Soup Bros. ladles up quirk and deliciousness
Richard Regner says he never gets sick of soup. Ever. This is a good thing, because for 13 years, he has owned and operated Soup Bros., a small "soup kitchen" in the Walker's Point neighborhood with a big reputation for serving some of the tastiest bowls around.
"I'm a sucker for soup. I'll even order it at a restaurant," says Regner. "I don't, however, eat my bread."
This seems preposterous, considering Regner's bread, which he bakes from scratch every day, is quite possibly even more delectable than the soup. Regner jokes he puts crack in his bread, and after devouring a massive hunk of carb heaven, it leaves you wondering if maybe there is a teensy weensy amount of some habit-forming substance folded into the dough.
Soup Bros. offers six soups every day, both vegetarian and with meat. Sandwiches, from jerk pork loin to salami to smoked liver sausage, are also available.
The soups come in two sizes: 12-ounce bowls, which range in price from $4.75 to $6, or 16-ouncers which cost between $6 and $8. Some of the most popular bowls are the spinach and fennel, chicken vegetable and the red pepper bisque.
The soups vary depending on the season. Regner makes lighter concoctions – like the Brazilian black bean – in the summer and heavier, cream-based stews and chilis in the winter like lamb and lentil or the Mario's Barrio, a Mexican stew made with an unusual combination of ingredients.
"They love their pig and bay leaves in Jalisco," says Regner.
Speaking of pigs, a winged one hangs in the window of Soup Bros. It fits in well with the rest of the eclectic decor and, like everything in the place, it has a story. Regner picked up the flying pig at Monches Farm in Colgate, Wis. and later found out it was actually made as a twine dispenser for butchers. Regner is quick to point out the hinged flap on the pig's butt that when opened reveals the space for the twine.
Quirkiness abounds in many forms at Soup Bros. Wegner, for example, wears a leopard-print fez while he works solo in the kitchen.
The space is packed with four wooden tables – topped with dried flower arrangements and many bottles of different hot sauces – and are surrounded by mismatched chairs.
The walls are adorned with local art that's for sale, signs that read "Warhol would have eaten it, not painted it" and "bowls this large are usually saved for Amish haircuts," along with an Elvis portrait, awards, small pieces of paper with the lipstick blottings of customers and strands of holiday lights.
Illuminated stars hang from the ceiling, old telephones hang from the wall, and there's even a "graveyard of things that fit into a shirt pocket" like vintage transistor radios and outdated iPods that's on display.
Plus, the restroom showcases an award for local weatherman Vince Condella and there's a nice collection of foreign currency displayed around the service window.
"It started with one bill I taped up to show how ugly ours is, and then people started giving me other beautiful currencies," he says.
Regner grew up in Whitefish Bay and lived in New York for 20 years. He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and worked in numerous restaurants with acclaimed chefs. He also played bass and guitar in bands while living in New York.
Once, after a rehearsal, his friend and band mate, who worked as a restaurant critic for The New York Times, suggested they check out "the soup nazi," a soup vendor named Al Yeganeh whose real-life persona was later portrayed by actor Larry Thomas in an episode of "Seinfeld."
Regner says he was inspired by Yeganeh long before the episode aired.
"I started working on a plan. I loved that (operating a soup restaurant) was so simple. There's no silver, no crystal, no linen, no overhead," says Regner. "But then the 'soup episode' ran and there were 10 new soup places in Manhattan."
Regner moved back to Milwaukee and took a year to figure out the market. Finally, he decided to try his soup concept in his current Walker's Point space, and it worked.
"I give people a lot of food for a little money and I put it in a brown paper bag," he says.
However, Regner has made tweaks and changes along the way to keep the business cookin'. After six years, he gave up his liquor license, deciding he just didn't sell enough alcohol to justify the costs. (Regner does allow beer and wine carry-ins).
"I'm a cafe, not a bar," he says.
Also, Regner had a second location on Prospect Avenue on the East Side, the neighborhood in which he lives, but he closed it after four years because it just didn't work in the space. He remains open to the possibility of trying again on the East Side someday in a more suitable location, but for now, he's satisfied with his Walker's Point-based place.
"Walker's Point has become Milwaukee's food mecca," says Regner.
The "soup lifestyle" is fitting for Regner, an avid motorcyclist who takes a major trip every year, because it allows schedule flexibility. Although his hours are, for the most part, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the winter (closed Sundays) and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the summer (closed Saturdays and Sundays), he often lets the weather dictate his hours of operation.
"If it's 50 degrees and raining, we'll be open until 7 p.m.," he says. "If it's really nice out, Soup Bros. is most likely going to be closed. The last thing anyone thinks in the middle of summer is, 'I really gotta get some soup.'"
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