Restaurateur Marc Bianchini has been a driving force behind the Milwaukee restaurant scene for almost two decades. His culinary passion has helped establish local landmark restaurants such as Ristorante Bartolotta (yes, he helped open the original Bartolotta restaurant in Wauwatosa), Carnevor, Kil@Wat as well as his own properties Osteria Del Mondo, Cubanitas and Indulge.
On Thursday, Bianchini officially opens his latest venture, Coa at Bayshore Town Center. Coa is Bayshore's first locally-owned and operated restaurant (if you don't count Alterra Coffee Roasters) and is an entirely new concept for Bianchini -- authentic Mexican street food.
I caught up with the always furiously busy Bianchini as he readied Coa for its formal debut on Thursday night.
Jeff Sherman: First, bigger picture stuff, how is the greater Milwaukee restaurant industry fairing during this downturn? And, how are the Bianchini restaurants doing?
Marc Bianchini: The last time we talked (prior to the opening of Kil@Wat), I predicted a difficult road ahead for many restaurants. As expected, many have been unable to weather the economic downturn and have closed. It's unfortunate, but many of those places just weren't suited to delivering the kind of value that diners demand today.
We knew Cuabanitas would remain strong. Our wine room, Indulge, is still relatively new, but we're off to a great start and Indulge is developing a really avid group of fans.
Osteria del Mondo has been hardest hit, but that wasn't a surprise. Over the past few months, we've actually seen an increase at Osteria. I believe that's because Osteria provides exceptional value. Restaurants that are able to do that will survive long-term and thrive despite the economy.
A restaurant must stay true to its soul. Adapting is good, change is bad -- because it demonstrates a lack of confidence or an inability to compete. I have seen restaurants start off trying to compete with a specific concept -- stumble, alter slightly and realize they still can't compete -- then change concepts completely. By that point, it's obvious to the customer that these restaurants don't have staying power.
JS: A few of your last consulting projects were Kil@Wat and Milwaukee Chop House, correct? Are you still involved and what do you think of those places?
MB: Milwaukee ChopHouse was more of a touch up, just bringing the menu up to date. Kil@Wat, I feel, was one of the best concepts we've developed. The initial concept was focused on affordable, uniquely, American food and in the end -- the final result did deviate from the initial concept -- but nevertheless, it's a great project and I'm glad to see it doing well.
I just finished up a new project (Hanny's) with Karl Kopp in Phoenix that is also doing very well and have another project that I am concepting in Chicago... but I can't really talk about that one yet.
JS: So, Bianchini is coming to Bayshore. What can we expect from Coa?
MB: A coa is the tool used to harvest the agave plant from which tequila is made. It's a sharp knife on a long stick that cuts to the heart of the agave plant -- and that's how we came up with the tagline for the restaurant, "the heart of Mexican street food."
Coa features many of the most popular street food items - tacos al pastor, carne asada, chicken tinga -- but this is a much different Mexican restaurant experience from what is typical in the United States.
Ninety percent of our menu will be items that you can readily find on the street -- from street vendors or vendors that you would go to -- if you were taking food home in Mexico... all of them simple, completely authentic and amazingly tasty.
People will really appreciate the simplicity the Coa experience. You're not going to see a thousand different items here -- no chimichangas, no burritos -- very little of what you see in so many Mexican restaurants.
Coa is extremely focused -- we want to get people in and out quickly -- because everyone is so busy these days -- and we want to make it affordable. By keeping the menu focused and simple, we can offer the highest quality products made from the tradition of street food at a great price.
What you can expect from Coa is authentic Mexican street food and authentic Mexican cocktails at reasonable prices. What you will not find is Tex-Mex or "Americanized" Mexican food.
Our official Coa "grand opening" celebration is this Thursday, Sept. 17th from 5 to 11 p.m. It will be a Mexican street festival adjacent to Coa and it will feature the Midwest's premier salsa orchestra, Nabori.
JS: Is there a place/concept that you are modeling Coa after?
MB: Not really -- this is a pretty unique concept. My inspiration came from being on vacation in Mexico with my wife. We really wanted to experience Mexican food the way the locals do. So when we traveled the streets of Cabo San Lucas, I said to Marta, "I want this food in Milwaukee -- why isn't anyone doing this?" After much research, I found that people in Mexico City felt the same way I do. So right now, the trend in Mexico City is to serve this type of food in a restaurant setting. It will play off of some of the strengths we've developed at Cubanitas... but don't tell Marta!
JS: Who is your team at Coa?
MB: We've assembled a fantastic team for Coa. Anna Gaborsky is the general manager and Jorge Ruiz is our executive chef. Anna's had long-career here in Milwaukee -- she was at the Knickerbocker for years and brings a large following and years of experience to the team.
Chef Jorge is a native of Mexico and moved to Milwaukee at a very young age. He became an American citizen and then worked at Elsa's on the Park for a number of years. Jorge recently went to Phoenix to help Carl Kopp start his new restaurant in downtown Phoenix -- which is where we met. Jorge is a perfect fit for Coa.
Many of the staff are bilingual. Our chef, two of our assistant managers, many of our servers and a couple of our bartenders are bilingual. It just is another example of our efforts to provide as authentic an experience as possible.
JS: Speaking of team, your role is changing, right? You're doing less day-to-day "chef stuff" and more development. Do you like this? What challenges and opportunities does it present?
MB: Yes, that is correct. I love to develop and concept and that's where I feel I can have the most impact and touch the most people. I really want to help my team reach their dreams in the restaurant industry. As far as challenges, I don't feel that... I see opportunities that are endless.
But the move from the kitchen is a little bittersweet for me. What I miss most are two things -- my loyal customers at Osteria that have made this possible and the thrill of preparing amazing dishes in the kitchen. It's important that my friends and loyal customers know how much I appreciate their support for the past 15 years -- they will never be forgotten. Ultimately, my long-term goal is to work myself out of a job so I can cook every day.
JS: How are things at your first area restaurant, Osteria del Mondo? Any changes there?
MB: As I said, Osteria is actually on the uptick and part of that is the fact that Thi Cao has been executive chef for the past year. He's done a fantastic job. He and I have developed an updated menu with prix fixe option that builds upon our strengths and tradition, but solidifies that value proposition people are seeking today.
JS: If you're going out in Milwaukee (and not to your places), where do you and Marta go?
MB: We love Elsa's, Jerry's Old Town and Palermo Villa on Sunday -- but I have the pizza in slices, not squares, so I get a little taste of home (New York.).
JS: I know you like to dabble in and talk politics. Let's say you're appointed to the Mayor's cabinet (if there was such a thing). What are your three suggestions for the city of Milwaukee?
MB: First, keep it a boutique city -- quality over quantity. Rally the troops and talk it up! Milwaukee is a great city and more Milwaukeeans need to talk positively about the city. Being a native New Yorker, we have it so good here, but I think people take it for granted.
Work to keep people here, keep Milwaukee talent here, end the brain drain.
JS: Anything else that you want to discuss?
MB: Not at this point... Hey, I can't give away all my secrets, but I've got a lot going on. We'll talk again soon.
A life-long and passionate community leader and Milwaukeean, Jeff Sherman is a co-founder of OnMilwaukee.
He grew up in Wauwatosa and graduated from Marquette University, as a Warrior. He holds an MBA from Cardinal Stritch University, and is the founding president of Young Professionals of Milwaukee (YPM)/Fuel Milwaukee.
Early in his career, Sherman was one of youngest members of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, and currently is involved in numerous civic and community groups - including board positions at The Wisconsin Center District, Wisconsin Club and Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. He's honored to have been named to The Business Journal's "30 under 30" and Milwaukee Magazine's "35 under 35" lists.
He owns a condo in Downtown and lives in greater Milwaukee with his wife Stephanie, his son, Jake, and daughter Pierce. He's a political, music, sports and news junkie and thinks, for what it's worth, that all new movies should be released in theaters, on demand, online and on DVD simultaneously.
He also thinks you should read OnMilwaukee each and every day.