By Lori Fredrich Senior Writer & Dining Editor Published Mar 22, 2020 at 12:01 PM

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Over 40 bars and restaurants in Milwaukee have come together to fight for governmental assistance to help them through the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis. And they’re counting on help from the broader service industry community and concerned citizens to make sure their voices are heard.

What’s at stake

In recent years, Milwaukee has become a really exciting culinary destination, and it continues to grow. Our bars and restaurants draw tourists from all over the world. They are drivers of our local economy. They also provide employment for an estimated 10% of the population in our state.

Restaurants and bars contribute to our community in myriad ways. They offer us places to gather and socialize. They offer us places of comfort when we’re stressed. They nourish us with food and drink. And they contribute generously to charitable organizations and causes through the donation of time, energy and food. And they do so while operating on exceedingly low profit margins, even at the busiest of times.

But all of that is currently in jeopardy. Despite taking cost-savings measures, enacting lay-offs and negotiating rates with landlords and banks, restaurants and bars have been hit hard, even after just a few days operating with only carry-out and delivery services.

"We’re down 90% at Fauntleroy and 30% at Dandan," says Chef Daniel Jacobs, co-owner of JVR Hospitality Group. "It’s the difference between a $2,400 day and a $200 day … and we still need to pay employees.

"During all of this, we’re focused on our employees, and in doing that, we’re not paying our vendors. And that creates a vicious cycle. If we don’t pay them, they can’t pay their employees. If this continues, it only gets worse and worse."

Banding together

Jacobs is part of a coalition of over 40 bars and restaurants which have banded together, reaching out to government officials and fighting for the resources necessary for restaurants and bars to bounce back from the coronavirus crisis.

"At Strange Town, we closed our dining room 24 hours before it was mandated by the County," says Pamela Ronnei, bar manager at Strange Town. "We felt it was the socially responsible thing to do. But it was triage immediately. And after the first day, we realized that we couldn’t possibly do enough business to pay our workers, let alone subsist for any period of time."

As the realities of the situation became evident, she says, she knew that the restaurant community had to come together and take action. So she began reaching out to restaurant and bar owners and asking them for support in contacting Wisconsin officials to ask for help.

The result of their collaboration is a letter to Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos.

March 17, 2020

Dear Speaker Vos and Majority Leader Fitzgerald,

We write to you as representatives of restaurants and bars in Milwaukee. Our small businesses are anchors in our neighborhoods, providing much more to our communities than food and drink. The current COVID-19 health crisis has proved an enormous challenge to our industry. As restaurant leaders, we are committed to taking care of our employees’ immediate safety and financial needs while also honoring public safety recommendations. Current federal guidelines for unemployment benefits fail to account for the urgency of a pandemic situation. We need the support of state leaders now.

The National Restaurant Association estimates that restaurants and foodservice jobs accounted for 9% of employment in Wisconsin in 2019, and that estimated sales in Wisconsin restaurants in 2018 topped $10 billion. We represent a vital economic industry and employ a significant portion of Wisconsin workers. As such, we deserve your attention, and we call on you to provide us relief during this unprecedented crisis. Financial relief now will give this industry a chance to bounce back when regular life resumes.

After witnessing the hardships that our staff and businesses are currently experiencing, we have identified the following actions as critical:

      • Support emergency unemployment benefits for all affected restaurant and bar workers, hourly and salaried;
      • Suspend payroll taxes and sales and use taxes immediately;
      • Enact rent, mortgage, utility bill and loan abatement for restaurant and bar workers; and
      • Enact rent freeze and mortgage abatement for restaurants and bars.

Thank you in advance for taking swift action on our behalf. At this point in time, the support of the Wisconsin legislature is absolutely critical to the survival of these small businesses and the well-being of our workers.


Strange Town, Cloud Red, Snack Boys, Lost Whale, Voyager, Cactus Club, This Is It!, Boone & Crockett, Tandem, Fat Daddy’s, BelAir, Fuel, Comet, Balzac, High Hat/Garage, Finks, DanDan, Ardent, Red Light Ramen, Laughing Taco, Amilinda, Rice n Roll Bistro, KIN by Rice n Roll, Company Brewing, Mothership, Vanguard, The Riverwest Cooperative Grocery and Cafe, Interval, Alem Ethiopian Village, The Diplomat, Thief Wine, Dream Lab, Jazz Estate, Bryant’s, At Random, Classic Slice, High Dive, X-Ray Arcade, Anodyne Coffee Roasting Company, Good City Brewing, Uncle Wolfie's Breakfast Tavern, Mekong Cafe, DIX, The Bottle, Black Sheep, Zarletti, AJ Bomber's, Smoke Shack, Blue Bat Kitchen, Onesto, Holey Moley Donuts,  Burnhearts, Moxie, Trouble and Sons Pizzeria

Jacobs says they’re hoping they can make their requests widely visible, garnering enough industry and public support to effectively incite change.

"Unless the federal or state government comes forward to assist, it will be a very different landscape when we come out the other side," notes Jacobs.

"If these things don’t happen, there won’t be restaurants. There won’t be a restaurant community. We’re trying to support our employees, but we can’t continue paying them without enough money coming in. There’s no good way to come back for this."

Ronnei agrees.

"Servers and bartenders need assistance and relief," she says. "And that support needs to come from the government. This is a time when we need full support so that we can focus on our health and the health of our communities."

How you can help

Lori Fredrich Senior Writer & Dining Editor

Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club. 

When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.