On Tuesday, in his first major political trip since taking office, President Joe Biden visited Milwaukee, holding a town hall meeting at the historic Pabst Theater, 144 E. Wells St. The town hall, moderated by Anderson Cooper, was broadcast live on CNN.
Look across the headlines covering the event, and you’ll see varying opinions about how Biden handled the questions he was asked, how accurate his answers were and what citizens can take away from the conversation. Head to Twitter and you’ll find the world debating what Biden’s answers mean for the months ahead and the future of the nation.
But one thing is certain: The real winners of the Biden town hall were local hospitality businesses, including The Pabst Theater and seven area restaurants, all of whom benefited from the money CNN spent feeding their crews during their seven-day stint in Milwaukee.
A win for Milwaukee
It was the first time since the pandemic hit in March, that the Pabst Theater opened its doors for an event. And it was one earned by CEO Gary Witt, who landed the contract for the town hall over five or six other Midwestern cities.
It was a win likely fueled by the Pabst Theater Group’s relationship with CNN, which utilized their theaters during the Republican Convention in 2016 and which also initially contracted to use Turner Hall as its base of operations during the Democratic National Convention (a plan which fell apart after the DNC went virtual due to the pandemic).
“I can only conclude that that offered us a leg up,” says Pabst Theater Group Executive Chef Kevin Sloan. “And I’d add that it’s a truly beautiful theater that’s also convenient since we’re connected directly to the Saint Kate Arts Hotel, so people have a convenient place to stay and work.”
Sloan was tasked with coordinating meals for the CNN crew and local staff who worked to prepare the theater for the town hall. All told, that meant continental breakfast, lunches and most dinners every day for a seven day period.
“We didn’t know it would be held in Milwaukee until a couple of days before the crews got here,” says Sloan. “So it was a lot of coordination in a short period of time.”
Spreading the love
“I’d just started going through the process of figuring out the logistics for all the meals we had to serve,” says Sloan, “when Gary [Witt] called me and suggested that I rope in some local restaurants to better distribute the work and spread the money around to more places.”
Sloan says the relief he felt was palpable.
“There were still logistics to deal with, but the pressure was off to make everything with a limited staff in a small kitchen that we hadn’t used for over a year,” he says, noting that he reached out to seven food venues including Allie Boy’s Bagelry & Luncheonette, Confectionately Yours, Dandan, Egg & Flour Pasta Bar, Goodkind, Meat on the Street and The Tandem.
“We wanted a diverse menu, so we looked for places that not only made really good food, but also that we knew could come through with what we needed. Everybody took at least one meal."
Sloan planned dinners for Friday, Feb. 12 and Feb. 16 following the town hall. Longtime pastry chef Julie Thorsen and Confectionately Yours handled some of the desserts. Dandan covered two meals. And the remaining restaurants tackled the remainder of seven days of lunches for around 100 people and dinner most nights for at least 40.
Restaurants were tasked with creating menus that included three different meal options (including vegetarian and meat-based dishes), notes Sloan, who sent the menus to CNN for approval and suggested revisions.
“People put a lot of thought into the dishes they made,” says Sloan. “They had to be things that would hold up, and that would taste great even if they were at room temperature or cold. And they all had to be individually boxed or bagged.”
Every day, Sloan coordinated pick-ups and drop-offs, ensuring that the COVID-friendly grab-and-go meals were ready at their allotted times.
“We provided all the bags and boxes for packaging, dropped them off at the restaurants and then picked up the meals to bring them back to the theater, where they could be dispersed to everyone who was working.”
Meals included pizza bagels from Allie Boy’s; confit Sichuan chicken, tofu and beef wraps from Dandan; fennel pollen grilled chicken, coriander crusted pork loin and roasted mushroom panzanella from Goodkind; Egg & Flour pastas, including their lobster macaroni and cheese; Meat on the Street’s pork adobo, marinated tofu and three meat kebabs with pancit; and Georgia fried chicken dinners from The Tandem.
Following the town hall, Sloan – alongside Chefs Cole Ersel and Julie Thorsen – served up pulled beef short rib sliders, ramen pasta salad with grilled tofu and kimchi; and chicken shawarma bowls with Moroccan chicken hummus and quinoa. Dessert was blueberry cheesecake.
Everything took place behind the scenes, with staff working stealthily and silently to ensure that all were well fed.
“Normally, I’d linger by the buffet table and get the pulse on how things were going,” says Sloan, noting that he has no idea what Anderson Cooper, let alone Joe Biden, may have eaten, if anything. “This was really different. There was secret service everywhere, and due to COVID precautions, I really didn’t have contact with as many people as I normally would have.”
But the week’s work – however stealth – paid off.
“Overall, it went really well,” says Sloan. “Last night, as I was talking with Gary and Adam [Dosemagan], our front of house manager, the message was pretty clear that people were thrilled with the hospitality that we offered.”
Restaurants were also pleased.
Sloan says that Chef Dan Jacobs of Dandan expressed gratitude for the opportunity to help out, noting that the money paid out for the Dandan dinners contributed to the best weekend in sales the restaurant has had since the pandemic started. Others, he says, expressed similar thanks.
In comparison to the Democratic Convention, which would have pushed far more money into the Milwaukee economy, the town hall is just a drop in the bucket. But every little thing counts these days as venues and restaurants struggle through the seemingly unending pandemic.
“I’m so proud of everyone,” he adds. “It was an exhausting few days. But it also felt good. CNN was an awesome partner on this. They loved the meals, and they were great to work with. It was an injection of energy and money that restaurants really need right now.”
Enjoy this piece? Read this behind-the-scenes look at how The Pabst has attracted countless acts to the Cream City through its amazing hospitality and one-of-a-kind dining offerings.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.