"Bar Month" at OnMilwaukee.com is back for another round! The whole month of February, we're serving up intoxicatingly fun articles on bars and clubs -- including guides, the latest trends, bartender profiles and more. Grab a designated driver and dive in!
Milwaukee's nightlife scene is nothing if not solid and reliable. But it's also a little predictable, too. Concepts that work in larger cities frequently go untried in Milwaukee, and when they do, they're either a little late to the game or they're often just not really embraced enough to keep them alive.
The streets of old Milwaukee are littered with bars whose ideas have come and gone. Remember places like the Have A Nice Day Cafe, London Bridge, Frauschiger's, Edgar's Calypso, Banana Joe's, Room 434 and Nacho Mamma's?
Believe it or not, at Nacho Mamma's, you could actually scoop salsa out of a giant sombrero, worn by a midget -- a crazy idea in retrospect, but it was a launching point for successful entrepreneur Johnny "Mo" Vassallo.
Remember the oxygen bar called Skyy Lounge at 1225 Water? Joe Sorge, who now owns places like Swig, AJ Bombers and Water Buffalo, certainly does.
"Its time came and went for sure," says Sorge, who remodeled the former 1225 Water from the venerable old Luke's Sports Spectacular. "The concepts that are faddish are an add-on amenity. If you build a concept around a fad, you're going down."
But, back in 2002, the Sky Lounge worked well -- if only briefly. Sorge charged customers $1 per minute for purified and flavored air. "More than half the people walked out saying that's pretty cool," he recalls. "We had very regular return customers and we did it for two years, until we closed to turn (the space) into Swig."
Sorge says the standard of nightlife in Milwaukee and on Water Street, specifically, has been raised significantly since the Luke's days, but yes, a part of him misses the fun.
"Now, we find entrepreneurial challenges in the restaurant business, but before we found it in the nightclub business," says Sorge. He describes his current businesses as restaurants first, bars second.
Longtime bar owner Mike Vitucci says Milwaukee bar concepts are not invented, they're just recycled. "You just have to be the first to bring it back and the first to let it go. From big name DJs to bands to great specials, we did it all."
But Vitucci says that Milwaukee can be too small for some of the more exotic ideas to work. "People are fighting for the same pie," he says. "It's painful to see a great bar idea become diluted. I really don't recall anything that I can say Milwaukee doesn't get -- maybe there is not enough of Milwaukee that actually goes out."
The oxygen bar isn't Sorge's only business turnaround story. He also ran The Corner for six years, where AJ Bombers is now.
"It was a college bar," says Sorge. "The first hit that we took was the enforcement of capacity." He says he was assessed a fine of $39,716 but it was later settled.
Says Sorge, "These college bars live their lives. Look at O'Danny's. Either you choose to change with the times or come up with a new business."
Of course, Sorge doesn't claim that he had the foresight to plan ahead at every turn, but says he tries something new each time -- like embracing social media at AJ Bombers.
"I wish I could say in 2002 that that kind of planning went into place. We were flying by the seat of our pants. We don't come out of the gate thinking they're fads."
Vitucci says he goes into any new venture with a few objectives.
"My goal is to create a vibe and make your customer want more," he says. "I am a believer in an upbeat music tempo and a cool atmosphere that offers more than the average competitor. Let's be realistic; people go out when they're happy and sad. We all want to be around people to either cheer us up or maintain that high. It's as simple as consistent customer service while serving a quality product."
Adds Vitucci, "Never take your good business for granted. Always continue to invest money into your venue. Trust me the customers appreciates it. My salesmen, staff and customers see it."
So when is it time to give up on a bar concept? Sorge always asks himself the same question:
"If you close your doors today, would anyone miss you? If the answer is no, then you should have closed your doors a long time ago."
And Vitucci speculates on what just won't work in Milwaukee.
"Concepts are interesting," he says. "When you focus on that as your identity, your last event always seems more difficult to outperform. You have winners and losers. Since Milwaukee is a small market with less tourism, I think bringing in celebrities with a cover charge doesn't seem to work in our city."
But, he says, a concept and a niche aren't necessarily the same.
Says Vitucci, "I have always learned two things in business, pick a great location and make sure you have a niche. Don't just be a bar, it doesn't work."
Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.