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In Dining

Despite the fact that his name is known to most everyone in town, relatively few might recognize Karl Kopp.

Milwaukee Talks: Karl Kopp

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Do you ever think about another location? I know I've often thought it would be great to have one Downtown.

There's a piece of land that I have where I thought about that. I've had it for years, more than years, and then I finally started working on it, and then it was a historical building. And I thought, "Oh, that's kind of interesting. Let's do it." And we worked on it for a long time and worked hard on it, and so on, and finally there's a man that worked on the project, an engineer. He says, "Karl, we got water issues on this building." With that and the building is old. He says, "We're going to pound really hard on this building to put it up." And he says, "I don't know if it'll take it."

He says, "I don't know if it'll take it now or will it demolish in two years or five years." And I just thought, I can't go to bed every night and wonder, is this thing going to be there in the morning or caved in? So I just pulled the plug on it and all the nice design and everything. It would have been a beautiful building.

Had you thought about making that a Kopp's custard stand?

No, that was going to be a restaurant.

More like Elsa's? Something completely different?

You know, it probably would have had the same ... You know, you can't change spots on a dog.

In a sense you did change the spots on a dog with Elsa's. Tell me a little bit about how you decided to open it, where the idea came from.

The idea came from ... I was relatively young, married and my wife at the time ... we would go down to Chicago. We would say, "Let's go down to Chicago, we like Chicago. Let's go down there and go shop and then we'll go have a little lunch, and then we'll shop more, and then we'll go to a museum, or do this, and then we'll go to eat." And we would go to these restaurants, or we would go to these clothing stores, and they say, "Oh, have you tried this, have you tried that?" So the woman said, "You've got to go see this Gordon's."

Gordon's Restaurant (which opened in 1976 and closed in 1999 on Clark Street in River North), and as soon as I walked in there, I thought ... it doesn't look like (Elsa's), but it has that same feeling that I like. So naturally I called the guy up and I said, "Do you want to do one in Milwaukee?"

He says, "Well, I don't know." He says, "I got a business manager, he's going to come and talk to you first." I says, "Okay." I remember his name was Bert Spitz, I think, and he came up and he talked to me and looked at it. He says, "Well, I think there might be interest in it."

I had the space. There was this guy who was helping me find a space and he said, "Yeah, you got to meet Marlene La Galbo (who owned an Italian restaurant in the space before Kopp bought the building in 1980)." He says, "Karl, every time I come here, she kisses me."

And did he like it?

No! He had lipstick all over his face. Mrs. La Galbo ... oh, she was a beauty, and she had some old stuff (in the restaurant). It was years old, and bad, you know? "I got these menus here," she said and wanted to give them to me. "You'll be able to use those yet."

So it wasn't exactly the same kind of place.

No, but you know, she was nice. That was Marlene LuGalbo, the one that kissed me.

The kisser.

The kisser. So, anyway, he sent the two guys up, and they looked at it and looked at it, walked around on it, and finally they said, "Why don't you leave for a while?" I don't know why they wanted me to leave. I still don't to this day, but I got to be very close with them as far as design, because I liked what they were proposing. And I never had that, that kind of clean look, "Oh, that's nice," I thought. So I got connected with them.

This was initially a partnership?

No, no. (They) just did the design work and I paid for it. That's all they did. But they were, I thought, very good, or maybe it was good because I liked it, obviously.

Well, that's the only way we can determine what's good, right? If we like it.

Right! "I like it, that's good." (Laughs) So they were here with me and that's when I also then started branching out a little bit, and I opened one in Phoenix.

Okay, and Elsa's opened around 1980, 1981?

Yeah, in fact, the man that's tending bar now ... well, he wanted to tend bar on the first day but we weren't open yet, but he was here, and he used to work over at Captain's Steak Joynt. I really liked him, he had a lot of personality. I said, "You want to come work for me?" He says, "Sure." And so we were still building. He says, "When we going to open?" We opened it and he's still here. Forty years later, yeah.

This is pretty common for you. We've talked about the guy that's at 76th and Layton that's been there forever. You've got a guy out at Port Washington that's been there forever, right? You must be a good guy to work for.

I don't know. Don't ask me, I'd say, "I wouldn't work for Karl. He's ornery every day." (laughs) And if I see something that I don't like, I'm not passive about it.

You're a hands-on guy ... you're here at Elsa's seating people sometimes, right?

Right, so that's how all those things kind of entwined. AZ88 opened in '88 (in Scottsdale; another place, Hanny's, followed in Phoenix). That's where the 88 came from.

Bar 89 was located in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood.

And then Bar 89, the 89 is because of the address, right?

That's the address, right.

So when did that open?

'95.

Being a hands-on guy, did you find it challenging to have places here and there?

Yeah, that's probably when I lost all my hair. (laughs) Yeah, but you know, it never starts out like, "Oh, I'm going to buy this." It starts out a little bit, "Oh, I'd like to open up a place in New York." Then you just go to bed and forget about it, right? It's the next day but the dream doesn't diminish. Well, what am I going to do? I tried to lease a place, or do this and do that. It didn't work, so then I found a vacant lot. There was a lady that was kind of helping me a little bit.

So it was a vacant lot, and then I bought the lot and then built the building, and with all the joy that is in the end.

Is that a clothes shop now?

It's a clothing store. Vince. They've got a couple of them around the country.

Do you get out to AZ88 much? What's the key to making those work?

Yeah, I'm going out next week, I think. I think it's finding a manager. You know, some of them don't really have the intention of doing that, but then they kind of maybe grasp on to who I am or what we do, and then it works, you know. The one at 88's been there I don't know how many years.

Do you still have the New York dream?

Oh, I still have it. I mean, it turned into a clothing store, so I miss it. I would go to New York, right? Have a look around, do a little of this and that, look and see and so on, but then I had a place. It was like an anchor for me. I could go there, have something to eat, see at once what I did like, didn't like, put something into practice and so on. It was interesting, also, so I would like to do it again, so I'm going out Tuesday.

You're definitely going to look? Thinking about looking for a place?

Right.

Do you have a neighborhood in mind, or you're just going and looking all over?

Well, I like the neighborhood I was in.

In SoHo.

Yeah, and I still like that, or I like NoLita. I like that a lot.

All lower Manhattan.

Yeah, a little grittier. You know?

Have you thought about branching out into the new Brooklyn?

I don't know. You know, I went to Brooklyn a couple times and I just couldn't get excited about it, but there's a friend of mine who's out there and we're going to walk around a little bit. I made some contacts and the last time I was out there I was with a designer that did a little work for me and so on, and kicked the tires and so on.

I know we're running out of time, so this is a question everybody always asks: you can have any flavor of custard that Kopp's has ever made, which one do you choose?

Vanilla.

Why?

It's just so ... It's pure. It's not saying, "Oh, this is chocolate," or "This is a Snickers." It's nothing like that. It's vanilla. It's the custard.

Well, and we talk about this in the book, about how vanilla is really ... Ted Galloway was telling us this, too, really the way to test and compare stands is to taste the vanilla, because stands buy pre-made chocolate mix but vanilla is something that really expresses what each stand is doing, because you flavor the vanilla yourself, right? At the stand.

Right.

Do you think people have gotten kind of distracted by the flavor of the day? Too many bells and whistles?

Absolutely. And a while back, I was going to try to do something and say, "Maybe you forgot ..." I don't know what I was going to do exactly, but I wanted to maybe do like a little sample half pint and say, "Try the vanilla," and give them one that just came out of the machine. You know what I mean? It's so fresh. You'd give away everything just for another bite.

You can correct me if I'm wrong about this, but you're sort of the guy that created the flavor of the day. You got nobody to blame but yourself.

Absolutely. Right. (Laughs)

Tell me a little bit about how that came about. What did you guys originally have, just vanilla and chocolate? Did you have butter pecan, too?

When my mother first opened it, we had vanilla. That was it. And then later on we had chocolate, and that was it. And then later on I tried butter pecan, and this and that and so on. So you had that high of what people would say. "Oh, that's really good." You liked to imitate that again, and get that same big reaction.

That excitement, right?

Right, and I was thinking about if I do a custard place in New York, which I'd like to do, too, I'd say for the first month I'm just going to have vanilla. You've got to taste it the way it really should be, and you're not getting all this, you know, this and that and all this other stuff in it. Since they're New Yorkers, they'll say, you know, "You kook." They'll want to hit me over the head or something.

They're going to compare you to Shake Shack. Because that's going to be their only frame of reference. Locally, at least.

That guy's doing terrific.

Yeah, he's all over the world. He's in the Middle East, he's in Asia. Is that sort of what you're leaning toward? When you go to New York looking for a space is that what you're thinking initially: a custard and burgers place?

Well, it would depend on how much space, and for a while I was thinking about it. When I had Bar 89, my girlfriend said, "Well, you know, you're going to lease it to this clothing company. Why don't you just make it a custard stand?" I said, "It's not big enough for that." You know, Shake Shack isn't any bigger.

Back to Downtown Milwaukee. What would it take for you to want to put a custard stand Downtown?

I think, you know, if you think you're going to just going to do foot traffic, I think you've got to wind up with some parking.

So the car is still key to a custard stand here?

Right, the car. You know, to do that volume that you have to do. It's not just because you want to make more money, it's because everything is better because you're selling more product, so the product's always fresher. You know, and when you're making more money, you can hire better people. You know, so that solves a lot of sins.

So are you still thinking of ...

Oh, yeah, I'd like to do something here, too.

Do you have a plan for the land that is now vacant?

The one over here on Seeboth? I don't think so. I think it still would be a little bit too small. I think there would be enough people in the summertime who would walk over there and this and that, but I think you got to get the masses of cars driving in there.

So is it just going to be vacant for a while, or are you looking for something else?

Well, I don't know. We've talked to a couple people and an architect and he's supposed to come across with something right after the New Year for a building, and then I have to see. You know, (talk to) Chris, my manager here, and a couple of other people. Ask, "Do you want to do it?" Because you got to have some help, and while I want to do a lot of things, I don't want to get stuck too much on that or not giving it enough attention or my input or whatever, so if I can put somebody in there that has worked with me before and has maybe derived a little of that flavor...

I remember the last time we talked, too, you said, and I'm paraphrasing here, "It's easy to open a place, but then once it's open, it's like a baby."

Yeah. It's there. Oh, God, I've got to go back again tomorrow? (Laughs)

That's the doctor's wife joke, you know? It's what always happens. She wants a restaurant, so he builds her one. "Boy, that was fun. We had a good time last night."

(He says,) "Yeah, you got to go again tonight."

She says, "Oh, no, I'm too tired."

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Bobby Tanzilo | Jan. 5, 2017 at 1:53 p.m. (report)

Peter Buffett, whom I interviewed in 2007 at a table in Karl Kopp's Bar 89 in Soho! The circle has closed. ;-)

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isound | Jan. 4, 2017 at 8:48 p.m. (report)

Elsa's... where I met my wife, Jennifer, 25 years ago (and counting)... Thanks Karl! - Peter Buffett

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