It's not exactly Texas splitting from Mexico or the South seceding from the Union, but the defection of six George Webb restaurants into a new chain of around-the-clock eateries is big news in Brew City. Webb's is as quintessentially Milwaukee as bubblers and brats.
Formers Webb outlets at 4160 W. Loomis Road; 2012 W. Layton Ave.; 7510 W. Layton Ave., Greenfield; 10706 W. Greenfield Ave., West Allis; 211 N. Chicago Ave., South Milwaukee; and N88 W16747 Appleton Ave., Menomonee Falls have swapped the familiar Webb's red and white for the blue and yellow of the new Griddlers Cafe group. This is hometown culture shock.
Brothers Don and Robb Hensiak are behind the move. Their father bought a George Webb franchise in 1960, and the Hensiaks became a devoted Webb family. "Back in those days, you signed the back of a hamburger bag and you were in," Don recently said while sitting with his sibling in a booth at their 75th and Layton location.
Their dad expanded the business with additional Webb franchises, and the boys worked their way through school doing everything from mopping to flipping burgers. During college they worked the third shift.
The brothers bought the four Hensiak restaurants in 1988 and added a fifth. Those are now the core of the Griddlers group. Diane Neavins, who also had a long association with the Webb chain, owns the Menomonee Falls restaurant that has switched to the Griddlers brand.
The inability of the Hensiaks and the George Webb Corp. to come to terms on a new franchise agreement prompted the change. Fees slightly increased, according to Webb vice president Ryan Stamm, and the corporation made changes in the franchise structure, he added.
"We want the brand to be more consistent than in the past," he said.
The Hensiaks were eager to introduce changes to their restaurants. More specialty omelets, breakfast sandwiches, and biscuits and gravy in the mornings were on their list. Additional sides and a new line of lunchtime deli-style sandwiches featuring shaved ham, turkey, beef and a choice of cheeses were also on their agenda.
The nacho skillet, an all-day breakfast entree, consists of two eggs with bacon, green peppers and onions smothered with nacho cheese and salsa. "If you want to wake yourself up in the morning, this will do it," Don Hensiak said.
Now free to create their own menu, those items are being served or will arrive in Griddler Cafes in the coming weeks. New sides include bacon BBQ beans and seasoned diced potatoes.
"We're being more creative, and we are improving the quality of the food," Don Hensiak continued. The coffee is now freshly ground in store, the portion size of the hash browns has been increased, and the combined double cheeseburger patties now weigh in at one-third of a pound. "We're upgrading the bread products and using more of a bakery bun for the double cheeseburger," Don added.
The brothers know their customer base is especially sensitive to price. "Our prices have stayed the same or increased very slightly," Don said.
Many of the Webb concepts remain. Griddlers Cafes serve breakfast and burgers around the clock.
All employes have been retained, as has the folksy Webb culture. The staff uniform is a polo shirt in a palette of solid colors over black slacks.
Interior decor is changing to soften the look and suggest cafe rather than diner. Grand opening festivities are planned for next month.
Webb's now has 29 restaurants in its chain. Eight are corporately owned.
Vice-president Stamm said the company is looking to expand, particularly in Wisconsin college towns. An agreement has been signed to open a new George Webb restaurant near Mars' Cheese Castle in Kenosha.
The split between the Hensiaks and the Webb chain is amicable. "It was not an easy choice," Don Hensiak said. "We hit a crossroad.
"We have no regrets or hard feelings about our time with George Webb."
Speaking of the Hensiaks, Stamm said, "I respect them and wish them well."
Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.
During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.
Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.