With Atomic shutting down and now the news that after 82 years, Schwartz Bookshops will close in the Milwaukee area, I wondered if the old adage that says bars (and perhaps bar / restaurants) are recession-proof is true.
So, I asked someone who oughta know.
Scott Johnson co-owns Fuel, Hi-Hat (and the Garage) and Balzac, but also Comet -- which has a bar -- and Palomino, which many might think of more as a bar than a restaurant. He is also working to open a new place in the former Annona Bistro on Kinnickinnic Avenue in Bay View.
"I can't speak to bars, as we have a food component so essentially, for better or worse, we are restaurants," says Johnson. "(But) as a general rule, no I don't think we are recession-proof. I can speak for most of the industry when I say that business is way down.
"I do kind of think that bars, though not essentially recession-proof, can be good earners in good times and bad if they are simple and run well. Drinking and socializing are crucial activities in this town!"
While Johnson admits that his places have felt the effects of a tumbling economy, he's not shopping for "For Sale" signs just yet, thankfully. In fact, he says -- perhaps a little surprisingly -- things were scarier during the restaurant boom in Milwaukee a few years ago.
"We will be fine," he says. "Business now isn't even quite as bad as it was in ‘05, ‘06 and ‘07 when there were new several new competitors entering the bar / restaurant market every week! That was tough as we all had to deal with a shrinking piece of the pie. But, with competition comes innovation, which is fundamentally great for the industry and the public."
Like many, Johnson rues the loss of Atomic and Schwartz, but he admits that he understands that his shopping habits and those of the rest of the world affect the local landscape.
"I just always hoped that (Schwartz) could hold on somehow, just like I always hoped that Atomic would, even after I started buying more, but not nearly all, my music and books online," says Johnson. "Seems dumb to expect that, but I did. Obviously, I'm not the only one whose buying patterns have shifted; the whole industry and commercial landscape for books and music is changing.
"In that respect, think that restaurants will always be around. I can't imagine a day when folks won't want to socialize or enjoy a meal prepared by someone else. It seems fundamental! But, I couldn't imagine a world without book and record stores five years ago either."
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.