In February, American Express and the National Trust for Historic Preservation announced the launch of the “Backing Historic Small Restaurants” grant program. The program, administered by the National Trust, set out to award over $1 million, in the form of $40,000 grants, in an effort to assist in the preservation of historic restaurants in the U.S. as they continued to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic and establish plans for recovery.
Among the grant recipients, announced today, is a local gem: Kegel’s Inn, 5901 W. National Ave., a restaurant long known for its iconic Friday night fish fry and its preservation of German heritage.
Unique struggles for historic restaurants
Established in 1924, Kegel’s Inn is among the oldest continuously operating family-run establishments in West Allis. It’s a space that houses living history, home to a variety of unique hand-painted murals, stained glass windows and a near-100-year-old mahogany bar, all of which have stood the test of time.
In a city once home to dozens of German restaurants, it also now stands as one of only two remaining in the Greater Milwaukee area. It’s an iconic stop, bound to history by its cherished collection of recipes and old world cooking methods, which have been passed down and preserved through multiple generations.
Kegel’s Inn is not unlike restaurants across the nation, all of which have faced an uphill battle to stay afloat; but it has also faced its own set of unique challenges as an historic restaurant, making the journey even more precarious.
“Our demographic is older and more high risk,” says co-owner Julian Kegel, the fourth generation owner of Kegel’s Inn. “So we had to face the challenge of attracting an entirely new customer base. We also had to largely adjust our usual indoor dining model to accommodate outside dining.
"I’ve been saying to everyone that the experience has been like having a quiver full of arrows… and the pandemic forced me to shoot them all out at once.”
To enact a pandemic survival kit, Kegel says he built on the foundations laid with the creation of the Kegel’s Inn beer garden, introducing more casual affordable fare during the summer months as well as winter feasting opportunities for feasting in custom decorated weatherproof outdoor yurts. And, thanks to the grant funding, he’ll be able to continue that work while enhancing the look and outdoor offerings of the historic beer hall and restaurant.
Grant funded improvements
Kegel says that the framework of the $40,000 grant specifies the funds be used for exterior improvements and the expansion of outdoor seating. In turn, he plans to build on the ongoing improvements he and his wife Stephanie began when they took the helm of the family business.
“The real revamp of Kegel’s started the day we took over,” he says, “And we’ve been working very hard to make improvements to our menu and processes slowly but surely.”
In recent years, the restaurant has recommitted to its menu of traditional recipes and scratch-made cooking. They’ve streamlined processes and remodeled their kitchen to allow for higher volume and more efficient service. And they’ve engaged the community with the creation of a collaborative beer garden.
Now, he says, they will use the grant funds to help refurbish the restaurant’s exterior, repainting the second and third floor exterior. They will also invest in new neon for the long-broken “Tap & Dining Room” sign which once hung above the main entrance to the restaurant, but which now hangs, damaged, on the 59th Street side of the building.
He’ll also invest funds in converting the three car garage on the Kegel’s Inn property into a multi-season open-air dining room with operational garage doors on three sides.
“The success of the beer garden means our goals have been to increase our capacity for outdoor seating,” he says. “So we’re also continuing our work with the city to make the beer garden into a four-seasons flex space.”
For more about Kegel’s Inn, listen to Julian Kegel as he shares his journey, first taking on the family business and then meeting the challenges of keeping an iconic family business relevant in the modern world.
[Kegel’s Inn Part 1: The Journey to restaurant ownership ]
[Kegel’s Inn Part 2: Stewarding history]
In addition to the funds from American Express, Kegel’s Inn has also received up to $250K from AT&T Business and Dell Technologies for digital upgrade; a complimentary year of ResyOS restaurant management software; marketing training from Main Street America in collaboration with UrbanMain Marketing Specialists; access to National Restaurant Association virtual educational tools; a free year of Ripl social media management services; free media from Nextdoor; and sustainable takeout packaging from Emerald Brand.
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.