The Broken Yolk cooks up success with Marquette students
For the seventh straight year, October is Dining Month on OnMilwaukee.com, presented by the restaurants of Potawatomi. All month, we're stuffed with restaurant reviews, delectable features, chef profiles and unique articles on everything food, as well as the winners of our "Best of Dining 2013."
It's now a staple of the Marquette University experience. While fighting a hangover the morning after a long night at Caff's or Murph's (or meandering down Kilbourn looking for a party if you're not old enough for the bars) or perhaps needing something to wash down a rough midterm exam, you head over to The Broken Yolk & Sandwich Shoppe for a plate of eggs, hash browns, breakfast meat and other deliciously greasy comfort foods.
Jim Gatto (the self-professed "short dumpy guy on the grill") opened the restaurant at its original location in the 2040 Lofts on West Wisconsin Avenue only a few years back. Despite being several blocks away from the campus's main drag, the breakfast and lunch joint became a hot spot amongst Marquette students. After all, it hits all of the important college checkpoints. It's got student-friendly prices, the portions are massive and most importantly, the food is good.
As legend tells it, however, Milwaukee wasn't the first choice for Gatto, nor was opening a restaurant. After graduating from Penn State University in 1970 as "an accounting major who never wanted to be an accountant," he slowly worked his way up the ranks of the cable TV division of Warner Communications. He eventually made his way to Boston, covering a large part of the upper East Coast area for the company.
After a while, though, the constant traveling became a drag on Gatto, so decided to abandon his cable TV work and start up a grocery store and deli in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston in 1977. He already had a little bit of experience in the food industry working in restaurants back in college, including a brief, promising stint at McDonald's.
"The owner of the franchise actually wanted me to quit college and go to Hamburger University in Chicago," Gatto said. "I said, 'If I go home and tell my family that I'm quitting school and going to Hamburger University, I might never make it out alive.'"
Still, his earlier experiences wouldn't completely prepare him for the fiercely competitive restaurant business. Even Gatto notes that he wouldn't particularly recommend the way he jumped into the food world.
"The restaurant industry has a high fatality rate," Gatto said. "They fail for a lot of reasons. One is bad location. Two is they don't know anything about the business, and they think they can make it work. Three is lack of funding or money. I did what you should never do, and that's do all three of those."
Still, Gatto managed to survive the early storms and find some success. He went on to open several other restaurants in the Boston, many of which around college towns. His growing business, however, took an unexpected turn when during a routine examination about eight years ago, he discovered he had developed a kidney problem.
"The doctors wanted to put me in the hospital, and I said, 'No, you can't do that,'" Gatto said. "We took some tests and determined what was wrong with me and how to correct it, but they really still felt that I should make a legitimate effort to do something different."
Gatto's plan was to cut back on the amount of stores he was running to a more reasonable single location. He also wanted to move to a place with a nicer climate. He originally set his eyes on California – a common vacation locale for his family – but when he couldn't find a good spot for a restaurant, he started looking in Florida.
He eventually committed to a location in Florida, but somehow in this process, he ended up landing in Wisconsin, pretty much the complete opposite of the sandy beaches and constant sun he was looking for. He jokingly blames it on a "moment of weakness."
"My wife wanted to come and visit her brother who lived in Milwaukee," Gatto recalled. "He and his wife graduated from Marquette in the mid-'80s, and we came out to say hello and spend some time with them. And they talked me into staying. Next thing I know, I'm cancelling our project down in Florida and opening the first Broken Yolk up here in the 2040 Lofts building. When the winters came, I said, 'What am I doing here?'"
Gatto eventually warmed to the frosty weather, almost as fast as students warmed to The Broken Yolk. The restaurant ended up becoming a hit on campus for its cheap prices, and satisfying breakfasts and sandwiches. Gatto doesn't do anything particularly fancy – mostly just heaping servings of eggs, pancakes, bacon, corned beef hash, biscuits and gravy, and other diner favorites – but he makes sure they're all made right as you'd expect.
"You just try to do it the right way," Gatto said. "I'm not reinventing the wheel here. We just try to make everything the way the customer wants it. We have good products to work with, and I think if you have a work ethic and a good mindset, you add that to the product you have, and it usually comes out to be a good dish."
On occasion, he will make special requests from the students, and if they're good enough, he'll add them to the menu and name them after the customer.
"There was a guy named Corey who was a driver for a Curtis ambulance," Gatto recalled. "He wanted a reuben omelet, with the Reuben fixings inside of it, so we made it for him and named it after him. It was called a Corey. It works out pretty well. People like being a part of the store."
About a year and a half ago, Gatto took a risky next step for The Broken Yolk. He opened a second location, this time at 1617 W. Wells St. On one hand, it was becoming increasingly difficult to keep up with demand with just one small restaurant. At the same time, the new spot – a mere five blocks away from the original store – is far closer to the middle of campus, and there were worries – both amongst Marquette students and Gatto himself – about cannibalizing business away from his original restaurant.
Up to this point, however, Gatto reports the business has held strong.
"So far, both stores have been able to sustain the ups and downs of the business," Gatto said. "Marquette goes on break at Christmas for five weeks, and summers are a little slow obviously. But we've been able to survive. We've built up a little bit of community business, and it's worked out that we're still able to do both stores."
There might even be a new member of The Broken Yolk family hatching out soon. According to Gatto, he's been scoping out a spot over at UWM – perhaps on Farwell, Oakland or North – for a third location. He guesses that within a year, he'll have a store open over there. Because if there's one thing everybody knows – in the mangled words of "Field of Dreams" – it's if you cook it, the college students will come.
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