Since it opened in 2008, the intention behind The National Cafe has always been to create and nourish a neighborhood venue where not only bellies could be fed, but a gathering place where community members could gather, brainstorm ideas and create change for the neighborhood and the city.
And the cafe has been such a place for over 10 years now, even as its ownership passed from founder Michael Diedrick to Chef Nell Benton, and – most recently – as Benton announced that she would be selling the cafe.
Earlier this month, the cafe was officially handed off to two new owners: Angie Wierzbinski, a longstanding employee of the cafe and Amy Plennes, an industry veteran whose dream to own a cafe with her best friend has finally come to fruition.
"We’ve been best friends for like 30 years," notes Plennes. "Her family is my family and mine is hers. It’s probably been in the last 10 years that we really began talking about ‘someday’ operating a restaurant together. And now … to be able to come into something different, new and casual … and to be able to do it with my best friend. That just tops it all off."
Together, the two bring complementary expertise. Wirzbinski has years of experience cooking and working in front of house roles. Meanwhile Plennes brings knowledge from the business side of the industry as well as experience with catering and events.
"We both know what we know, and we’re ready to learn new things," says Wierzbinski. "In fact, both of us are ready and looking forward to learning the other side of the business. To start, she’s going for training at Anodyne, and I’m learning Quickbooks."
In the process, the two longtime friends say they look forward to putting their own stamp on the cafe.
Little personal touches
Wierzbinski says they have no plans to make dramatic changes.
"We both really love the cafe," she says. "It’s cozy and beautiful, and it’s The National. But we are looking forward to putting our own touches on the space."
"I really love what Melissa [Buchholz] has done with the plants at Little Duck… and I love the idea of replacing the curtains in the front windows that have been there for like 10 years" she adds, noting that she’s also toying with the idea of replacing the old retro cooler that divides the dining room from the kitchen and prep area.
"Can’t you just envision a beautiful wood bar where people could sit, maybe with charging stations for laptops?" she muses.
Wierzbinski says they will take a similar approach to the menu.
"I’m really not going to change the menu too much," she says. "But I’ll be honest, our menu is really big for the size of the kitchen. So we’re going to take a look at things in terms of efficiency.
"We’re actually going to look at what our bestsellers have been," Wiersbinski says. "And we’ll create a menu based on that. It will really help us to streamline things, to focus on quality and cut down on the wait time for food, especially on weekends."
Customer favorites like the ultimate breakfast sandwich, huevos rancheros and The Hot Mess., along with sandwiches like the chicken, bacon and brie panini and the turkey club will be there to stay. The cafe will also continue to offer vegan, vegetarian and gluten-friendly items.
As for the cafe’s delicious (and popular) tonkotsu ramen, it's also staying. However, Wiersbinski says she is likely to rename it "Nell’s Ramen" in homage to former owner.
There could also be a few new additions to the menu.
"I really want to up our burrito game …" she says. "Because burritos are dope. Everybody loves a burrito. Right now I’m envisioning a chorizo and potato burrito smothered with salsa verde and served with eggs on top."
And while the cafe is currently able to serve bottled wine and beer, along with mimosas for brunch, Wiersbinski says will also be applying for a full liquor license with the hope that by summer they’ll be able to offer bloody marys and a small menu of brunch-worthy cocktails.
"We get people all the time who complement us for being green and farm to table," says Wierzbinski. "And that’s awesome. But we can always do better. And I’m totally going to go greener."
She says the restaurant will partner with Compost Crusaders in an effort to sustainably deal with food scraps and other compostable waste. She’s also looking into replacing the restaurant’s current carryout containers with more eco-friendly options.
"I’m looking into greener cleaning products as well," she says.
Plennes and Wierzbinski are also looking at ways to activate the cafe during its off hours. Ideas include expanding on what the cafe has already done with pop-ups.
"Our ramen pop-up went over really well so we want to do more things like that," Wiersbinski notes. "I like the idea of changing things up here and there and really having fun with it. Everyone here loves food, and we have so many talented people who work here. So I think we should capitalize on that."
The National Cafe is open Tuesday through Sunday from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
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.