Jo's Cafe keeps the sunny side up
Once again, Milwaukee was recently ranked as the overall most segregated metropolitan area in the United States. This is something most of us would like to see change, and one way to do this is to recognize and support the truly diverse establishments in the city.
Jo's Cafe, 3518 W. Silver Spring Dr., is one of these places.
The cozy, no-frills diner on Milwaukee's Northwest Side is packed with people of all kinds, from police officers to white collar professionals to the man sitting behind us sharing stories with his breakfast date about his time in jail.
Chris Platzer, who owns Jo's Cafe with her husband, John, says she knows almost everyone in the diner at any given time.
"Sometimes the entire restaurant will be involved in one conversation," says Platzer. "We're really unique, old fashioned. You don't find places like this anymore."
Karyn Schwartz, who has worked as a waitress at Jo's for seven years, proved this during our recent visit for breakfast. She broke away from chatting with us to greet a customer.
"Where have you been?" she asked.
"Traveling for work," he said.
"Must be rough," she said, with a wink in her voice and then set down a cup of coffee in front of him.
No doubt about it, Jo's is a light, friendly place and because the north wall is made almost entirely of windows, there's a lot of physical light in the space, too.
The Formica table tops, paneled walls, framed family photos and white board scrawled with the specials of the day create a very simple, old-school-diner environment. And the menu – Jo's serves both breakfast and lunch – mirrors the decor: comfy and uncomplicated.
Everything is made from scratch, including the soups, sauces and John's strawberry rhubarb jelly stacked on every table. Nothing on the menu is over $8 with most meals in the $5-$7 range.
Jo's version of hoffel poffel – sometimes called hopple popple at other places, including Benji's – consists of American fries mixed with onions, spicy salami, potatoes and scrambled eggs. According to Chris, it's one of the most popular menu items, along with the omelets.
We found the crispy, thin-cut hash browns – cut by hand, mind you – and the flavorful pancakes particularly well done.
"Our secret is two different batters mixed together as one," says Schwartz.
The lunch menu features daily specials like meat loaf, pork chops and country-fried steak that come with with real mashed potatoes, homemade gravy and an in-house baked roll. Burgers, sandwiches, pork ribs and chicken are also available.
About half of Jo's business is take out. During our visit, five or six customers came in to get their breakfasts on the go. This might be, in part, because of the small size of the cafe.
"Usually, you never have to wait more than five minutes. We're quick," says Schwartz.
John's mother, Jo, bought the cafe in 1982. Jo had worked through two previous owners as a third shift waitress before she purchased it herself.
John and Chris, who started dating in 1980, started working at the cafe shortly after it opened and, with the exception of a few-year stint living in Florida, have been very involved ever since.
"In 1991, after John's dad passed, we moved back to Milwaukee to help Jo out. I had gotten my degree in social work and was planning to be an AODA counselor, but I thought I would help out for a few months at the cafe before getting another job," says Chris. "But I couldn't quit. I just couldn't leave this place."
John and Chris purchased the diner from Jo in 1994. Jo, who is 80, still comes in about once a month to make goulash.
Originally from Austria, Jo has lived in the area – which is on the edge of the Thurston Woods neighborhood – for 50 years and, consequently, John grew up there. They are all very committed to the location and have no plans to expand or relocate.
"We're not going anywhere," says Chris. "We're really invested in the neighborhood."
Jo's Cafe is open Monday-Friday from 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and on Saturdays from 6:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Transactions are cash only.
People seem to misinterpret that segregation statistic all the time. It has nothing to do with racial social interaction or where people go to eat. It's about what neighborhoods people live in. So, no, going to Jo's won't change the statistic. And no statistic shows that Milwaukee is last in racial social interaction.
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