By Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host Published Jun 28, 2016 at 1:01 PM

Last November, we reported on plans to revive the old Wally Schmidt tavern located at 1848 W. Fond du Lac Ave.

The historic building, which has been vacant for many years, was purchased by developer Juli Kaufmann of Fix Development and co-developer Jeremy Davis, Lindsay Heights resident and environmental specialist at Walnut Way Conservation Corp., with plans to restore the building to its former grandeur. Those plans include building out office spaces on the upper floors and opening a neighborhood restaurant on the main floor.

The project aims to transform a formerly foreclosed, boarded-up building into a neighborhood asset, involving local residents in the developerment, construction management and ownership group.

Since our last report, more than $37,296 has been raised with the help of an ongoing IndieGoGo campaign, as well as both public and private financing. The developers have also successfully raised $380,000 from a crowd investment strategy which has brought together 40 diverse local investor owners for the building, 25% of which are Lindsay Heights residents. The hope is that the commercial real estate model, which aims to incite social change, can be made into an open source model available for replication. Parties interested in supporting the project should contact Kaufmann at Fix Development.

In the meantime, a local chef, Caitlin Cullen, has signed on to operate the restaurant, which will be called The Tandem.

What’s in store

The restaurant, which is slated to open early this fall, will accommodate 65 diners indoors, including bar, booth and table seating. Meanwhile, an outdoor patio located in a courtyard behind the building will seat an additional 43.

"The feel will really encompass the idea of an old school tavern, with a modern twist," says Cullen. "It will be adequately dark, but surprisingly bright … for a tavern."

In terms of cuisine, The Tandem will emphasize affordability, freshness and seasonality with a menu that takes inspiration from a variety of traditions including Midwest home cooking, Caribbean street food, southern soul food and healthy new American fare.

Appetizers will include house-made pickles, handmade burrata with seasonal accompaniments, chicken liver mousse and a variety of other rotating options. Healthy salads will include power greens, grains and Southern-style bean salads.

Meanwhile, family-style entrees will feed a family of four for $30-50. Options will include a fish fry, hot ham and rolls, and sancocho, a Dominican stew featuring chicken, beef, pork and plantains.

One of the house specialties will be chicken, which Cullen says she’ll prepare three ways:

  • Dominican roasted: "It has a lot of citrus, with a spicy black pepper note on the end. And the skin is crispy while the chicken is tender."
  • Memphis fried: "Chicken brined in hot sauce and then dredged in wet cornstarch batter that really creates a lacquer-like finish that’s super crispy on the outside and really moist and tender on the inside."
  • Georgia fried: "It’s your basic buttermilk wet-and-dry battered chicken with a crisp pillowy crust."

Cullen, who will work alongside Sous Chef Joe Sutter (formerly of Company Brewing), says the goal is to create a neighborhood restaurant that provides a gathering place for both residents and Downtown diners while engaging in a deeper mission to provide substantial employment and culinary training to those in the community.

Getting to know you

Cullen, who began her career as an educator in Detroit, transitioned into the service industry through work with a variety of Milwaukee chefs including Thi Cao of Buckley’s and Gregory Leon of Amilinda. However, her career took off under the tutelage of Chef Karen Bell of Bavette, a mentor she credits for giving her the necessary skills to move forward with her dream of opening a restaurant.

"Karen [Bell] is the real deal," notes Cullen. "She's extraordinarily talented and well-respected, she works harder than anyone I've known, and is an amazing mentor and teacher; I feel ready for this because of the time I've had with her."

In 2015, after working for Bell for nearly three years, Cullen made the decision to return to her
hometown of Detroit to help launch Iron Ridge Marketplace, a 90,000-square foot makers market comprised of small independent food businesses.

"We got the project running," she notes, "And I thought I’d eventually start a restaurant there. But in February, I got a call from Karen [Bell], who told me that another potential restaurateur had dropped out of the Wally Schmidt revitalization project. And she encouraged me to consider taking it on."

In a sense, Cullen notes, The Tandem is a mechanism by which she can give back to the industry by providing the same skilled training she received from Bell and others to neighborhood residents.

Behind the name

"My dad comes from a huge family of eight brothers and sisters," says Cullen. "Two of my uncles, who are twins, struggled after college with finding a direction for their careers. Ultimately, my family invested in the purchase of a bar, which my uncles operated. The name of it was 'The Tandem,' and it was the kind of place where everyone who came in was a regular. It gave two guys who didn’t really have a direction a means for making a living and having a purpose."

Cullen says the name resonated when she considered the Wally Schmidt project.

"A tandem bike has two seats," she explains. "You can ride it alone. But when you ride with another person, you get more power. And it makes the ride so much easier. I’m looking at my relationship with Lindsey Heights very similarly – as a partnership."

A bigger mission

Cullen says that one of The Tandem’s long-term goals is to act as a culinary skills gateway of sorts, connecting the young talent of Milwaukee’s northern neighborhoods with the burgeoning restaurant scene of the city’s Downtown areas.

"I’m an educator at heart," says Cullen. "And part of what I’ve always loved about cooking is the training aspect. A fairly high percentage of the Lindsay Heights neighborhood is between the ages of 18 and 24. And we hope to cultivate interest among those young people in entering the service industry."

Cullen says that, within its first year of operation, she plans to employ at least 15 local residents for both part- and full-time positions. Among them, she foresees providing on-the-job training for at least a dozen kitchen staff. Training would take place both at The Tandem, as well as at partner restaurants, including Amilinda, who would take on kitchen staff as stages, teaching them how to work in a variety of restaurant environments.

"As the dining scene continues to explode, there’s an increasing need for skilled workers who can fill the gaps in kitchens across the city," says Cullen. "So one of our goals is to provide training for individuals in the neighborhood who would like to launch careers in the industry."

Watch for additional information about The Tandem at OnMilwaukee – including a preview of the space – in the coming weeks.

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.