What changes when the building a restaurant resides in is sold? Sometimes nothing. And sometimes absolutely everything.
The latter is the case for Wolf Peach, 1818 N. Hubbard St., a longtime staple that has thrived in Milwaukee’s Brewers Hill neighborhood. The restaurant will be closing its doors sometime before the end of March.
Owner Gina Gruenewald told OnMilwaukee she has also made the tough decision to close Wolf Peach’s sister restaurant, Supper, located in the Shorecrest at 1962 N. Prospect Ave. Supper observed its final service on Sunday, March 11 following a dinner featuring the cooking of longtime restaurant owner Mimma Megna of Mimma’s on Brady.
Why would a thriving restaurant close?
When restaurants cease operations, it piques peoples’ curiosity. Why would one of their favorite spots close its doors?
In plenty of cases, the answer is financial: not enough bodies are coming through the front door. It’s a sight we’re seeing more and more, as Milwaukee’s restaurant market becomes increasingly saturated with options … more options, in fact, than our current dining public is willing or able to support.
But, in the case of Wolf Peach, finances aren’t the problem.
In fact, the restaurant has flourished. Dinner service on almost any given night is a bustling affair and weekend brunch often fills the restaurant to its gills. Wolf Peach boasts some of Milwaukee’s finest service industry personnel and a kitchen filled with talented chefs.
Rather, it was a series of unfortunate circumstances which prompted the closure of the popular concept.
An all-too-attractive "turn-key" property
Tim Dixon of Dixon Development was behind the creation of the Hubbard Street property, which was the birthplace of Roots Restaurant, the state’s first farm- and chef-owned restaurant. And it was a combination of both the restaurant’s fresh sustainable fare and its breathtaking terraced view of the Milwaukee skyline that formed the foundations for its success.
When Roots closed in 2012, Gruenewald and a team of operators, including Dixon, stepped up to the plate, preserving both the spirit of Milwaukee’s first true farm-to-table restaurant, along with the jobs of many of the restaurant’s employees, by opening Wolf Peach. Since its inception, Wolf Peach has been home to several of Milwaukee’s best chefs, as well as its innovative European-style cuisine and "como viene" service, which paved the way for a new kind of dining experience in the city.
At the beginning of this year, Dixon made the decision to sell the property, marketing it as a turn-key restaurant facility, complete with desirable Milwaukee views and a long history of successful restaurants – all of which made the property an exceedingly attractive investment opportunity. Of course, it also made the property attractive to potential owners looking to open a food and beverage concept of their own.
Not surprisingly, the sale of the property was swift. The building officially hit the market in early January. By February, Gruenewald says she'd met the new building owner, Carl Tomich, proprietor of Stonefire Pizza Co.
After this article was published, building owner Tim Dixon shared the following information with OnMilwaukee:
"I was disappointed to read Gina's account of why she decided to close both Wolf Peach and Supper," Dixon says in a statement. "A group of very dedicated people all came together to concept and open Wolf Peach - it was a group effort including the former Roots staff members and talent chefs like Dan Jacobs and Joe McPherson. My wife and I contributed significant capital to the build out. Ownership of Wolf Peach was established at 45% Tim and Leslie Dixon, 45% Gina Gruenwald and 10% Joe McPherson, but unfortunately that was a handshake deal among friends."
"During Wolf Peach's tenure," he adds, "I gave the business a below-market lease rate. After never having received a distribution as an owner, I asked that Wolf Peach pay market rate for their lease. The Wolf Peach lease expired last October and without coming to terms, I decided selling the real estate was the best plan moving forward."
The decision to close
Gruenewald says that, initially, she and Tomich discussed a potential partnership for the Wolf Peach restaurant; however, it was determined that the arrangement was not in the best interest of either party. Subsequently, Gruenwald says that Tomich offered to purchase the Wolf Peach brand, an offer she refused with ease.
"Wolf Peach is so personal to me," she says. "And because I put so much of myself into the restaurant, it just doesn’t seem right for someone else to carry on the brand ... it’s just a torch I cannot pass on, nor one that I can protect the integrity of. While Carl’s original intentions are noted — to keep the staff and brand — we just don’t share the same vision for what Wolf Peach is."
Gruenewald, who founded Wolf Peach in part to secure the livelihoods of countless Roots employees, says that one of the most difficult aspects of the decision to close both restaurants is recognizing that 60 of her employees will need to find another job.
"They’re my family, my kids," she says. "I have so many amazing people who work for me. In an ideal situation, you can give customers an opportunity to say goodbye, and you can give your employees enough notice to find new jobs. But this wasn’t ideal."
The stress of the transaction, Gruenewald says, is ultimately what prompted her decision to simultaneously close Supper, Milwaukee’s modern take on the classic Wisconsin supper club.
"I’m done with the restaurant business ... for now," says Gruenewald, before adding, "but pop-ups do sound interesting."
Dixon responded to Gruenewald's account with the following: "Gina and the prospective owner were also not able to come to terms, therefore she elected to close Wolf Peach - a brand I still own and credit many people for its success. How this had anything to do with the closing of Supper I have no idea. I wish Gina well but want to set the record straight."
Tomich will take possession of the property beginning in April 2018.
Please stay tuned for updates on what is coming to the new space.
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.