Accompanying the building boom of Downtown condos has been an explosion of bars, clubs and restaurants in Milwaukee. Shuttered storefronts and surface parking lots have given way to kitchens dishing up great food of all kinds.
Joe Bartolotta, Johnny Vassallo, Marc Bianchini and others have built small dining empires in the city thanks to this growth. And the real winners have been Milwaukeeans who love to dine out.
But, Vassallo recently closed Mo's Cucina and Moceans Downtown, and last year Bartolotta closed the Ristorante Bartolotta on Downer. Holiday House is gone, and so is Barossa. After more than a decade, Gil's closed, too.
For a long time now, some have been asking how long the condo boom can last. Maybe a better question is how long can the dining scene can continue to explode? And is the restaurant scene here already oversaturated?
"Very much so," says Ristorante Bartolotta chef Juan Urbieta. "Not only in fine dining, but at any dining level. It’s a very hard thing; everyone has a right to make a living. But in this particular field (the service industry), Milwaukee is not yet large enough to support so many restaurants, the arrival of the chain restaurants popping up everywhere doesn’t help, either."
While the Milwaukee Health Dept. records 1,372 licensed establishments in 2005-'06, as compared to 1,308 in 2001-'02 -- not a huge difference -- there is clearly the perception that the market is awash in extra place settings.
"The Milwaukee market, in my opinion, hit saturation point a year or two ago," says Mike Eitel, the man behind Trocadero, The Nomad and other local hotspots.
Perhaps the problem isn’t so much the number of restaurants as the number of diners willing and able to spend money at them.
"The pie wasn't getting any bigger for several reasons -- access for suburbanites has been difficult due to Park East and Marquette Interchange construction, city population has not been growing at the same pace as restaurant openings, post 9/11, Bush economy suppressed spending, etc. -- and all the while, that pie was getting cut up into smaller and smaller slices making it incredibly difficult for most operators to turn a profit," says Eitel.
Eitel also points to the number of chain restaurants that have opened in the suburbs recently, saying that many of those surbanites without easy access (or the perception of easy access) have taken refuge in regional malls.
"Milwaukee has been lucky to have such a huge variety of independent restaurateurs, and hopefully the rash of closings will come to an end soon," he says. "(But) the huge influx of chains in the suburbs -- at Mayfair and Bayshore in particular -- has added another 2,000 seats to the already swollen glut of restaurant seating."
Ed Lump, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, has also noticed the suburban growth.
"If you look at the suburbs," he says, "you have an expansion of very nice restaurants in the suburban communities and it might be (drawing away from city restaurants)."
"It's not illogical that there would be a shake-out here," says Lump, pointing to a trend toward more casual dining, right at the time that young Milwaukee, especially, was beginning to re-discover fine dining.
"Milwaukeeans' preferences have been shifting to a more casual, flexible dining experience," notes Eitel. "They don't necessarily want to sit down for two hours and roll with the traditional drink/app/salad/main/dessert/coffee meal structure. Nationwide, 'fast casual' as a business model is what is booming.
"Fine dining in this city is having to adapt and adjust to this changing set of preferences. Those who can't adapt must dominate the market, operate with incredible efficiencies, and find suitable talent in a very tough job market."
Lump adds, "Certainly the growth in the industry is in the casual sector and has been for a couple years. There's been a boom in Milwaukee in fine dining and the question is whether the community will support that many places. You've had successes," he adds, pointing to Bartolotta, Bianchini and Vassallo, "but there have been a limited number of them.
"How many people in Milwaukee are going to spend $30 on a steak? It relies heavily on the business traveler, so you ask questions like, how is the convention business doing? They're more likely to spend the money."
While Bianchini -- who owns Cubanitas and Osteria del Mondo -- agrees, he suggests there are a number of ways to think about the issue of oversaturation.
"You could say that there are too many restaurants and you could also say people don't go out to eat enough. For the last three years we've had way too many restaurants," he says.
"The last year we've now had not enough customers. People are eating out less. I think it's the economy."
Like the others, Bianchini thinks the trend is toward less fuss and more focus on value and the food itself. And that could hurt some places that bank on hype.
"Of course, you need to provide a high quality atmosphere, but when everything is going great, people really put quality and value secondary to atmosphere and hype," Bianchini says. "But when money regains its value, like now when it's harder to come by, people say, 'You know what? I'm really tired of the hype. Forget the bells and whistles, I want to get a great dinner and I want to get great service.''"
Good help hard to find
And all agree that great service is hard to come by. The problem is that Milwaukee's restaurant scene blew up faster than it could be reliably staffed. And that has been a major problem for restaurateurs aiming to provide top-notch, fine dining service to diners.
"It is incredibly difficult to find affordable workers at the skilled positions," Eitel says flat-out.
Lump notes that chains have a lot of money on hand to train waitstaff and this often creates an unfair advantage that independent restaurants struggle to battle.
"You can't take a part-time college student (waiter) and turn them into a professional because they don't have the commitment," he says. "I would agree that there is room in Milwaukee to develop a more professional cadre of waiters and waitresses to support these establishments."
"It's been a huge issue. It's very, very difficult to get high quality staff. The best thing to do is find people who want to do it and have no experience and train the hell out of them. Because the professionals tend to go from the new place to the new place to the new place and they expect to get $1,000 a week in tips.
"It's worked very well at Cubanitas and it's been working at Osteria, which is a harder restaurant for staff. It's definitely the way to go."
Less is more
But don't think the future looks bleak. Lump believes the ebb and flow of restaurants is all part of the natural order of things. And he may be right, there are still restaurants opening in Milwaukee faster, it seems, than places are closing.
"I'm not going to totally disagree with you although there are no statistics to say there are too many seats in Milwaukee," says Lump. "About 20 percent either close or change hands every year. You do have some that turn over very rapidly. But not all that close close because they fail. Some are sold to other people, some are in rental properties, etc."
And, for someone in the kitchen trenches like Bianchini, he thinks that the strong will survive and in the end the consumer will be better off after what Lump calls the "shake-out."
"The way it is right now, I'm thrilled with customers' response," says Bianchini. "It's coming full circle now. Since I got here (from New York) in '92, '93, what's happened to the city has been unbelievable in terms of growth and the quality of food, it's grown faster than Chicago and even New York.
"We kind of got a little ahead of ourselves (and) we lost sight of quality and creativity for a while. But right now the food has gotten so much better in Milwaukee. A year from now the Milwaukee restaurant scene is going to be stronger than ever before and I think that customers are going benefit the most."
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.