By Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host Published Oct 19, 2022 at 11:02 AM Photography: Lori Fredrich

’Tis Dining Month, the tastiest time of year! This means we’re dishing up fun and fascinating food content throughout October. Dig in, Milwaukee! OnMilwaukee Dining Month is served up by Potawatomi Hotel & Casino and Wollersheim Winery & Distillery.

Hen’s Deli is the name of a new breakfast and lunch spot which is slated to open in the former Soup Brothers location at 209 W. Florida St. in Walker’s Point. In fact, if all goes well, the deli-inspired concept could open as soon as December or January.

Exterior of Hen's Deli's new locationX

The deli is a family-owned operation created by industry veterans Chef Lucas McDonald and Vivian Sotolongo, the owners of the popular Clarke Street Sausage Co., a popular concept which was born in the Riverwest Neighborhood nearly eight years ago, but which gained legs during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Dreams deferred

Both McDonald and Sotolongo have dreamed of owning their own food-based businesses for years. When McDonald was 19 and working for Danny’s Meats & Catering in Kenosha, he says the job planted the seed for his future and gave him hope that he’d one day own his own deli or sandwich shop. Meanwhile Sotolongo says that for years she’s wanted to open a Latino coffee shop. 

“As a kid I watched my parents looking and looking for a place to open a restaurant,” she says. “They never found a place, but it inspired me to think about what I wanted to do, which was to create a place where people could gather.”

Both pursued work that would eventually support their dreams. McDonald enrolled at MATC to ensure he’d have the qualifications to one day operate his own restaurant. Meanwhile, Sotolongo took on various jobs in the restaurant industry.

After finishing his degree, McDonald pursued work in the industry, landing jobs with Benji’s Deli,  Braise, The Farmer’s Wife and ultimately an executive chef position at View MKE, where he met Sotolongo, who was working as a front of house manager.

The pandemic wasn’t kind to View MKE, which struggled to find a way to attract business at a destination restaurant best known for its patio views. Even after the restaurant reopened in spring of 2020, morale was low and job security was tenuous. 

Sotolongo, who’d been furloughed early on, had taken on work at Classic Slice in Bay View. She also began encouraging McDonald to think about branching off on his own. 

As time passed, the notion grew more and more attractive to McDonald, who decided to leave his position and resurrect a side hustle that he’d dabbled with in 2016: Clarke Street Sausage Co.

At the time, he lived in an apartment on Clarke Street in Riverwest where he and a friend had been perfecting their sausage-making skills. When he realized the licensure needed for sausage would require a larger investment, he refocused his energy, making bagels and hamantaschen which he sold at the Shorewood Farmers Market as well as at a stand at Shakespeare Raw performances.


Ultimately, he says, the concept remained a side hustle which he put on the back burner as he sought out more stable employment in local restaurants.

Clarke Street Sausage Co.

It didn't take long for McDonald and Sotolongo to get their new business started. By late June, they had started selling homemade bagels, kolache, hamantaschen and hamburger and hotdog buns at the West Allis Farmers Market under the moniker Clarke Street Sausage Co.  


By September, they’d signed on to sell their goods during the last stretch of the Riverwest Gardeners Market. But, once the markets were over, they needed a new plan.

“That winter we launched home delivery,” notes Sotolongo. “People were still largely working from home, so we were able to pull in enough business to make it through the colder months.”

Industry friends, including the folks at Classic Slice, also supported the business, ensuring that they were able to keep it running until the Riverwest Gardeners Market came around again in the summer.

By the following summer, they were even more prepared to impress their market customers. They’d secured commercial kitchen space at Common Cookhouse in Oak Creek, an addition which allowed them to begin making the sausages that their name promised.  In turn, their housemade bratwurst, Italian and Polish sausages made it onto their weekly market menu in the form of creatively topped sandwiches.

Their 10-year old daughter Hadassah, who took an interest in the business, helped out at the markets, greeting customers and taking orders. Meanwhile Sotolongo took on gigs cleaning houses and bartending to make ends meet as they grew their business. Eventually, McDonald took on employment at the Daily Bird, making bagels for the local coffee house. That relationship led to winter pop-ups during which Clarke Street Sausage Co. got creative with offerings like BBQ, tacos and housemade ramen, stretching the boundaries of their business beyond the confines of summer farmers markets. 

Ramen served at a Daily Bird pop-up (Photo c/o Clarke Street Sausage Co.)

“In addition to extra income, It was really nice to serve people in more of a restaurant atmosphere and to show Hadassah how it worked,” notes Sotolongo.

Turning the corner

By summer of 2022, Clark Street Sausage Co. had established their stride. Regular customers came out weekly to purchase sandwiches and bakery and every market seemed to bring new customers to the table.

Farmers MarketX

But on June 22, 2022, they got news that no one with a food-based business ever wants to hear.

“I got a text message telling me about the catastrophic fire at Common Cookhouse,” says McDonald, who says that they lost about $2500 worth of meat and other perishable inventory which they’d purchased for the upcoming week.

Despite the losses, McDonald says they felt lucky. "We didn’t lose nearly as much as some of the other businesses who were operating there,” he says.  

They were also fortunate in other ways.

“Immediately the health department paid us a visit,” he says. “We were overdue on inspections, so they were following up with us for that reason; but they also gave us information on how to get licensure for onsite preparation, which ultimately kept us operational at the Riverwest Market.”

Using their new license, they began setting up early in the morning and smoking meats right at the farmers market, offering sandwiches piled high with smoked pork shoulder pastrami, pickled red onions and horseradish mayo. In no time, the sandwiches became a hit and McDonald says they began selling out almost every week. 

Smoked pastrami for sandwichesX

It was then that the couple decided they needed to take their business to the next level.

“We were so grateful,” says Sotolongo. “But it started to become exhausting to think about trying to make it through another winter, so we began looking at locations where we could start a small bodega-style sandwich shop.”

The birth of Hen’s Deli 

McDonald and Sotolongo spent months looking at a variety of storefronts for the business, primarily in Riverwest. Nothing worked out. In fact, they were just about to give up the hunt when they found the listing for the former Soup Brothers location in Walker’s Point on Craig’s List. On paper, it was perfect. There was ample kitchen space, a small dining area and plenty of opportunity to make their business model work. A look at the location in person sealed the deal.

“We’ve developed a following because of our bagels, and more recently our sandwiches,” notes McDonald, who signed a lease on the space earlier in October. “So everything about the location made sense. It covered all of our bases, and we were really lucky that it all worked out.” 

McDonald cutting meat at farmers marketX

Sotolongo says that Hen’s Deli – an acronym which incorporates the first letters of their three childrens' names: Hadassah, Eva and Noah – is not only a tribute to their children, but a representation of the old school family business that they hope to operate.

Once open, Hen’s Deli will offer both breakfast and lunch options which build upon the offerings for which Clarke Street Sausage Co. has become known. That includes bagels and other breakfast items, sausage and deli sandwiches and sweet baked goods. But the shop will also serve a variety of other options including tortas, the delicious Mexican street food style sandwiches.

When it comes to the timing for their opening, the couple says it’s contingent on a number of factors including current construction, licensing and city inspections.

Currently, the building owner is bringing the kitchen up to code in preparation for the installation of necessary kitchen equipment. Meanwhile, the owners are navigating the processes needed to attain their licenses and ready the business for customers. To assist with start-up costs, they’ve also launched a GoFundMe campaign which will help to defray some of the costs associated with opening a new restaurant.

“We’ve had great support from the owners, who have involved us in the process of making repairs to the space and bringing it up to code,” says Sotolongo, “We’re so grateful for that, as well as the support we’ve gotten from our community in Riverwest and beyond, and we're excited to start this new chapter."

Both owners have high hopes that, if all goes well, they can open the deli before the year’s end.

"Right now, we’re putting everything we have into this,” says McDonald. “And we’re moving forward, taking each step we need to take as soon as it comes into view.”

Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host

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.