Most people know or have heard of Mike Eitel from the Diablos Rojos Restaurant Group, but his business partner, Eric Wagner, is seemingly less exposed.
In this edition of "Milwaukee Talks," OnMilwaukee.com tracks down Wagner and chats with him about Trocadero, Fat Abbey Cafe, Café Hollander and the about-to-open Cafe Centraal.
OnMilwaukee.com: What were you doing prior to Diablos Rojos?
Eric Wagner: Prior to joining Mike and founding Diablos Rojos, I was a part owner of the Wisconsin franchisee of Qdoba Mexican Grill. I opened about 15 of those with my former partner, Mike Pranke, and our company, Roaring Fork, before leaving in January 2005. I then took about six months off to travel and figure out what I wanted to do next. That’s when Mike and I started talking about developing a European concept featuring elements of the Benelux region of Europe and in particular Belgian beers.
OMC: What is your favorite Diablos Rojos restaurant?
EW: If I were forced to pick one, I’d have to say Café Hollander on Downer. We set out to fill a void left by the Coffee Trader on a street that has seen more dilapidation than development over the last decade, and I think we succeeded. The neighborhood has really embraced the restaurant as a true meeting place at all hours of the day. I’ll also admit I’m a sucker for Belgian beers.
That said, there is really nothing like Trocadero’s atmosphere -- inside and outside -- in Milwaukee. I am continually amazed at how many people from out of town are shocked to find such a place in Milwaukee. I came on board after Troc was already opened, and I think Mike created something special there -- even after opening a Parisian restaurant a week after Sept. 11 in a neighborhood that just hasn’t made the transition yet. It’s coming, and I think Troc will continue to reap the benefits.
OMC: What’s it like being in business with Eitel?
EW: I think I just had a minor stroke from the thought of having to answer this question. In a word, I would say interesting. At times we drive each other absolutely crazy because we look at every situation, opportunity or challenge from almost polarized perspectives, but these differences make us stronger partners. We have very complimentary talents and we’re able to be extremely honest with each other. After heated debates, we usually end up in the right place. We balance each other very well.
Besides all of that, we have to get along -- we head over to Europe together for a week or two a year doing research and developing relationships with brewers and exporters that continue to help us differentiate our concepts. Now while this may sound like a boondoggle, they’re actually very productive trips that continue to shape our places.
OMC: When does Café Centraal open in Bay View? How will it be different from your other places?
EW: Café Centraal celebrates its grand opening Sept. 17. It’s a very challenging building, and we’re trying to salvage as much character from the shell as we can -- that usually takes longer and costs more than just starting from scratch, but we’ve made re-using existing materials a big part of our company’s ethos.
Centraal is using a large area of existing terrazzo flooring that we found buried under layers of carpet, adhesive and other foreign materials. We’re installing 100-year-old wood flooring that Eitel bought from a ballroom up north. We’re also using Cream City brick that we took down from an opening we created to surface the front of the bar along with doors we found in the basement. Mike found some beam that used to hold up the water tower in one of the oldest tanneries in town to use as a support column as well. These things add to the space dramatically, but they also take time to install properly.
OMC: What is your daily life like?
EW: Every day is completely different and rarely happens as planned. We do have some standing meetings with our managers and contractors when we’re under construction, but outside of that, I never know what a week is going to hold. I may be negotiating a lease, coaching a manager on financial measurement, analyzing food cost or daypart sales, driving trade areas with real estate brokers or doing a litany of other things that I just can’t think of right now.
I’m constantly running around and am probably in the office about 25-50 percent of the time, depending upon the week. But, above all, what we do is a 24/7 experience -- even when we’re "not working, we’re working. It’s often hard to turn off and separate work from non-work.
OMC: What do you "bring to the table" for Diablos Rojos?
EW: The simple answer is that I’m the numbers guy. Believe it or not, I’m a CPA, so I handle most of the financial issues for the company with the help of a great accounting staff. I also bring a stunning wit and a great deal of charm. Just ask my mom.
OMC: Do you travel a lot?
EW: I do travel quite a bit. I usually get to Europe once or twice a year and get around the country on my motorcycle with some other side trips packed in. In the past two years Eitel and I made separate trips over to Holland and England to watch soccer games, so I usually don’t need much of a push to hit the road.
OMC: How is Fat Abbey going so far? What is the demographic of eaters and drinkers? Did you capture some of the Water Street partiers?
EW: Fat Abbey is going very well overall -- we have had overwhelming positive feedback about the atmosphere, food, and beers.
While we did not set out to change Water Street in any way, I do believe that there is about to be a very real transformation in the entertainment district overall. With a couple hotels opening over the next months and years along with all the Park East eventually getting developed, Water Street will see more places like Fat Abbey and Trinity adding a new, slightly older-skewing demographic component to the district.
One thing that I think often escapes people when they walk into our restaurants is just how much of the space is developed from re-used and recycled materials. I mentioned some of the things we did at Café Centraal, but we also created many unique changes at Fat Abbey that sometimes go unnoticed.
We made a communal table out of the slate from the pool table; we converted a 15-ft. log that was hanging from the ceiling into a long bench; we installed marble topped tables that started their lives in a pharmacy in northern Wisconsin about 100 years ago; and we used some of the metal fence from outside to finish our spiral staircase upstairs.
OMC: Can you tell me a little more about yourself? Like where did you grow up? Are you married or single?
EW: We moved around a bit as kids with stints in Chicago, Indiana and Houston, and arrived in Milwaukee when I was a sophomore in high school. Milwaukee is clearly home for me now.
I’ve lived on the East Side for about 10 years. I need to be able to walk or ride my bike to work, to bars and restaurants, movie theaters, bookstore, etc.
I’m single with no kids. I seem to be heading down the path of lifetime bachelorhood, but we’ll see what happens. I’m in no hurry either way, and I haven’t resorted to putting my phone number on a billboard yet, but it’s getting close. I’d put my picture up there too, but I think that might be counterproductive.
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.