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Kelly’s Bleachers, 5218 W. Bluemound Rd., is THE place to be when the Brewers are playing at home at nearby Miller Park. But it’s hopping for Packers games, March Madness, St. Pat’s and tons of other stuff, too.
Day manager Eric Schroeder is the most popular bartender, according to co-owner Tony Luchini. That’s surely because Schroeder tells it like it is.
Kelly’s is that kind of place: fun, high-spirited, down to Earth and proud of it.
"We rarely serve a martini," says Schroeder. "Our wine is not high-end and it comes in little bottles. But, we rock the crowds and create a fun and energetic environment for anyone who graces our establishment."
We caught up with Schroeder – who started out as a customer and worked his way up to his day manager position – to ask about life behind the bar at one of Milwaukee’s most beloved watering holes.
OnMilwaukee.com: How did you become a bartender at Kelly's Bleachers and when did you start?
Eric Schroeder: I started in February 2003. I was working at The Milwaukee Ale House and I picked up shifts at Kelly’s for extra money. I trained in February because it was the slow time before Kelly’s gets crazy busy – March Madness, St. Pat’s Parade and Day, Brewers. Prior to working at Kelly’s, I was a regular customer and was familiar with the owners, manager and many of the staff.
OMC: Has the experience there been different from your previous gigs?
ES: Yes! I worked at many other establishments in Milwaukee and Los Angeles. Martinis, exotic/fancy drinks, blended drinks, etc., were the "norm." At Kelly’s, the selection isn’t as vast. This is for a couple reasons: we are geared for volume. Usually, the heaviest influx of patrons arrives in what I call a "flash mob." While we are often crowded, the insane pushes of business that occur before and after any event at Miller Park are truly awesome. Two, Kelly’s just doesn’t have the space or resources to provide everything.
Every establishment needs to assess what their capabilities are and assess who their customers are and then move forward with a plan to serve the highest quality food and beverage possible. Kelly’s mostly serves good food, beers, mixers and shots. And, we do it well. Oh, we also serve up a good time.
OMC: Is the vibe different during baseball season in here?
ES: Kelly’s has fostered a large regular patronage. We have pool leagues, bags leagues and a few other activities scheduled during the off season that garner business from locals and enthusiasts. The vibe is different during the seasons.
OMC: I assume you get bigger crowds on game days, but maybe Packers Sundays are as big.
ES: Brewers season brings us a lot of fans from near and far. And, yes, the crowds are larger overall. We get people from the local area, the state and other states. These customers are a little more transient than our local regulars, but it is amazing how many of these customers I see year after year. For example, they may live far away and buy a five-pack for the Brewers year after year. Or, people who have a Milwaukee connection and moved away. We see them come back for the Brewers and friends.
Packers, Badgers and Marquette all contribute to bigger crowds. The vibe is exciting because everyone is charged by a dedication to their team. These games are televised and generally only pull from the surrounding communities.
OMC: Is business affected by how the Brewers play?
ES: Interesting question. There are many factors that affects the size of our crowds. We have been having one of our most successful years ever. The Brewers are not. Why? Well, the weather had a lot to do with that success. Cold and rainy days means no tailgating and then we get hit with huge crowds. We have a strong customer base – regulars – and a fantastic brand recognition. The Kelly’s name often is why we are busy when other establishments in the area may not be.
The bottom line is that all the establishments are only a quarter-mile from Miller Park. Each of us only needs to get a couple hundred customers per day to be very successful. So, if Miller Park’s attendance is at 44,000 or 20,000 ... we still have a large population of consumers very close.
OMC: When they're having a bad year, do folks drink more or less?
ES: One thing I have noticed is that when the Brewers are winning, fans make friends. Short and sweet. When the Brewers win, the fans are happier when they return from Miller Park. They are more apt to join in conversation with a stranger or fan. They discuss the great game and the plays. When the Brewers lose, the fans are often grumpy and not in the mood to talk about the game. Sometimes they drink to forget.
OMC: Do you get fans of visiting teams in here, too?
ES: Yes. Kelly’s gets many fans from all over the U.S. Mainly, we see fans from Chicago and Minnesota. But, I have had great customers following the Mets, the Astros, the Cards... We see them all.
OMC: Which teams' fans are the best tippers?
ES: There isn’t any one place that has the corner on good tipping. Customers have been very generous from all over. Brewers fans, especially, are aware of good service and want to show appreciation. The staff at Kelly’s is grateful for them.
I have had stand out moments like that $500 tip in Tosa last week. Once, New York Mets fans sat at my bar. They were tipping $6 to $10 per round, (for) two-four drinks per round. After a couple rounds, I told them, "No more! You have taken care of me enough!" They said that they just saw a game for $68 per seat that would have cost $200 per seat in New York. They said food and beverage was quite affordable, too. So, they said, "Take the tips!" I did. It was a good night.
OMC: Word is that you're the most popular bartender at Kelly's – how'd you earn that title?
ES: Now, now. I am humbled by anyone who says I am most popular. I work with some great bartenders, so I am hesitant to say that I am most popular. Any title can only come from working hard to make certain the customers have a great experience while at Kelly’s. Bartending is more than making drinks and serving food. It is creating a welcoming environment that allows patrons to relax and enjoy their time.
Sometimes it is getting crazy with a group of bachelorettes. Other times it is just thanking a customer for coming in. I have one customer who comes in to just decompress; wants to enjoy a beverage and doesn’t want to socialize with anyone – especially, an overbearing bartender. You learn people. You learn not to push your agenda or your idea of what a good time is on anyone.
OMC: What is your specialty or signature drink?
ES: I have one drink that I make for ladies. Often referred to as "That Pink Drink Eric makes." A modified Stoli Raspberry cosmo made into a drink. I also have quite a few variations the Bloody Mary that I conjure up.
OMC: What is the most ridiculous thing you've seen a drunk patron do?
ES: I walked over to the games and a patron was pushing the buttons. The screen was flashing and showing high scoring combinations. The customer got mad. I asked him what was wrong. He said he keeps winning but he isn’t getting any points. I look closer at the screen. He hadn’t put any money in. He pushing buttons during the promotional screens that just demonstrate the games.
OMC: Ever break up any bar fights?
ES: Yes. It is part of the business. I also used to work door at Bronco Billy’s in Milwaukee and The Derby in Hollywood. So, I have seen a number of fights.
Most fights can be avoided by one person stepping in before the anger erupts into a fight. Usually, one side will back down if given a way to save face.
Once at Bronco’s, I saw two guys in each other’s face. I stepped in between them and they stood down. One guy was calling the other guy’s girl names. Once I stepped in the guy with the girl asked me if he could just hit the other guy. I said that the time for fighting was before I got there. He understood. That was 20 years ago. That guy – who I met from this encounter – and I are still friends.
OMC: What are the best and worst pick-up lines you've heard used in a bar?
ES: The best (was a) man: "Do you see your parents once in a while?" (The) woman: "Yes." "Well, next time you see them, you tell them from me that I think they do excellent work."
The worst: "I gotta put you on my to-do list."
OMC: What are the best and worst parts of being a bartender?
ES: The best part of bartending is the social aspect. The more you work at a place the more patrons you meet. There are so many interesting people that cross your path in this profession. It’s great to just meet people one time, but it is even better when they become a regular customer. It makes going to work fun.
The worst part is that you see and have to deal with people who drink irresponsibly. Stopping them from driving. Having to cut someone off, stopping fights. These are the bad moments. But, the more you work this business the more techniques you’ll learn on how to handle the situation. We work in an environment where fun and drinking can get out of hand at times. Resolving the problems quickly and efficiently ensures all will have a good night.
OMC: Do you go out to bars when you're not working? Do you have a favorite bartender?
ES: I do. Sometimes I go to a bar to see owners or bartenders I used to work with during my bartending tenure. I was lucky enough to work with Mark Z. who now owns the Jackson’s PBR Grills. I love what he has done with his places. Patrick, Gary and Jim – the day bartender – are excellent bartenders with whom I used to work with at The Milwaukee Ale House. I try and see them when I can.
Often, we (the Kelly’s staff) hit the taverns along the Bluemound strip by Kelly’s in order to support our neighbors. We would love for the area to become a popular Milwaukee bar district. Employees from the other bars come to Kelly’s to support our efforts, as well.
I enjoy Bay View bars like Café Centraal, Tonic, Lulu's. There is a great vibe down in that area. I love the bartenders at Centraal because they know their beers.
I have been going to The Roman Coin on Brady when I have a Friday Night free. Patricia and Joel are two of my favorite bartenders.
OMC: Do you have a recipe for us?
ES: The Poor Man's Black Velvet. Fill glass half full with Guinness and top off with Somersby cider.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.