when service industry life just feels thankless. This year our head chef Paddy Joyce had to step away to attend to some serious physical issues. It’s a credit to his work ethic that he attempted to return after three months, but he decided, along with the mental stress of the service industry, it wasn’t something he could do anymore. The constant stress of hiring, firing, staffing, and burnout was maddening for us all, so we completely understood his decision and wished him the best in his new career.

His departure left a big hole to be filled. Unfortunately, some of our kitchen personnel changes didn’t work out after Paddy, but now I finally feel like we are on the right track. We have a brand new head chef, Hansem Castillo, and he’s been doing great and implementing changes for the better. While we’ve been super excited with how things are turning around, sadly, it feels like our time is running out to see these changes actually work out. The cost of operating a restaurant has skyrocketed since Covid. And while we want that corner bar feel and want to keep things as affordable as possible, the prices of some of our ingredients have been constantly fluctuating and we needed to raise the prices on some things. In hindsight, that change should have happened a while ago.

On top of that issue, this past summer we’ve got some bad reviews and after looking into them on our end, I have to say that they were warranted. Having people say that the food wasn’t up to its normal standard is the worst. I can’t tell you how much that bums me out. And not to make excuses, but it’s quite possible that customer got a terrible experience from someone who worked here for a short period of time. While we learned to move on quickly from the employees who were not working out, now we’re worried that experience turned people off for good. Did one or two employees who were sending out cold fries turn off 20 people? Or was it like 200 people? I want our food to be incredible. If it’s not, that’s on us.

Hansem has made the food quality and presentation his main priority and it shows. But now we are at this weird spot in our business where we finally have a sense of relief because we have confidence in our current kitchen staff and management, but we are facing the traditional fall drop in sales. We reduced hours to reflect the slow period, but sales have dropped off so dramatically that, frankly, our doors could close next month.

MR: I have to admit that is surprising and pretty scary to hear. What are some ways you’re hoping to lead more people in and turn things around as soon as possible? I see you’ve finally added table service. Hopefully that will help. Is there anything else in the works?

CS: Aside from our new chef Hansem focusing on food quality and costs, yes, we have finally added table service. And I echo your “finally” because I don’t know why we didn’t do it sooner. Let me just say this to everyone that ever complained about having to get your order from the kitchen: You. Were. Right. You were absolutely right and I’m sorry we were so stubborn to change. So now you can get full service at the bar, if you sit at a table, a server will get you food and drinks, and if you just want something to go, you can place an order from the kitchen. Yes, Milwaukee, you complained, we stubbornly ignored the complaints, and you were right! We actually love how it’s been going.

JM: Yeah, table service was overdue. Also, I’m really excited that Han’s team brought back weekly specials. I had a stupid idea of trying to do a pumpkin spice sausage—kind of like a joke. They took the idea and made something really delicious. Between throwbacks to past sausages that were on our menu before or new ideas the kitchen team came up with, it’s been really cool to see what is next from them.

MR: Can you tell us more about Hansem? Where has he worked before this and what do you think he’ll bring to the table once he’s fully settled into the role?

CS: Hansem was a longtime employee of ours that had worked here on and off for years. He has been with us through the pandemic, but he also worked here when things were not so good. Han is someone that really takes pride in his job and his food. He hated hearing that “the food quality dropped off,” so he stepped up and made it his priority. He’s running the kitchen how he wants it to run and it’s really making a huge difference. He’s also just a great guy. His positive attitude is contagious and that’s exactly what you want in a kitchen.

JM: It’s also fun to see the kitchen management so positive working as a team again, all pulling in the same direction.

MR: Beyond being your anniversary month, I know this time of year is also special for you because it’s when your Halloween pop-ups happen. What’s this year’s theme and what are some things you have planned?

JM: We had this idea in our back pocket forever so we finally decided to go with Vanguard Championship Wrestling. We have a special menu just for that night. I think a couple of the Mondo Lucha wrestlers might be on hand for photos. There will be a costume contest and such. We have some other surprises we will save for the night. We realized after the fact that the party is the same night as the Bucks opener. So if you ever wanted to watch the Bucks next to a bunch of people dressed like Macho Man Randy Savage, this is your chance.

I’ll let you all take a look at the food menu. It’s possible there might be some last minute changes, but this is basically it. Coming up with the dumb names is the best part.

MR: Is there anything else you’d like to say?

CS: I guess all I’d like to say is we’ve had an amazing run as your local sausage hut. If you were thinking of stopping down, we would appreciate any extra business right now. We think we corrected some customer concerns and it feels great to have so much confidence in our staff right now. I hope we’ve turned it around and let’s hope we can see year 10.

JM: I’ll add a big thank you for everyone’s support through the years. Especially during the takeout phase of Covid. And of course a big shout out and thank you to our amazing staff. Much love. Oh, and we have new hours starting October 18. We don’t close after lunch anymore. We’re now open every day at 11 a.m. and are serving food until midnight weeknights and until 1 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

About The Author

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Co-Founder and Editor

Before co-founding Milwaukee Record, Tyler Maas wrote for virtually every Milwaukee publication (except Wassup! Magazine). He lives in Bay View and enjoys both stuff and things.