Milwaukee Talks: Karl Kopp
Despite the fact that his surname is a household name and legendary in Milwaukee, Karl Kopp is not one to seek the limelight. Many people wouldn't know him if he led them to their table one night at Elsa's – which could very well happen at the restaurant he named in honor of his mother.
Elsa Kopp opened the first Kopp's frozen custard stand on 60th Street and Appleton Avenue in 1951, and a local tradition began. Today, Kopp's has three custard stands around the area, in addition to Elsa's on the Park, across from Cathedral Square, which, nearly 40 years after it opened, remains a popular gathering spot Downtown.
Kopp has also owned restaurants in New York and Phoenix. We caught up with him to ask – among other things – about the history of Kopp's and Elsa's, other places he's considering opening beyond Milwaukee and if he ever thinks of opening a Kopp's Downtown.
Enjoy this Milwaukee Talks with Karl Kopp.
OnMilwaukee: Let's talk a bit about how your mom got into the business and how then you got into it.
Karl Kopp: OK. Well, if you want to go all the way back, and maybe that leads you into the right direction. You know my parents both came from Germany.
Where in Germany did they come from?
My dad came from close to Stuttgart. But it was a little town, you know, and my mother came from another German town. My mom lived on a farm and her dad died, so her mother was the farmer, and she said, "I knew I never wanted to do that, so I wanted to get to America."
That's interesting that she had a strong female role model. People think of
Elsa as being sort of a strong woman at a time when a lot of women didn't own and run restaurants.
Right, so she came over here. My dad came over here, and they met someplace, probably some German dance or something. You know, because they always kind of congregated. "You can speak German? I can speak German. Let's go there."
So they met here.
In Milwaukee. At Jefferson Hall on Fond Du Lac Avenue. I can remember going to parties there; they had like little social events.
Is that where your parents had settled, on that side of town?
My mom had some places on the East Side (of Downtown). The one I remember is on Burleigh, 24th and Burleigh.
So fairly close to Jefferson Hall.
Right, so that's where they met and that's where they hung out together, but then what happened, they had a friend. He was a German guy, too. You know, they all hung with Germans, right? Because they could speak it. His name was Art Richter, and he had the Milky Way.
And so she went to work for him, because they were always trying to make it better. They had the opportunity now to go to America and so they didn't want to squelch that, you know? So they said, "Well, if we got to work a couple extra hours, we're going to do it. We're going to save some money and then we're going to buy our own house. Then when we buy our own house, we're going to get a duplex, and then we're going to rent it out."
This is the Milky Way on 63rd and Capitol, right?
That was on 63rd and Capitol.
Your mom took over at some point and managed the place, right?
Right, she took it over, because he was expanding. He was an aggressive guy, and he had the one on Bluemound Road. And then he had the one on Port Washington Road where I am now.
And you know, so he's expanding and she went to work for him, and then he said, "Do you want to go in on some sort of ..." whatever it was, some sort of partnership where she would run it and he would give her a percentage, or she would give him a percentage. Some kind of deal. So they did that.
She was working at Militzer's, too, wasn't she? Was this concurrent?
Off season. You know, the custard stands used to close up. So then she would go to work at Militzer and Mrs. Militzer was so good to her. She was a Dutch woman, but you know Dutch and German isn't that far apart. "You're OK, you're Dutch." (Laughs)
So she did that and then she was working there and she met a man by the name of Leon Schneider, and that's Leon's, okay? And so she said, you know, that she's working there and she'd like to open her own place. He said, "Oh, I'll help you." So he did.
Karl Kopp with his parents and sisters. (PHOTO: Courtesy of Kopp's Frozen Custard)
And Leon obviously already had Leon's at that point. Was he selling machines at that point?
I think he was.
This is not to take anything away from Leon because he was clearly a good guy, he helped a lot of people out, but he also wanted people to open custard stands because he wanted to sell them machines.
Oh, absolutely. Sure. He was a very good businessman. Smart man.
So then your mom is really running this business because your dad who was working in a machine shop ...
Tool and dye. He took sick and it was such a sad thing, and I still remember it now. At the time, you think, "Well, he's sick. He'll be all right again," or something.
You were fairly young at that point.
Yeah, and he brought his tools home, so it had to be a terrible event for him to bring everything home (on his last day), you know. He went to school in Germany, he was enrolled in one of the best and here, when he went to Globe Union, he worked there and they thought he was just great because he had very little waste, or whatever. I can just imagine what (that last day) would be like, but at the time, I couldn't.
So your mom is sort of a no-nonsense person, it sounds like, right? She just forges forward and says, "It's on me."
Right, so then they had the Milky Way, and I think they had that for two years, three years, something like that. I don't know if it went bad or went good or they just wanted to be on their own, or wanted to get 100% instead of 50/50. I don't know.
For whatever reason she decides she wants her name on the front.
Right. So then she and my dad ... and I can remember him going along with her, and he had Parkinson's ... It's a progressive disease, as you well know, so in the beginning it wasn't good, but it wasn't as bad. He could feed himself and he could do things. He could shave, and he could do all his little things.
Was he in good enough health to work at Kopp's, or not so much?
They were concerned that, you know, he had the tremors and they thought that people might say, "Is that contagious?" I can remember he would get up early in the morning and people were much different than they are now, right? There were no trash cans, so they would just throw all the paper cups on the ground. He would go out and clean up the parking lot and they didn't have any sort of garbage people who picked it up or did this or that. Right there was a field and a couple of oil cans and he would burn the trash.
Did she build that stand?
So that was just an empty lot when she got it?
Did Leon help her with that?
He kind of set it up for her a little bit, you know. It wasn't anything fancy or anything, but it worked. He was very, very good to her, and then they would deliver a piece of equipment that was crated up. What's she going to do with a crate, right? So he was very, "So I'll get somebody to fix it for you, get it for you, open it up. We'll do it." She had no idea how to do those things, you know? So he was very, very good.
Let's jump ahead a little bit. When it opened in 1951, at that point, how old were you?
I don't know, 10, 12.
Were you working there already?
She'd say, "Well, come along with me. You've got to take over for dad, pick up the parking lot." You know, and things like that. Then later on we got busy and I can still remember that. I was there and I guess I peeled onions. Beautiful job.
Did you like it? Were you happy to go along with her and help, or did you feel like it was a chore?
Oh, you know, you complain as a kid. You go, "My friends are doing this and that, and I'm over here peeling onions. What's this?" But you kind of realize that family wasn't a bad way.
Did your sisters work there, too?
Yeah, my older sister worked there, too. We had carhops there and my sister wanted to be a carhop, so she was. Anything she did, she was very, very good at, so she did that but after a while the custard business wasn't for her. She went to Marquette. She went on and became a nurse and nurse teachers, and all sorts of things, but the custard business wasn't in her blood.
Lizzie, that's my sister...
Your little sister?
Yeah, she got to be a mom at a young age, and my mom helped her. They all worked together, right? And at that point, my dad was pretty sick where he couldn't do much for himself, so you had to be there with him. My mom had to go to work at the drive-in and my sister was home feeding her young child, and she said, "I'm going to bring Papa over today because he can't stay alone."
This is what families do, right? Run custard stands and they take care of each other.
Did she ever work at the custard stand?
Oh, sure, I can remember sometimes. Then after a while I took it over.
Did you want to do that, or did you feel obligated?
I felt a little obligated, and I also thought, well ... I had gone in the service in the Army and got out, I would say it was probably late '50s, and thought, "Well, now what am I going to do? I didn't go to college," so I kind of got involved in running it myself. Eventually, my mother said, she says, "Take it over now. Run the place. You're going to run it. You got your ideas, I got mine. You do it your way."
Did it work out that way?
Yeah, she was pretty good, but she charged me rent, and when the rent was due, the rent was due. I can remember a lot of times at night, I'd be busy. I didn't have enough help or I didn't have enough ... because you just didn't know how much to staff for and it was a little different way. My sister lived a block away. "Lizzie, can you come over?" Elspeth was her name at that time. "Elspeth, can you come over and help me?" "Sure." So she would come over and help for an hour, hour and a half, and go home again. Without them, it would have been difficult. They smoothed the way for me, and I'm forever grateful and she's still here (working at Elsa's, whose son also works at the restaurant).
Were there still carhops there when you started?
I did have car hops for a while, and I don't know what is was, you know. Nobody showed up or one didn't show up or two or whatever it was, and I said, "We're done with carhops."
They can get out and walk up. My mother says, "You can't do that. No, you can't do that." I said, "Yeah, I'm going to do it." So we got rid of the carhops, because the girls didn't want to be carhops, and if they did, their boyfriend was there in the car and they would stand at the car and talk to their boyfriend.
You built a new stand at some point, right?
Mm-hmm. You know, at that time McDonald's came in, and they set the whole new level of what to do, right? And when they made a lot of money, made big inroads, other people were jumping on the bandwagon. There was a Robbie's, there was this, there was that. Some went for years and then faltered or whatever. But they were brighter, they had more lights, and they were year round.
So then I thought, "Well, I'm falling behind, here. I've got to build a new one, or do something else." And that went well. Everybody still helped, sister and mom and this and that.
So did your mom ever actually retire?
No. What happened was there was a man that wanted to buy Kopp's, and I don't know why I wanted to sell it or thought about selling it but I sold it to him, and I probably was a bad landlord. Not a bad landlord, but realtor. You know, "You're doing this wrong, this is not good, you're ruining the name." And this and that. So he said to me, "Karl, you're just driving me crazy." He says, "I'm having a nervous breakdown." And probably so ... he lived someplace in Illinois, so he had to drive up in the morning and drive back.
What was this guy's name?
John. I don't know if he has a last ... probably didn't have a last name. (Laughs)
He was like Madonna. Or Cher. (laughs)
Yeah, so he would drive back and forth, and then he said, "I just can't do it." He had it for about a year, maybe a little bit more, and then he says, "If I can have all my money back and then I'll get out of it." Meanwhile, I had another ... the 76th Street store, which was Happy Cappy's. Then I thought, "Oh, no. How am I going to run both of these." So there was a man that was working for me, Dick McGuire, and then I said, "Do you want to buy (60th and Appleton Avenue) or take it over or something like that?" He says, "Oh, sure." So that's how we worked out our arrangement, and that's how he got into business.
And then your mom came back to work with him.
Right. Then she says, "You know, I think I'd like to own a little bit." She probably didn't want to work for me anymore. (Laughs)
Was she working with you, or had she pretty much stopped?
Yeah, she stopped then, then she was working more, and the she said, you know ... She was working for me over at 60th, but then when Mac bought it and so on, she says, "Well, I think I'm going to invest a little money with him and go back in business."
You know, he was so good to her. And she was good to him, too, because she did anything. "Does this need cleaning?" She cleaned it. She did this or that, so she was terrific for him. And then they opened Brookfield together. He sold out then on 60th Street, and then they opened Brookfield. She says, "Well, I'm going to put a little money in there, too."
And he still owns that, right?
Yeah. Now his son's got it.
It's interesting how seamlessly it is, I think, to customers, in terms of flavors of the day and the looks of the place ... I don't think most people realize that Brookfield is not really yours.
It's by choice, you know. "Let's all run it together and let's just say, 'This is the flavor and this is how we make burgers'." You know, and he did it that way already. That's what he grew up learning (at Kopp's) how to do it, so when it was his own, he just naturally followed in that path.
What do you think has made Kopp's kind of the institution that it is here?
I think a big part of it, is how you start it out and this and that. You know, my mom had it. She'd be closed up, right? And some guy would drive in. "Oh, no, I'll put the grill on again." "Jesus, Ma, we want to go home." But, no, the guy wanted a hamburger yet, and she'd make it for him. "Take a little pint home for your wife," she'd say, or something. She was just so loving. I remember this woman, and I don't know if she ever knew it or anything, but we're Kopp, right? But the way the artists spelled it, it looked like not K-O-P-P, it looked like K-O-R-R. She said, "Hi, Mrs. Korr" for years! Nobody ever corrected her. "Hi, Mrs. Korr."
And she just took it.
Oh, she didn't care. "Oh, she can call me Korr, call me this, but just eat the custard." (laughs) So, she was really the instigator, and she didn't go to any kind of special school to learn this, it just came from the heart.
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. 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?
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?
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?
Do you have a neighborhood in mind, or you're just going and looking all over?
Well, I like the neighborhood I was in.
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?
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.
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."
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. ;-)
Elsa's... where I met my wife, Jennifer, 25 years ago (and counting)... Thanks Karl! - Peter Buffett
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