A deal is in the works for the former Red Dot space at 2498 N Bartlett Ave., and a new upscale casual concept called The Original is set to move in as soon as late summer.
The Original is the vision of business partners Eric and Jennifer Rzepka as well as Craig Rzepka, Eric's brother and an industry veteran who has spent the past 15 years managing restaurants in the Chicago area.
Eric Rzepka, a Chicago native who now calls Milwaukee home, says the partners are currently working to close on the sale of the building, after which they will make a number of aesthetic updates to the space, including new lighting and refurbishment of the art deco bar.
"The idea is to create a space that offers higher end dining in a well-polished, but casual atmosphere," he says. "We want to focus on a small, well-executed menu and really high quality cocktails at an affordable price."
In some ways, Eric says, the idea is to create a sort of modern speakeasy – something off the beaten path that’s welcoming, where guests can enjoy themselves and "speak easy."
He adds the menu will focus on New American fare with an eye for seasonality and locally sourced fare. A hyper local focus will also pertain to the restaurant’s beverage program, which will focus products from local companies like Bittercube, distilleries like Twisted Path, Central Standard and Great Lakes, along with Milwaukee-based craft beer.
"In some ways, we’re still tackling the idea of what a modern speakeasy looks like," he remarks, "but components that appeal are inclusiveness, quality and a hyper local feel. There are so many companies to work with – from local distilleries to craft breweries – and we’ll really have a focus on sourcing from those companies."
And hospitality, he says, will be at the core of what they do.
"Our focus will really be on welcoming people the first time they come, and then welcoming them back time and time again," he says. "That attention to detail is something we’ve lost over the years, but it’s an element of hospitality we really want to be a part of The Original."
Eric Rzepka, who moved to Milwaukee over 20 years ago to attend MSOE, spent over 10 years working in the service industry in Milwaukee. In fact, he met his wife Jennifer while waiting tables at the former John Ernst Cafe.
An electrical engineer by trade, Eric says he always had a sense that he wanted to own his own business. In fact, he’s been involved in numerous transactions over the years including the purchase of his wife’s company, Svinicki Association Management. More recently, he says, his interests moved toward the restaurant industry. When he proposed the idea to his brother, he says plans began moving forward.
"My original idea was to open in Walker’s Point," he notes. "And we were scouting locations when a friend of mine, Noah Benjamin Sumner, posted the article from OnMilwaukee about the sale of Red Dot."
Eric says the article piqued his interest. He liked the location, which was neatly tucked away, and there was character to the building which he appreciated.
"Interestingly," he says. "I’d just tried to go Red Dot with an electrician buddy of mine who I was talking to about partnering on an electrical engineering consulting business I was thinking about starting. We hadn’t realized it was closed at that point. And suddenly, things felt as if they’d come full circle."
Eric notes the name, The Original, was derived from a conversation with Red Dot owner, Martin Beaudoin, during which he shared a story about how, even after he’d started and remodeled the Wauwatosa location of Red Dot, his kids always said they liked "the original" best.
"The name just clicked," says Rzepka. "We want to create something classic, something quality, something original. And we liked the idea that the name pays a bit of homage to the history of the restaurant. It was the original Calderone Club, and then the original Red Dot."
In fact, he says the plan is to retain the Red Dot in the flooring tiles of the restaurant as a reminder of the past and those relationships.
Kickstarting The Original
There are still a few months before Milwaukeeans can get a taste of The Original. But, in the meantime, the Rzepkas have launched a Kickstarter campaign to assist in raising start-up capital for the restaurant.
Among the spiffs are the first and only T-shirt printing for The Original, ownership of seating in the restaurant and the opportunity to get your cocktail concept or dish on the menu. The goal for the campaign is $50,000 and it runs through May 19.
"This is about people helping us, but in exchange we’re offering them a stake and stories that will be embedded in the restaurant itself," says Eric.
"As a kid in Chicago, there was always something exciting happening in the city," he adds. "There were things like Untouchable Tours and Ed Debevic’s and even things as simple as Portillo’s, a brand that really grew and became more refined over the years. So much of Chicago grew up around those things. Milwaukee is one of the most emerging cities in the nation right now. And I believe we’re on the verge of a boom. So, to start something iconic at this time is really exciting. This is my way of being part of that growth and really giving back in terms of service."
Once open, The Original is likely to offer lunch and dinner along with brunch on weekends.
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.