Longtime Milwaukeeans probably remember a time when the city’s dining notoriety was limited to great beer and weekly fish fries. But, in recent years, all of that has changed.
Even a brief look at the city’s national media coverage over the past year shows exactly how far we’ve come.
"The city’s latest draw is its emerging food and arts scene, which really revs up in the winter months," says Fox News Travel, whose coverage of 24 hours in the Cream City last January included stops at Café Benelux, Café at the Plaza, The Spice House and Kehr’s Candies.
But, where does the media attention come from? And how much does it impact the featured venues?
Melissa Buchholz, co-owner of Odd Duck, says that she attributes at least some of the attention the Milwaukee scene is getting on an overall shift in American dining culture, pointing diners toward locally owned and operated restaurants.
"People are more interested in what goes on in a particular neighborhood or city, and in trying to make connections to that, as opposed to just looking for the closest place to the hotel to have a decent meal," she explains. "I love helping people explore our city and our neighborhood. People constantly ask where they should go after dinner, or for brunch or lunch, or dinner the next day … it is fun to send them to my favorite spots."
And that word of mouth proves to be a catalyst for traffic to other area destinations like Blue Jacket.
"The visitors that we see tend to mention the convenience and destination factor of the neighborhood as a whole with many places to visit in one night," says Ashley Brandt, server and social media manager for the Walker’s Point bar and restaurant.
But, dining trends and word of mouth aren’t the only elements that impact the attention our city garners. Milwaukee’s convention and visitor’s bureau also plays a role.
Margaret Casey, PR coordinator for VISIT Milwaukee says that her office strives to introduce regional, national and international media to the city’s culinary expertise by targeting writers and bloggers who specialize in dining and travel.
"We’ve been on a roll lately," she says, citing the most recent article in the New York Times as an example of coverage that sprung from the author’s visit to Milwaukee last year.
"And last December’s article in the Chicago Tribune, ‘Milwaukee dining: From cutting edge to traditional fare,’ also led to the inclusion of our very own Red Elephant Chocolates in the same author’s February USA Today article ‘Nine amazing American chocolate cafes, bars and lounges.’"
But, the coverage doesn’t stop there. In October, the New York Times spent "36 Hours in Milwaukee," highlighting hotspots like Clock Shadow Creamery, Blue Jacket, Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge, Mader’s, Wolski’s, Mazo’s and Leon’s.
Meanwhile, Colectivo made it onto both Fodor’s and Epicurious’ lists of best coffee shops, Ristorante Bartolotta was named in The Business Insider’s national Best Italian Restaurant list, Buzzfeed named Milwaukee one of the 10 most underrated cities to live in, and Sanford was named as one of the best 25 restaurants in the country by men's blog Gear Patrol.
It’s fortunate, Casey says, that Milwaukee has such a broad range of food-related attractions to keep the media interested.
"Writers are continually surprised by the number of James Beard (Award) nominees and award-winning chefs and restaurants in Milwaukee," she says. "They love to explore the emerging local artisan food and craft brewing scene. It’s all about the experience, and we make sure our writers have a story to tell."
And the stories seem to abound. Most recently, Esquire rated Bryant's the best bar in the country. Jetsetter highlighted Milwaukee in its feature on destinations to visit in 2014. And The New York Times published another feature highlighting Walker’s Point, with mentions for Milwaukee Brewing Company, Braise, Clock Shadow Creamery, Purple Door Ice Cream and Indulgence Chocolatiers.
It’s no surprise that consumers take note of spots that garner national media attention. But, how that coverage translates into additional foot traffic for featured restaurants and retail shops varies from place to place.
John Wise, director of operations for the Bartolotta Restaurants, says that the media attention plays a primary role in giving visitors a gauge for where to visit while they’re here.
"We bring in a lot of people from around the country and from outside the country," he says. "But, I wouldn’t say that we’re at the point yet where droves of people are coming to Milwaukee as destination diners. What’s more likely is that if you do see some national press, that we’re really seeing more people coming up from Chicago and northern Illinois. They are people who might come here anyhow, but the press gives them a guideline that tells them where to go."
He cites the current NCAA tournament as an opportunity for the city to take advantage of the great press.
"We have thousands of people coming here for the basketball tournaments," he explains. "And there is a foodie contingency among those who will definitely be seeking out places to go, researching restaurants … and all the press certainly contributes to those peoples’ decisions about where to spend their time."
On the other hand, smaller businesses report that almost any media coverage they receive has an impact on the traffic in their establishments. Christopher Kaufmann, business manager at Clock Shadow Creamery, says that media attention has been good for the area’s only urban cheese factory, resulting in a fairly significant increase in retail traffic during the typically slow winter months.
"We've had several customers tell us they read about us, especially after The New York Times article came out," he says. "For instance, recently, the entire cast of Evita came in for a tour while they were in town."
Lauren Schultz, co-owner of Purple Door Ice Cream, says that tourist traffic is definitely a happy side effect of the media coverage.
"When we were at Clock Shadow, we definitely noticed an increase in destination seeking tourists," she says. "They often would mention that they heard about us in an article that they read. A lot of time they were out of town travelers who were headed to Milwaukee for certain reasons, and then visiting us while here, based on what they had read in The New York Times or Wall Street Journal or what not."
A potentially unexpected side effect of the national coverage is an increase in awareness among local residents.
"It is difficult to tell how much of that traffic is due to recent national coverage," says Brian Waterman of Indulgence Chocolatiers, who says relationships with area hotels bring Indulgence a significant amount of tourist traffic.
"But, what we have noticed from the national coverage more than anything is an increase in locals who read about us and realize they haven’t tried something in their own backyard that is garnering national attention."
Chef Dave Swanson says Braise diners exhibit similar behaviors.
"Wisconsin residents see the attention from a reputable national source," he says. "And it tends to validate local media if they are covering the same businesses."
At the same time, the information helps restaurant owners to get the word out about what they’re doing, Swanson says.
"Customers are very vocal about where they receive their information, which for a restaurateur is fabulous," he notes. "It helps us to figure what media outlets are the most effective."
But, in addition to the obvious benefits, Schultz says that consumer feedback also assists business owners in creating a more personalized experience.
"Many of the out-of-towners like to share their story about why they are visiting and how they have sought us out," she says. "It is a personal connection between us and them, as a result, which we appreciate and encourage."
As far as whether or not Milwaukee is on its way to becoming a true food destination, there appears to be a sense that the city is on the cusp of an ever-growing movement.
"Speaking from a small food producer’s perspective, we are excited by what has been happening in Milwaukee’s food scene in recent years," Waterman says. "Artisan producers are great ambassadors for the city, because they are able to sell their products to retailers and end consumers all over the country."
"Many times out-of-towners come to our stores because they have purchased our products at a shop in their hometown or through our website, and they are curious to learn more about our company and see where we make our confections."
Others, like Kaufmann, agree.
"Our food scene has been vibrant for years," he notes. "But it seems over just the last two or three years that the overall caliber of the food coming out of Milwaukee kitchens has increased exponentially."
"Milwaukee is very fortunate to be the size it is and have easy access to amazing local produce, meat and, of course, the best dairy in the world. I think the recent focus on local food has contributed immensely to the caliber of the dishes being served, and subsequently the recognition these chefs and farms are deservedly getting."
But, for some, making it into the top tier for food and dining destinations isn’t necessarily the name of the game.
"I don't know if we will ever be seen on the national stage as a city on the forefront," Buchholz says. "But that is also what I like about Milwaukee. We are humble, we keep our heads down and do what we love, and hopefully find a market who appreciates it."
"I'd rather be a little underground as a food destination – it gives little operations the ability to grow and flourish in a way that maybe wouldn't be possible if it was more competitive. Here we have a supportive restaurant community, and I wouldn't want to live in any other city."
Likewise, as a seasoned member of the restaurant industry, Wise sees a slightly different picture. He surmises that making Milwaukee a true food destination will require the city to embrace the riches of the surrounding area.
"Seven or eight years ago, I went to Pinot Camp in Oregon," he says. "And I took note of how they’re capitalizing on all the great things they have there. Good regional ingredients, and beer … they’re having some agri-tourism there. People are going to Oregon to visit the wineries, eat at restaurants and really experience the area."
Wise says that, ever since he returned, he’s been wondering when a more broad-based movement will happen here.
"When will people fly in, eat a few meals in Milwaukee and then visit Madison, tour the farmer’s market and visit a few cheesemakers?" he asks. "I think it hurts a little bit that things here are so scattered. But, there’s definitely potential for us to become a destination for people interested in exploring beyond Milwaukee and seeing what the area has to offer."
We definitely like the sound of that.
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.