Hooligans Super Bar is once again serving guests at 2017 E. North Ave.
The East Side staple reopened last week, just over nine months after being shut down by an unexpected fire in November of 2020.
It started with a whisp of smoke
Despite the hardships that have made owning a restaurant challenging over the past 18 months, Owner Mark Buesing says Hooligans was keeping its head well above water.
“We had great support from our customers during the initial shut down,” he says. “In fact, on Fridays, our fish fry was just as popular as it ever was, even during curbside.”
When the city reopened at a partial capacity, Hooligans was among the first businesses to use a QR code for menus. And Buesing says business remained solid and improved as the summer wore on and the bar was able to open at full capacity with the COVID-19 plan filed with the City of Milwaukee. They got through football and baseball seasons, hosting guests on game days.
And then, on Nov. 13, 2020, things went awry.
“I was working when the fire started,” says Buesing. “One of my cooks went downstairs and smelled smoke. We eventually saw a small cloud of smoke, which dissipated after a bit. But then I looked up and saw smoke surrounding the supply line for the rest rooms. I asked an employee to run and see if someone was smoking in the bathrooms. When we confirmed that wasn’t the case, but we kept smelling smoke, we kept looking. Eventually we saw flames shooting down from the cap along the roof.”
Buesing says they immediately called 911, evacuated the building and turned off the electricity. Buesing says the fire department arrived two or three minutes after they made the call.
The investigation following the fire revealed the probable source: an errant cigarette butt. The fire, Buesing says, originated near a small hole in the brick wall near the foundation of the building. Reports from the fire department surmised that a lit cigarette was thrown and landed on the sill plate, a two-by-four stud at the ground level. Thanks to the gap in the foundation, the smoldering butt had enough oxygen to create a fire. Once it gained traction, the fire crawled up the wall, stopping at the roof, but spreading out on either side to an expanse of 15 feet.
Flames damaged the bar’s bathrooms and upstairs kitchen, with water damage following from the mitigation.
“They punched a hole in the roof to put the fire out,” says Buesing, noting that, along with damage from the fire, there was water damage which impacted the upper kitchen as well as the lower level kitchen and bar.
“We came back in around midnight to make sure everything was secured,” he says. “And we found a waterfall streaming down from the ceiling onto the bar. Near the kitchen, there was at least 10 inches of standing water.”
The bar, which was redone in 1997 during a remodel of the space, was salvageable. As was the ceiling in the bar, which dates back to the 1950s. Losses, however, included about $20,000 of recent upgrades including computers and a new cooler.
Buesing says he was floored.
“I went through so many stages: shock, depression. There were moments when we didn’t know what to do. I was concerned about insurance. I was concerned for my staff… that was the hardest thing. In the end, we were able to pay our staff for a month. Then a fundraiser hosted by Crossroads Collective gave them a couple more months of income. But after that, everyone was reliant on unemployment.
“From there,” he says, “It was about conjuring the patience to get through months of not knowing when we’d be back.”
Buesing says December disappeared in paperwork and planning. Due to a variety of factors, including the need for approval from his insurance company, both January and February came and went. Finally, he says, in April his insurance company gave authorization for repair work to begin. That, combined with delays in getting new kitchen equipment, created a scenario that delayed the bar’s reopening until August.
“It was frustrating,” admits Buesing. But he says there were also silver linings.
In addition to the damages which were covered by insurance, Buesing says they took advantage of the closure to make some out-of-pocket upgrades, including a new glycol system for the beer line, as well as new CO2 point of sales systems. The timing was also such that Buesing was able to schedule a much-needed hip replacement surgery in April, from which he has fully recovered.
“We also had 90% of our staff agree to return,” he says, “So we’ve only had to hire two full-time servers and one part-time bartender. We’re still looking for another part-time bartender, but as of the moment, we are almost fully staffed.”
Buesing says that, overall, he feels blessed to be back in action. “The outpouring of support from people in the area and other local businesses has been amazing,” he says. “It’s a great feeling, and it’s good to be back at work.”
A brighter, refreshed Hooligans
Despite delays, Buesing says, Hooligans is back. And the longtime bar – which has served guests since 1936 – is better than ever.
Behind the scenes, the venue has two brand new kitchens, equipped with a few new efficiencies thanks to Fein Brothers, who assisted in replacing damaged equipment. Buesing says that upgraded items include a new convection oven that allows for greater efficiency in the kitchen overall.
That means guests can once again enjoy Hooligans staples like the Hooli-Burger ($14), their popular bang bang shrimp wrap ($13), jumbo chicken tenders ($13) and chicken Caesar salad ($13), along with the bar’s long-beloved fish fry, served up with guests’ choice of cod, walleye or shrimp and all the fixin’s, including housemade potato pancakes.
Guests will have to wait a bit longer for Hooligans wings to reappear; owner Mark Buesing says he’s waiting for the price to decrease, due to the chicken shortage. But, as we move into fall, more favorite items will return including comfort foods like meatloaf, mac and cheese, lasagna, chili and daily soups.
Within the bar itself, guests will notice main floor changes including new pale wood flooring and freshly painted walls, both of which bring a notable brightness to the formerly dim space. Newly remodeled bathrooms sport new tile and accent colors; and a new sound system and televisions will enhance the bar’s game day experience. Exterior painting, as well as updates to the year-round patio space to the North have also been put into place.
Buesing notes that similar improvements have also been made to the bar’s upstairs, which is expected to reopen in the next couple of weeks (if all goes well, in time for Packer games). Buesing says he’s also working with a local artist, who has also been contracted to a mural which will enhance the Ivanhoe side of the building.
Buesing says a grand re-opening party is also in the works in the coming weeks. Guests can watch for news on that when it becomes available.
Hooligans is open seven days a week beginning at 11 a.m. The kitchen serves until 10 p.m. and the bar is open until close.
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.