How Major Goolsby's stays in the game
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For more than 40 years, Major Goolsby's has been anchored on the corner of 4th Street and Kilbourn Avenue. So many other restaurants within a few blocks have come and gone, but Goolsby's continues to thrive. Why is this?
Location definitely plays a role. Goolsby's is just down the street from the U.S. Cellular Arena (the former Milwaukee Arena and home of the Milwaukee Bucks) and the BMO Harris Bradley Center, which makes it a convenient place for patrons to grab a drink and a bite before or after an event.
But close proximity to the city's largest arenas is not the only reason, according to longtime employee Chris Peppas.
"The location is helpful, and a lot of places can put up some memorabilia, hang up a jersey, get big screen TVs and call themselves a sports bar, but we have tradition and history," says Peppas. "Since the beginning, if it was happening Downtown, it was happening at Major Goolsby's."
Peppas worked at Goolsby's for 19 years as a doorman, bartender, night manager and media liaison. He left in 1998 to pursue writing and editorial opportunities but recently returned to Goolsby's as a PR consultant and the promotions director.
Goolsby's owner Jerry Cohen owned Someplace Else, 634 N. Water St., and Goolsby's concurrently for 17 years. Someplace Else burned down in February 1989. (The original location of Someplace Else was on Water and St. Paul Streets but was forced to move when the freeways were built.)
Prior to '72, the Goolsby's space was Lammi's Steak House and after that, The Time Out, a fine dining restaurant co-owned by Al McGuire.
"The idea (for Goolsby's) was that people don't want or need a two-hour dining experience before an event. They need quick, good food so they can be on their way to the event," say Peppas.
By the mid-'70s the place was busy enough to require an expansion, and so the bar size was doubled and the kitchen was expanded. At the same time, the basement dining area – informally referred to as "The Major's Bottom" and the home of the 99-cent, all-you-can-eat, Sunday night spaghetti dinner – was converted to office space.
Originally, Goolsby's regular menu featured mostly sandwiches including a brat, cheeseburger and ham and cheese. Eventually, chili – made from Cohen's recipe from his time in the army – was added to the menu.
Today, the menu is still simple but solid. It also includes, wings, mini tacos, sweet potato tater tots, a braised chicken sandwich and a veggie burger. Gluten-free buns are available and salads will soon be on the menu, too.
Healthier menu items are important to Peppas on a personal level. During his time at Goolsby's, he weighed over 500 pounds. After undergoing gastric-bypass surgery, he is now at a much healthier weight.
"I am still able to eat at Goolby's, but now it's the chicken sandwich without the bun," he says.
A list of "beat the clock" items are prominently displayed on the menu to ensure those running a bit behind schedule can eat, drink and still make it to their seats on time. This guarantee of efficient service is another reason why Goolsby's has successfully passed the test of time.
"You know if you go to Goolsby's you're going to get a nice meal for a reasonable price and get to the game or concert or convention on time," says Peppas. "This is another way Goolsby's has sustained itself for 42 years."
Goolsby's walls are covered with pennants, photos, framed newspaper articles and other random items. It's the real-deal decor that lots of chains have tried to duplicate.
"Everything on the wall is connected to real events that we were a part of," says Peppas.
There's also a massive piggy bank, named Barkley – after Charles Barkley – that hangs from the ceiling.
In 1996, Barkley was put in the entrance of the bar to raise funds for Green Bay Packer Reggie White's Tennessee church after it burned down. Cohen matched the amount of money that was collected.
Over the years, many sports stars have dined and drank at Goolsby's. There was even a highly publicized scuffle that took place in the bar in 1986 between Reggie Jackson, then with the Angels, and an aggressive fan demanding an autograph.
However, times have changed in recent years, and sports players spend less time in high profile fan-filled establishments.
"Before there were private jets, a lot of the NBA teams flew commercial and they would have an off day and come to Goolsby's and play video games after a shoot around," says Peppas. "I've seen hundreds of people get autographs from players."
In 1989, Peppas also watched a closed-circuit Leonard/Hearns fight with Hunter S. Thompson, who stopped in Goolsby's after a speaking engagement.
Music and other aspects of popular culture aside from sports have always been a part of Goolsby's entertainment offerings, too. In the '80s, it hosted a Boy George look-alike contest when Culture Club was playing in town. And recently, the bar and restaurant had a "Breaking Bad" season finale viewing party.
"I always tell people, 'this is not only your grandfather's sports bar and your father's sports bar – now we're your sports bar, too," says Peppas.
Wait, wasn't "Someplace Else" #1 demolished for the freeway? And "Someplace Else" #2 on Water N of Wisconsin DID burn down in a fire but that was like 1990 or something, not 1972.
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