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Ask veteran pub crawlers to name their favorite older taverns in and around Milwaukee and invariably some of the same establishments will pop into the conversation.
Wolski's. Hooligan's. Kneisler's White House in Bay View. Ray and Dot's. Rosie's Water Works. The Harp. Libby's. Major Goolsby's. Mike Murphy's Swingin' Door. The Club Tap in Wauwatosa. The Uptowner. Club 400 in Waukesha.
It's definitely a discussion that can last through several pitchers of beer. Especially if you take it step beyond the basic list and ask a fundamental question:
What is it that allows these iconic bars to outlast the trends in an industry often marked by fly-by-night management and fickle clientele?
We posed that question to a number of veteran bar owners and the results were interesting. We asked Dennis Bondar of Wolski's, Bobby Greenya of Champion's Pub, Tim Capper of Puddler's Hall and Peter Jest of Shank Hall for their thoughts.
The common elements in their answers were hard work, attention to detail, a strong staff, cleanliness, trust and -- at the foundation -- family.
"If you've been around awhile, having a strong family helps," said Greenya, whose grandfather started Champion's on Murray Avenue in 1956 before moving to the current location at 2417 N. Bartlett Ave. in 1970.
"It helps if you marry a woman that knows what you're going to do and what the job is about. If I had just kind of sprung this on my wife, I don't think it would have been a good situation."
Though he draws strength and support from his family now, Greenya said that wasn't always the case.
"I've wanted to do this since I was 5 years old and my family tried to talk me out of it," he said. "I said ‘I want to own Grandpa's bar,' and my family would say ‘Are you sure? It's so much work.'"
Bondar agreed on both counts -- about the long hours and the importance of family.
"It's a real easy job to burn out in," Bondar said. "You work a lot of nights and there is always a lot of stress. When something goes wrong with the plumbing, it seems like it's always on Friday night.
"I think the best thing about our situation is that we were three brothers in it together. There is a level of trust there that you don't always find with business partners.
"It's a tough business for one person. One of the most important things you can do is be there. You have to be there when it's busy. You have to be there at closing time. If you look at Hooligan's, John and Cindy (Sidoff) are there all the time. At Von Trier, Mark (Eckert, the original owner) was always there and now John and Cindy (Sidoff) have taken that over. When you go to Champion's, Bobby (Greenya) is there. If you go to Pitch's (on Humboldt Avenue), there is always a Pitch (Picciurro) there.
"Family is very important."
When Jest opened Shank Hall, 1434 N. Farwell Ave., his father, Marvin, co-signed the loan. In 20 years as the proprietor, Jest has learned a few lessons about the business.
"The big thing is to never get too excited about a good night or depressed about a bad night," he said. "You have to keep things on an even keel. You also have to treat the money that comes in ... get it to the bank and pay bills. Some people get carried away with other activities and you can't do that. You've got to treat it as a business."
Capper, who operated Colonel Hart's in Wauwatosa for many years before taking over Puddler's Hall, 2461 S. St. Clair St., looks to one of his business heroes -- McDonald's magnate Ray Kroc -- as a model for tavern success.
"It's the old Ray Kroc theory -- consistency, value, cleanliness and friendliness," Capper said.
"It boggles my mind that he could run so many franchises and have them be the same. Wherever I've been, I try to do what he did, which is meet expectations with a smile in a clean atmosphere with a good value to the customer. Value is important, especially in Milwaukee.
"Even with all the chains that have moved in, Milwaukee is still loyal to good, independent operators."
The key to fostering that loyalty, Capper said, are customer service and attention to detail.
"I think if you look at most successful bars and restaurants, the owners are slightly obsessive in some way."
One of Capper's obsession's is cleanliness.
"I clean my place seven days a week," he said. "When people ask me why I do it, I say that it's so I know that it's clean. I tell my staff ‘This is how I want it. I set the table. You serve the meal.'"
Bondar knows the feeling.
"If I walk into a bar or restaurant and the floor is dirty or the bathroom is disgusting, I'm not going back," he said. "Cleanliness is a key. If you hire a person to clean the bar, they have a key. You have to make sure that they are honest and trustworthy. When I come in to open at 2 in the afternoon and my cleaner didn't show up -- that's happened to me a few times in 34 years -- it can be tough."
"After I was out of the business for two and a half or three years (after leaving Colonel Hart's), I'd walk out of places and scratch my head," Capper said. "I wondered ‘How can you have bartenders that are disinterested?'"
Bondar trains his bartenders to look at customer's glasses as well as their faces.
"Not everyone is cut out to be a bartender," he said. "The priority is serving drinks. No one likes to wait for cocktails. It's great that people talk to customers, but you can't be deep in a conversation with someone and not notice what's happening at the other end of the bar."
Perhaps its not a coincidence that successful taverns don't experience a lot of employee turnover.
"I'm really lucky to have a great staff," Greenya said. "If you hire people and take care of people the way you would like to be treated, that means a lot.
"I always think that if I pay attention to details, everybody else will see that. If I see something I don't like, I'll pull someone aside and mention it. I try to treat my staff like family."
At many iconic taverns, customers are treated like family, too. More often than not, the customers come from diverse backgrounds.
"You have to relate to people who come from all walks of life," Capper said. "I recently talked to a guy who has been out east. He said that out there, the lawyers would go to one place, the white collar workers would go to another place and blue collar workers would go to a different place.
"You don't see that much in Milwaukee. Look at a place like Wolski's, where you'll see a lawyer and a college student and a guy from the East Side all talking to each other. Nobody gets preferential treatment."
Creating that relaxed environment is not easy. Neither is running a successful bar.
"It's a lot of work," Bondar said. "It's amazing how many people think ‘I want to open a bar. I'll turn on a sign, open the doors and I'll be a millionaire.'"
For those entertaining dreams of doing it, Capper has some advice:
"When people say they want to get into the business, I tell them "Look at it this way -- 365 days a year, you're going to open your house to the public and throw a party for anybody that wants to come. You're going to kick them out at 2 in the morning, and then get up and do it again the next day.
"If you think you can do that, you should be in the business."
Host of “The Drew Olson Show,” which airs 1-3 p.m. weekdays on The Big 902. Sidekick on “The Mike Heller Show,” airing weekdays on The Big 920 and a statewide network including stations in Madison, Appleton and Wausau. Co-author of Bill Schroeder’s “If These Walls Could Talk: Milwaukee Brewers” on Triumph Books. Co-host of “Big 12 Sports Saturday,” which airs Saturdays during football season on WISN-12. Former senior editor at OnMilwaukee.com. Former reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.