By Lori Fredrich Senior Writer & Dining Editor Published Feb 18, 2022 at 1:02 PM

The first floor bar and restaurant inside Turner Hall, 1034 N. Vel R. Phillips Ave., will soon house a brand new concept, the focus of which will reside in equity, community and diversity.

Turning Tables Tavern & Eatery is the name of the innovative concept, which will feature not only a tavern and eatery, but also a first-of-its-kind teaching kitchen, to provide mentorship and hands-on training for local food-based entrepreneurs.

Behind the project – which could open as soon as late spring or early summer – is Emerald Mills, founder of Diverse Dining, an initiative created to bring people together over food to create cross-cultural connections and provide a safe space for conversations and relationships with the potential to evoke change.

Emerald Mills
Emerald Mills

Mills, who responded to the Milwaukee Turners, Inc. request for proposals in 2021, says that she was inspired to create the Turning Tables concept after working for UpStart Kitchen and seeing the myriad challenges that food entrepreneurs there were facing.

“For me, one of the big things was to create a space where entrepreneurs can get hands-on training and support either to enter the restaurant industry or to start their own business,” she says, noting that she sees the new concept as an extension of the Turners mission to support “liberty against all oppression, tolerance against all fanaticism, reason against all superstition and justice against all exploitation.”

To bring Turning Tables to fruition, Mills has also partnered with a diverse team of professionals who will assist with various aspects of the project. That includes longtime restaurant industry professionals Jervel Williams of Mister Bar-B-Que and Eli Rivera, owner of ShyftFly restaurant and technology consulting; Julie Collins, owner of KnotMagic and Chief Operations Officer Rebecca Krueger, both of whom have assisted with proposal writing and project management; and Shawntell Taylor, who brings expertise in accounting, financial planning and insurance to the table.

Alexia Brunson, owner of CopyWrite Magazine, will bring design and public relations acumen to the project. Meanwhile, Emilio De Torre, the executive director of Turner Hall, who has been a vital contributor to the project, will continue to collaborate on various levels. 

“This is a project that will engage the community in a variety of ways,” says Mills, “So we will be formalizing a number of additional partnerships as things move forward, all of whom will assist in helping us to represent diversity in the industry and round out the expertise needed to guide our teaching kitchen.”

The teaching kitchen

Turning Tables' teaching kitchen will provide between six and 18 months of training for aspiring restaurateurs, during which they have access to professional development, in-house marketing and hands-on training to provide them with the knowledge and experience needed to build the skill set needed to successfully work in the restaurant industry or operate a successful restaurant. 

In keeping with the project’s mission, program participants will also receive Diverse Dining certification, equipping them with the tools necessary to create a welcoming atmosphere, a diverse workforce and equitable business practices in their own restaurants or places of employment.

Ultimately, Mills says, Turning Tables aspires to encourage the creation of a community of restaurants which operate with equity, community and inclusion as their backbone.

Dining room at Turner HallX

The restaurant

The space, which was most recently operated by Mike Eitel as the Tavern at Turner Hall, includes approximately 8200 square feet and includes a restaurant bar, kitchen, office and storage.

Mills says they plan to maintain the overall interior structure of the space, including the murals. However, a number of cosmetic upgrades are in the plans, with the overall design showcasing a mix of old and new.

Turning Tables will feature a full bar, including representation from Milwaukee-based beverage brands. Meanwhile its inaugural menu will feature dishes created by Jervel Williams best known for his dry-rubbed slow-smoked meats and Southern fare, which he has served to a loyal audience since 2013.

The menu will include numerous staples, says Mills, including a Friday night fish fry (an offering for which Turner Hall has been a longtime draw); but as things move forward, it will also evolve to include an ever changing selection of dishes from the entrepreneurs participating in the program, all of which will be open to feedback from the dining community.

Most importantly, Turning Tables will provide a space not only for the community to gather and enjoy a meal, but also to engage in meaningful conversations, monthly cultural dining experiences and corporate training events.

‘My mission has always been to create equity in the community,” says Mills. “And over the years, as I’ve hosted dinners and worked with local restaurant owners and entrepreneurs, it’s become obvious that there are additional ways to address the inequities that exist in the restaurant industry itself. Turning Tables brings those ideas together in a cohesive way.”

For those looking to keep an eye on the project, Mills says the Turning Tables website is anticipated to launch before the end of February at Turning Tables also has a presence on Facebook and Instagram.

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.