By Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host Published Dec 30, 2020 at 12:01 PM

When The Tandem opened its doors at 1848 W. Fond Du Lac Ave. in November of 2016, the restaurant brought new life to an historic tavern in a once-blighted neighborhood. And, just two years later, customers lucky enough to cross the eatery's threshold were likely to find a well-oiled machine.

But it wasn't always that way.

"Within the first three months, we served people raw chicken four times. And three times it was the same person," says chef and owner Caitlin Cullen. "The wait times for food have occasionally been ridiculous. Early on, we had a few employees scream and walk out of the restaurant at extremely inopportune times. There were moments when I felt like I was – literally – losing my sanity."

In fact, Cullen says she still survives most of her sleep-deprived days powered by coffee and cigarette breaks.

"I still feel like I’m going to lose my mind," she says. "It’s emotionally taxing. But we are still here. And I never thought that would happen. Our food is good. And we actually have a functional restaurant that serves people reliably most days."

Cullen is more than frank about the challenges of creating a restaurant that not only produces delicious food, but also creates opportunity and empowerment for its a less-than-traditional workforce.

"Most of our employees have never worked for a restaurant," she says. "Many have challenging family situations and probably a dozen on staff have done time. But they all show up for work every day. And they are a part of our surprisingly effective, but definitely dysfunctional restaurant family."

What is family?

Cullen says she could share any number of stories that reflect the challenges involved in running a restaurant that’s committed to not only feeding customers, but also nourishing its employees and supporting their life development. But there are a few that also serve to illustrate the familial culture the restaurant has developed.

"I tried to hire a former neighbor of mine this last summer," she recalls. "Clearly he had gotten high on something before he came in to work because he grew more and more agitated over the course of the night and began acting inappropriately. When I suggested he should take his dinner and go, he began screaming at the top of his lungs. Eventually I just waited and he left."

But it wasn’t the last she’d see of him.

"A couple of weeks later, I was loading up the car to go to Sound Bites, and someone starts screaming ‘He’s robbing us!" I looked in the dining room, saw him, hood up, pointing something at whoever was at the register through his sweatshirt. I left to call the cops, but when I came back everyone was gone."

Cullen ventured outside, where she witnessed an eight man dogpile right on Fond du Lac Avenue.

"It was all my employees," she says. "They’d chased him, pinned him down, took all the money back and held him until the police department showed up. It was nuts. That’s something you only do for family."

And family is an apt word for the motley crew of employees who have taken up residence at the restaurant, some for just brief periods of time and others for the long term.

In it for the long haul

Turnover in restaurants is often steep. But Cullen has seen a particularly large churn, having employed over 90 people in the past two years. And even among those who haven’t remained employed, the restaurant has become a home base of sorts.

"There are only about 10 or 12 that I don’t see on a regular basis," notes Cullen. "They stop by to chat, they come in and eat, and a number of them work for us here and there."

Among those who’ve remained with the restaurant, Cullen says there are four who she hired early on and whose perseverance has proven to be invaluable. And their stories offer insights into what makes the work of The Tandem so incredible.

Ziare Dalton: dishwasher

"I hired Ziare as a dishwasher before we opened and he’s worked for us on and off since the beginning. During his interview with me at the Outpost on North, he expressed in so many words that he was uncomfortable around gay people and that he had a problem with women in authority … at which point I had to explain to him that I was a gay woman and I would be his boss.

"It’s been a journey. I’m on a first name and direct phone call basis with his mother; and, at this point, she’s the yin to my yang in terms of helping out on his journey to socialization. From the beginning, he required regular attention; and his big challenge is that he needs to learn how not to flip out about every little thing. But over time, we’ve shown him love and respect and he’s become one of our most loyal employees. He’s there every morning, five days a week, 30 minutes early at that."

Dalton says it’s a job unlike any other he’s had.

"This is different," he says. "We work together here, and we help each other. It’s like a family up in here. When I first started, everybody was still getting to know each other. It was a little shaky. But then, as we spent time together, we all got to know each other and we came together. I don’t know what I’d do if I wasn’t here ... I’d probably be in the streets again. This job has changed me a lot. I used to have anger problems; but it’s changed me. Everybody’s smooth here; everybody’s family. And it feels really good to come here every day. It’s safe and there’s good vibes up in here."

Teresa Moore: bartender

"Teresa walked in while we were doing all of our training," says Cullen. "She was the half-sister of one of our cooks. When I asked if she had any experience, she proclaimed proudly that she’d been a cashier at Chuck E. Cheese. I hired her immediately."

But Moore came to the table after experiencing a good deal of trauma.

"She’s from Gary, Indiana. Her brother was shot and died shortly thereafter and the stress threw her father into cardiac arrest. Essentially, she lost the two people who had been there for her. So she moved to Milwaukee to be with her half sister. We talk about restaurant families … but The Tandem has become an actual family for her. She fights with everyone like they’re siblings. She remembers everyone’s birthdays. She drives everybody crazy. And she literally calls me ‘mom.’"

Cullen says that Moore began working as a server, but as time wore on, she began branching out and taking on other tasks. "She’s also unbelievably intelligent and loving and kind. She was the very first employee I ever gave a raise to and it’s because she’s great at what she does."

Moore says her job has assisted her in being a better person.

"Working here has ultimately taught me patience and how to be calm," she says. "I’m a very hyperactive person, and I don’t like to stay still… and I was quite a hot head before I started working here; the smallest things could make me flip out. But now now I’ve learned not to feed into the negativity. We sometimes have customers who come in, and if they’re rude I’ve learned I always have to make the decision: Am I going to be rude back or am I going to kill them with kindness? And I’ve learned to kill them with kindness."

"I have a couple of relatives here, but we’re not close, so working at The Tandem also gave me family. We do things outside the restaurant. We have Christmas dinner together. And Caitlin has really been like my second mom. When I got an apartment, she helped me furnish the whole thing. She gave me dishes, a futon and some chairs. She’s always there for everybody when we need her. And she’s a person you can talk to about anything. And if she doesn’t have the answer or can’t help, she’ll find someone who can."

And work, she says, has become a second home.

"We actually care about this place, and we all love being here. We all have something we’ve been through and that we’re going through. And when we come here, it doesn’t matter anymore. It’s like our home away from home… our peace."

Travon Foster: cook

"I met Travon at the "Teens Grow Greens" dinner we did last summer," Cullen says. "He was awesome … a rockstar. And I told him that if he wanted a job, he could have one. At 15, he was my youngest employee. He’s 17 now, and he’s still here. In fact, he’s also taken on a second job at Bavette."

When he started at The Tandem, he was being home schooled after being kicked out of MPS for fighting. Foster’s home life was challenging, and from an early age, he’d taken on the role of head of his household, baring the brunt of family stresses and taking on challenges most don’t have to face until adulthood. Cullen says that over the last year and a half, he’s benefited from multiple opportunities for mentorship and growth at the behest of community members including Ned Witte, a board member for Teens Grow Greens and a longtime friend and supporter of the restaurant.

"I’ve known Ned and his wife Mary for a long time," she says. "And they’ve been among a number of community members who’ve expressed a vested interest in not only the restaurant, but in all of the young people working here."

Foster says his experience at The Tandem has made a huge difference in his life, his confidence and his outlook.

"It’s been a really good change in my life," he says. "I feel like whatever I put my mind to after this, I’ll be doing it a step higher. Working at Bavette, I’ve seen a totally different side of the business. It’s higher end and the customers are different. And that’s really taught me that I can do anything. I’ve always wanted to be a chef or a lawyer, and right now I’m still on track for both...imagine, a lawyer who can cook.

"It’s like a bike ride, for real. It’s a journey where you learn different aspects in both the work world and on a personal level. Everyone here is part of a big family; we call each other brother and sister. We fight and we get along, and we love each other. Tandem is just Tandem. It’s about making everyone better."

Tiffany Madlock: general manager

"Tiffany was hired within the first two weeks of opening," says Cullen. "She was driving down Fond du Lac with her best friend and her best friend’s mom. When they got to the restaurant, the mom pulled over, shoved them both out of the car, and told them to go get jobs; they’d heard about us on the news. While we were talking at the bar, she told me she wanted to own a restaurant, and that was her dream. So I hired her."

But Cullen says that – despite Madlock’s potential – it took the better part of a year for her to grow into her position.

"She was a disaster," she recalls. "She’s the messiest person I know and doesn’t know how to clean up after herself. She tends not to take responsibility for her actions … She was my least favorite kitchen employee for almost six months. I thought about firing her daily. But she kept showing up. And she learned. She has a strong gift for cooking. You tell her how to do something once and she can do it forever. And she has a palate and an understanding of the way that food works. So she worked her way up. She went from working two shifts to four shifts to six to eight. And now she’s my right hand woman. She knows how to serve, bartend, cook and manage. And she makes sure the money comes out at the end of the night. She’s not even 20 and she’s my general manager."

Madlock, who is currently taking classes at MATC, pursuing her degree in culinary arts and management, says she owes a great deal to the experience she’s gained working at The Tandem.

"When I started, I was used to cooking at home, but not on a timeframe. So I’ve learned a lot about moving fast and really moving around in a kitchen. It’s allowed me to try new things, try new recipes and really be free with what I make…" She smiles, shyly. "My barbecue sauce is really well known in the community …"

"Being here has taught me that this is really what I want to do … and I know I can do it. Working here isn’t like working anywhere else. Caitlin is great; she goes through my class schedule with me, and she’s been really encouraging."

"I’ve also gotten to meet a lot of great people Greg Leon and Jennifer Bartolotta ... and I really look up to them. They’re always friendly and encouraging you to do your best. I’ve met so many people that I think I’ll be friends with for the rest of my life. If I’m stranded at midnight, I know at least three people I could call."

Tough love reaps rewards

Cullen hasn’t gotten this far being gentle with her employees. In fact, her training as a former urban school teacher has given her the ability to exercise tough love when necessary.

"I tell every employee that there are two ways you can quit your job at The Tandem," Cullen says. "You can quit with notice and respect, and then you reserve the right to come back at a later time. But, if I look you in the face when you’re walking out the door in the middle of service and I say to you ‘If you walk out of here right now, you will never work here again,’ I really mean it. Employees who leave like that are always welcome to come back and talk, have a beer, or borrow money. But I’m firm on the fact that they can’t come back to work."

Demetri "Meech" Hollimon, a 20-something who spent the better part of his twenties in prison, got his job at The Tandem through a chance meeting with his girlfriend. And he took to the kitchen as naturally as Cullen says she’s ever seen.

"After six months, he was the best cook I had on staff," she says. "He was looking for more hours, so I referred him to Karen [Bell] at Bavette. And it was the first time I realized that the success of so many of our employees is contingent upon the comfort level they develop at the restaurant."

The situation proved to be one of many learning experiences for Cullen, who admits she’s been changed as much by owning The Tandem as any of her employees.

"When he started working at Bavette, he completely fell apart," she says. "It was stressful, and he was in a space where he couldn’t fully be himself. So he quit and came right back to the Tandem. He remained with the restaurant for just over a year before deciding he was ‘too good’ for a regular paycheck. So he quit … without notice, in the middle of Saturday night dinner service."

Like so many former employees, Cullen says Hollimon kept in touch.

"About three or four months ago, he had a come to Jesus moment and stopped in at the Tandem to talk. Shortly thereafter, he took a dishwasher position at TGI Fridays at Miller Park, swiftly moving up to line cook. When he started the job, he walked at least a mile to work every day because he didn’t have a car. Now it’s been a few months. He’s got a truck, and a job, and the beginnings of a potential career."

No going back

"When I started planning for this restaurant, I thought the process would be very different," admits Cullen. "I thought I could take people in, teach them and then send them on their way. But there’s a big difference between acquiring skills and really having enough confidence to take the skills you’ve gained and apply them outside in the real world."

It’s a fact that Cullen says has resulted in consistent 80-hour work weeks and countless sleepless nights.

"If this is your first job … if it’s your first job out of prison … you don’t really know yourself. You’re not confident. And we provide a safe space for people to really get comfortable in their own skin and develop the confidence and soft skills that they need to function in another place. But that takes a lot longer. We’re not just teaching them to cook."

Cullen says the challenges stem as much from failure of the system as any personal baggage her employees bring to the table.

"There’s this point at which you age out of the social services that are offered through your neighborhood, school and community … the programs that help you stay out of trouble and off the streets. And when that happens, you’ve lost your safety net. And in that moment, my goal is to offer them a support system that will get them through the rough period between their teenage years and adulthood."

"Initially we talked about this restaurant as being a culinary bridge. Fuck the culinary bridge. The bridge between youth and young adulthood is way more important. It’s about building confidence. It’s about learning self-motivation and taking pride in honest work. And it’s about being a part of society, being in participation with one another, with community. And these are things we try to teach."

Hers is a role that she says is gratifying, but also never-ending.

"Every day, I feel like we make progress. And the longer people stay, the more I grow in my understanding of what we need to do the next time, and the time after that. But this truly has become my life’s work."

Her hope, she says, is that – at some point in the future – the restaurant’s debt will be paid off and it will be making money. And, at that point, she says she’d like to turn it over to the employees to run.

"I’d love to leave it in Tiffany’s hands ... truly, I’d love for this to be a cooperative, an employee-owned restaurant where people can carry this work on for years to come. In many ways, that’s already how we function on a day to day basis. Everyone is responsible for themselves, and they’re all invested. But it’s not a perfect system."

Of course, there’s a catch. Cullen says that, in order for that dream to actually come to fruition, she really needs the community to step up their game as well.

"For us to get to that point, we need people to show up. And we need them to show up consistently. We get lots of likes when we post things on Instagram… so much love. But likes don’t power a restaurant. And in that way, we’re not unlike every other restaurant in the city. We need people to come through the door so that we can keep doing what we do."

Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host

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.