The name Slim McGinn is immediately recognizable to most Milwaukeeans, thanks to the three bar/restaurants that have borne the name of this longtime Brew City figure.
In mid-August, McGinn, a Wauwatosa native, hung up his apron, closing his last restaurant – located in Brookfield (another on Bluemound Road bears his name but has not been his for 13 years now) – and decided to retire.
The former McGinn's in Brookfield quickly reopened under new ownership as Bobby's Bar.
Having started in the bar business while a student at Marquette University in the mid-1970s, McGinn has seen a lot of changes and he’s spent many long days managing staff, buying supplies, cooking in the kitchen and pouring pints behind the bar.
As most publicans will tell you, the best part of the job is the people. And, for McGinn, that includes the many people that worked for him and carried lessons learned to their own places.
Franky Creed and Slim McGinn. (PHOTO: Slim McGinn)
Among them, he names Sarah Jonas of Cafe Lulu; Jeff Dobbe and Marty Wey, who own and operate McGinn’s on Bluemound; Franky Creed who owns The Newport and Creed’s Foggy Dew; Brian Cummings at the Country Club; Linda Sackett of O’Lydia’s; Dan Della of the Social House; Jeff Jackson who runs the ECR Pub in Belmont, California; and Shelley Sincere and KC Swan, the husband and wife team (they met at Slim’s!) that own the Swinging Door Exchange.
For years, McGinn and his wife, Jane Fox, have led bi-annual pub tours of Ireland, which is something he plans to resume doing once the travel restrictions brought on the pandemic are lifted.
We decided to ask McGinn about his long career and sat down with him on the patio at the Colectivo on 68th and Wells Street, in a neighborhood that’s long been associated with the McGinn family.
OnMilwaukee: I think it'd be interesting to talk about all the different places you've run, places you've worked, but tell me about the decision to retire? Why now?
Slim McGinn: Honestly, the staff isn't there anymore. The work ethic isn't there anymore.
Is it related to the pandemic at all?
Oh no, it was even before that. I was ready to go within the last couple of years. And typically what I had done in the past was ... my place on Bluemound was my second place. I had two guys that were running it, they bought me out. My place Downtown, we had a woman come in and work for me for the (State) Fair and said she had worked in a bar and really missed it. So she came, worked for me there. And bought me out there.
I had a woman (Julie Baker) that I worked back at The Harp in the ‘80s. She started with me at The Harp at 18. I brought her out to McGinn’s on Bluemound, and then when I opened up Brookfield, she came out there. I expected her to kind of take over and she was kind of sick of it too. She's 25 years in the business.
Jane Fox, Slim McGinn and Julie Baker. (PHOTO: Slim McGinn)
So there was just nobody who wanted to step in? Previously, you always had somebody who was there to take over.
Right. I had someone lined up and so forth (that fell through). And I did have a kid in the kitchen that just had started with me, and I felt he could have been good. But I was done and that would have been a three-, four-year process.
Do you have plans for the future?
We had just bought the State Fair building in February before all this started. I had previously leased it. We had three stands at the fair and we were going down to two this year and then next year would have been just one. I was going to team up with Lakefront again. I gave up Pabst. So, I was going to help Lakefront this year in the building, and then next year Lakefront was going to take over there so I was just going down to one.
But we have a home in Pompano Beach, Florida, so we hope to spend seven months down there. Find something where I can go punch in. Not have a worry in the world. Punch out afterwards.
So you see yourself still working in some way?
Oh, I have to. I have to. I mean, I'm going crazy already.
How long has it been? It's been a week and you're going crazy already?
Less than a week.
What was it like that day to wake up and just be like, "I got nothing."
Nothing. Yeah, it felt good. It really did feel good. I actually, that day I walked up to Rocket Baby and picked up some bread and walked back here.
Nice. A leisurely life.
Exactly. A nice little walk. That's what I've been doing. I've been walking a lot. After I leave here I’m off on a four- or five-miler.
Oh, great. Stay in shape.
Yeah. Well, get in shape eventually. That's more like it. (Laughs)
Once you made the announcement, how did people react?
A lot of plus and minus. Sad, I was going, but it's good. A lot of people were happy for me. My wife is the planner of the two of us. I'm the worker bee and she's got the brains. So she decided, "Hey, we should announce this right away."
So, a lot of people even in this pandemic age wanted to come out. One guy said, "Oh, you're going to have a big party that last day?" I said, "That's not the way that things go right now."
It was nice to see people. I had had one lady that came in; I used to buy meat from her father, and I did a lot of parties and he did a lot of work with me. Never had met his daughter. She came in, her dad has passed, to just say, "Hey, my dad loved you." It's stuff like that.
The whole last week it was pretty intense. My wife went up to Door County with her family, they go every year, and she came in on Friday and Saturday. She said, "This is exhausting, saying goodbye to all these people." I said, "You just got back last night at four o'clock. I've been doing it all week long."
It's rough hours for anybody, right, in the business?
Yeah, but I didn't mind the hours. We were closed Mondays. Mondays was my favorite time. I could go in and plan out the menu for the week and start doing some cooking and get my ideas going and so forth. But you get to be this age is, everything's online and the critics online. You have no response. You can respond to them, but...
Doesn't get you anywhere.
Right. Sometimes it does. But a lot of times it doesn't. In the old days someone complained, you took care of them.
Now they don’t say anything but go out to the car and post an angry Yelp review.
So tell me about how you got into the business?
I was going to Marquette University and I was there in the mid-’70s when they won it all (the NCAA basketball title, 1977) and everything. And January of my freshman year, I started at the Avalanche, as a bartender.
Were they doing the beer slide then?
No. This is way earlier than that. I wasn't much of a student. I really didn't know what I wanted to do. I'm the youngest of six. I have five older siblings. Four older brothers went to Marquette High. I went to Marquette High. I had five older siblings who went to college. I went to college.
Well, they were a doctor, lawyer, dentist. They're all very successful people. And my mother was my influence. She could throw a party. There were 29 grandchildren from my grandfather and every Sunday we went to the farm we had up in Mequon and there'd be 50, 60 people and she'd feed them all.
I kind of learned that from her and, hell, I'm working and my friends are coming in and I'm partying with my friends. It was a good life.
You say your siblings were all successful, but you're successful, too, clearly.
Well, I am, I am.
Did your mom and dad see it that way?
Oh, my mother did; my dad really did not.
So, I just went on from there when I graduated Marquette my mother hooked me up with a gentleman by the name of Mr. Parker. He was the GM out at Bluemound Country Club, because she wanted me to continue on to hotel and restaurant management. And he suggested don't bother. "You go out and work somewhere for nine months, learn. Go to another place, learn. You're getting paid for it. You're learning at their expense."
It was the best advice I ever got. So, from ‘78 to, I think I started at The Harp in ‘85, that's what I did. For seven years I probably worked at 10, 12 different spots.
Were they all in Milwaukee?
I moved to California for three months and didn't care for it. So I came back, I worked for Saz, I worked for Derry (Hegarty), I worked at a place called The Manor House, which is now called McGinn’s (on Bluemound). I had a place at 65th and Greenfield. At one point, I leased the kitchen up at the old John Doe’s, which is now O'Brien's.
So that's what I did. And then I ended up at The Harp for probably eight years, and I bought the old Smuggler's in ‘95.
Was it closed at that point or...
No. Johnny V(assallo) owned it, actually. He bought it and ran it for a little while and John always had bigger ambitions. So, then he leased it out. I looked at it to buy. He wanted too much money, so he leased it out to a couple who lasted six, seven months. And then he called me and we settled on a price. I opened there in June of ‘95.
How long was it until, so then you ran that place exclusively until you opened on Bluemound?
In ‘98. I gutted Slim's Downtown, on first and Florida the week that we were opening this. So I could take my whole staff out here and open that up. Then got into the Slimousines with the buses and that helped drive business terrifically.
So then when did you close, when did you sell to Linda Sackett, in Walker’s Point?
In 2007, I sold Bluemound, and then in 2011 I sold to Linda.
I have to say, Bluemound is my go-to wings place.
Oh yeah. Major Goolsby’s had always been my favorite wings, and Marty (Wey) worked with Goolsby’s for years. I hired Marty. I think he had just left Goolsby’s. He and the owner had a little falling out. He is now one of the owners (on Bluemound).
And so then you sort of leapfrogged your way out west.
I was Downtown and everybody's saying, "Oh, we really need something like this out there. We really need something like this." And so that's, I knew the guy out there was in trouble.
What had that place been?
George Wilson's Meadow Inn. And he opened up another place, not too far away from him, a pizza place.
So then Walker’s Point closed in 2011 and Brookfield opened in 2008. Is that right?
Yeah. March of 2008.
So then since 2011 you were running only that. Was that sort of freeing to you to not have two places?
Oh, absolutely, it was. And again, probably my biggest problem out there was finding help. Good help. You're not on a bus line. People can't get out to you and so forth.
Presumably people who live out there are not looking for that kind of job.
But business must have been good. You were there 12 years, right?
Yeah, it was a good business. Very good business. Made most January through April: NCAA, Friday fish fry during Lent, St. Patrick's Day.
Right. I hear that's a big one.
(Laughs) Yeah. Derry always said, "If St. Patrick's Day were once a month I'd only be open 12 days a year."
Did you have a favorite? Was there one that you always sort of felt a special affection for?
There was something about the beauty of the one (in Walker’s Point). I mean, that was a Pabst-built bar. In 1905, I think it was.
Had that great little patio in the back. I remember seeing the R&B Cadets there when it was Smuggler's, probably 1985-86. The train coming by while they were playing. You could see their lips and hands moving but you couldn’t hear a thing. (Laughs)
We had some weddings, too, and you couldn't hear them. We had one wedding when that train came by and the judge stopped and ... oh, actually it might've been my wedding (laughs), now that I think about it. It was my cousin, (Judge) Chris Foley was doing it. I said, "Just keep going, Chris." He says, "No, no, no. I can't. Because you could say you didn't hear me, and then, you could get an annulment." I was like, "Okay, whatever." (Laughs)
Yeah, the beauty of that one, the patio at that one. It was my first and just as a first love there is something about it you compare everything else, too. Probably had the most fun and made the most money of my career there, but those were the days you’d do 30 percent food and 70 percent bar.
The staff was exceptional, worked well together; an upstairs party room and huge patio.
59th and Bluemound is where I met my wife. Nothing else can compare to this. After being a bachelor for 53 years I met the women of my dreams. She joined me in the business and helped take it to the next level.
Bluemound had the ballpark. This was also the start of the Slimousines which brought the Brewers experience to a higher level. Your summertime is your slow time unless you've got this big, gorgeous patio. Downtown also had all the festivals. You shuttle people to that.
Slim's West, it had always been a dream to build one from the ground up and this is the closet I got to this by gutting and adding an addition with a total remodel. This is also where I really began to elevate my cooking skills.
But I did struggle out there in the summers.
Yeah. When I remodeled in ‘09. I put a deck up on the second floor. Well, they wouldn't let me open it, 12 years and a pandemic later and they let me open it. And it just, it drove business to back where it was.
It was good of Brookfield to work with me on that. And the guy even said, "Come see me this winter and we'll figure something out." It was all about parking.
Did you own that building?
Yeah, I owned them all. That was kind of my 401(k). How I sold O'Lydia's, she bought the business with the option to buy the building.
And did she ever buy the building?
Just in May. So now again, I'm the bank for her. I'm the loaner.
Oh, so it's a land contract.
Yeah. And that's how I'm doing that out there (in Brookfield), also.
What about Bluemound?
No, I just, they just bought that lot. Lock stock and barrel.
So what was your favorite part of the business?
In the beginning, honestly, it was the people, the partying and so forth. But then I kind of found out that it was the cooking, the food. Back in the day, all you had to do is open a bar and the people came in.
But then more and more places opened and we had to get more creative with food. My wife and I traveled a lot. I'd always say to her, "I'm stealing that off the menu that was fabulous." And then put your own twist on it. At the end, that's what I really, really loved. Yeah. I'm going to miss that quite a bit.
What's the one thing you're not going to miss?
The headaches from again, like I said, the online comments.
My last night I bet 18 of my old employees came in to say goodbye. Which really, really I was shocked. It meant a lot to me. It was really good.
McGinn and his wife Jane. (PHOTO: Slim McGinn)
So, when do you head to Florida this year?
My wife hates hurricane season down there, so mid-to-late October.
And no point in leaving now.
Oh, it's gorgeous here (right now).
Do you have hobbies? Do you fish or something?
No, I don't fish. Actually, walking is a hobby of mine. When I go to Florida for a week or two weeks, every day I'm out. There's a bar or two close to home that I'll stop and have one in, shoot the sh*t with the people, that kind of stuff.
How long have you been going down there?
My parents had a place for 30 years in Fort Lauderdale, and then my uncle, who passed away two years ago, had one just north of Fort Lauderdale. We bought in Pompano, which was three and a half miles from him. My wife and him got to be very close. She spent a lot of the winters down there.
It's literally a second home by now.
Yeah, it is. It really is.
Well, that's great. Congratulations.
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 an episode of TV's "Party of Five," 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 can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.