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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2014

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In Dining

John Pitch offering freshly baked cookies at Pitch's Express.

In Dining

The county building housing Pitch's Express. It was built in the '60s.

In Dining

The interior of Pitch's features a nautical theme.

In Dining

All kinds of parents bring their goslings for ice cream.

In Dining

The fish-cleaning station outside of Pitch's.

Pitch's Express serves food and drink with a view


Pitch's Express, 1750 N. Lincoln Memorial Dr., sells sandwiches, cocktails, ice cream, boating supplies and souvenirs in a unique building comfortably tucked into McKinley Marina.

Hard to see from Lincoln Memorial, casual visitors to the lake might not be aware of Pitch's Express. But if you continue toward the lake on E. Lafayette Hill Road, Pitch's is indeed there, with the Milwaukee Yacht Club to one side and the public landing to the other.

John Pitch opened the Express three years ago after Milwaukee County Parks director Sue Black asked him to take a look at the place. Pitch worked out an agreement with the county, which in turn has an agreement with the federal government.

"All this land is owned by the federal government, the county manages it," says Pitch. "Through the years, they've negotiated to have places like Pitch's here, so long as they don't put up condos, hotels, etc. It's for the people."

Similar spaces operated by other Milwaukee restauranteurs appear elsewhere along the lakefront; Scott Johnson operates the snack bar at Bradford Beach and the Bartolotta Restaurant Group has the North Point custard stand.

Pitch's family also owns and operates Pitch's Lounge and Restaurant, 1801 N. Humboldt Ave., and Miss Katie's Diner, 1900 W. Clybourn St.

Among other items, Pitch's Express offers Miss Katie's chili for $3.25, a BBQ chicken sandwich for $6.75, a breakfast sandwich for $4.50 and Usinger beef hot dogs for $3.50.

"I try to feature Wisconsin products when I can, but I'm constrained by the county," says Pitch.

This means, among other things, that he carries Pepsi products rather than Sprecher sodas because of agreements the county makes with certain companies.

Pitch's Express offers Lavazza Pienaroma coffees, which come in two cup sizes, one for $1.55 and another for $1.85. Pitch's Express also has shots of espresso, cappuccinos and lattes.

An assortment of Miller beers are available as well as other bar items.

"Bloody Marys are popular on the lakefront," says Pitch.

As is ice cream – and lots of it. Pitch says "ice cream and the lake go together" and he's sold as many as 250 ice cream cones a day. Scoops sell for $1.85 for one, $2.45 for two and three for $2.95. Waffle cones, choco taco and other novelty ice creams are also available.

The building that houses Pitch's Express was built in the '60s to look something like a sailor's hat. It also contains restrooms and the marina office where people can purchase county passes or rent boats and slips.

In addition to the 650 boat slips located in the marina, there are gas pumps and a fish-cleaning station operated by the county.

Pitch's Express sells a variety of supplies including oil, fuel and motor treatments for boat engines. Other products include Kanberra, a gel from New Zealand that kills mold spores as it dissipates in the air.

"We do what we can to be a convenience store on the lake," says Pitch.

Soap, shampoo, deodorant, pain medicine, candy and suntan lotion sit alongside tourist t-shirts, hats and two sizes of cleaned fish bags (where you put your fish once you catch it and clean it). Cards, booze, apple cider and Door County cherries are also available, as well as four sizes of life jacket, from infant to adult.

"You must have the right size," says Pitch. "The Milwaukee Police will ticket you for violations like these. And because the lake is a federal waterway, the Coast Guard also patrols it; if they find you in violation, they tow you in to shore – you're done boating."

Because of Lake Michigan's federal waterway status, boaters also need certain safety equipment they wouldn't need on, say, Pewaukee Lake. Pitch's Express carries these supplies, too, from flares and horns to battery covers.

Pitch says business, in general, has "been wonderful," but it can vary greatly, with the weather playing a more prominent role than at other establishments.

"Ten degrees means $300 to $400 to me. If the weather's too cold, it's like people think the lake's closed," says Pitch.

Pitch's Express is open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. between March 17 and November 15, weather permitting. It will also be open March 2, 2013 for the Special Olympics Polar Plunge, which takes place at the landing.

A percentage of Pitch's sales that day go to the "freezin' for a reason" event.

"It's a safer, more civilized environment to jump in the lake," says Pitch, alluding to the other plunge that takes place on New Year's Day farther up the lakeshore.

Pitch says the lakeshore is a great place to spend his work day. He has two employees, Jessica and Leah, and sometimes they're overwhelmed by the numbers of people playing on the beach or walking the pier who suddenly want ice cream. Other days are more laid back and Pitch has regulars from county employees to various boaters and fisher folk who rent slips or fish the pier that he has time to chat with.

"Mike Pritzkow, a writer from Madison who docks here, is writing a murder mystery set in the marina," says Pitch. "I said, 'Put me in the book!'"

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