For the seventh straight year, October is Dining Month on OnMilwaukee.com, presented by the restaurants of Potawatomi. All month, we're stuffed with restaurant reviews, delectable features, chef profiles and unique articles on everything food, as well as the winners of our "Best of Dining 2013."
GREEN BAY – Talking with members of the Green Bay Packers about "dining out" usually draws a sheepish smile. There’s an Applebee’s in Appleton. There’s a Texas Roadhouse and Longhorn Steakhouse, and Longhorn is especially popular.
"There’s not a whole lot of great restaurants up here," Packers guard T.J. Lang admitted.
Sam Shields says he’s eaten pretty much everywhere in and around Green Bay and usually prefers to cook for himself.
Then there are those on the team who know to make the trip two hours south to Milwaukee for great food (not all – some veterans have never been to the Cream City) and when they do, they’re going to one place in particular: Carnevor.
Omar Shaikh, the co-owner and president of the SURG Restaurant Group credits former Packers offensive lineman Mark Tauscher for creating the pipeline of Packers to the steakhouse on Milwaukee Street.
"That’s really the first one I became friends with and then he started rolling the guys in," Shaikh said. "I give him a lot of the credit for us having the ability to take care of them."
Word of mouth is an important element in building a clientele, and it just so happened that that word spread like wildfire through the Packers locker room.
"Year after year guys would get recommended there and we’d go," tackle Marshall Newhouse said. "If it wasn’t good people wouldn’t keep going back and it wouldn’t keep getting recommended. I remember my rookie year a lot of guys when down there and ‘Tausch’ took us down there."
"Well, when you go out of town and you go somewhere new, you want to go to the best place," added fullback John Kuhn. "It was voted the best steakhouse. It’s renowned. It’s definitely renowned. People know when you go down there and you ask around, people know where Carnevor is."
Over the years, many Packers have made their way to Carnevor. The tight ends took a position trip down this summer. Former defensive back Charles Woodson had an event there. But, the linemen and Kuhn have become such good customers over the years that traditions have formed.
Usually, the rookie in the group will have to pick up the tab – one that Shaikh secretly adds a $5,000 bottle (or two) of wine to. Or, he'll get a little more creative.
"We’ll send them a fake bill for 10 grand or something ridiculous," Newhouse said.
He smiled a bit.
"My first time down there, I ordered a 20-ounce steak and they sent me literally a two-ounce piece of meat all dressed up. They just have a good time down there."
For the Packers, going to Carnevor is about the food, first and foremost:
"They’re phenomenal," Kuhn said. "It’s probably the Kobe filet I usually get. For a while there it was a Wagyu filet. One of those. One of their prime cuts. The whole place is a go-to. It’s a great atmosphere. It’s got good people. It’s got good drinks and it’s got good food."
But for the players, compliments about the food transition seamlessly into similar sentiments about the atmosphere and service provided – especially the hands-on aspect Shaikh provides.
"Obviously we wouldn’t keep going if the food wasn’t good but we like the atmosphere and he treats us well," Newhouse said. "Even when we’re there he’s really friendly with the customers. That’s just how he is. That makes it even that much better to call him a friend, a guy we can count on if we ever need to go down there on short notice or something like that. I’ve been to two of his restaurants and I’ve enjoyed myself every time I go. He’s just a good guy, a good businessman and pretty honest and straightforward and just treats us well."
By now, it’s known that athletes from all sports frequent Carnevor, but Shaikh insists that building that type of high profile clientele wasn’t part of business plan – it just happened.
"They would come in occasionally and we would take great care of them and then make friends with one of the guys at first and then the good word started traveling; then we’d make friends with the next guy and that’s just sort of how it evolved," Shaikh said.
"It kind of built just like our regulars, just like every other customer. We were always focused on building customer by customer, one by one. And we still do that today and not only in the sports world, in any sector. I can’t think of a domino effect. It just was one by one the word would travel. One would send another one in and we would take good care of them, become friends with them, then the next one would come in. The good word sort of travels when they appreciate the level of service and food and that’s what continues to happen."
That tradition has continued as second-year Packers linemen Don Barclay and Greg Van Roten have been introduced to restaurant, as has rookie tight end Jake Stoneburner, who most recently was presented with a fake bill and without hesitation was ready to pick it up.
"It’s just a fun place to go because (Shaikh) always takes care of us and makes sure we get, I guess, VIP treatment when we go down there, which is pretty cool," Lang said. "The restaurant’s got great food and he just does a great job of making it a good experience for us and having fun. It’s just a good place to go as a group."
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.