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Wisconsin coast to coast
Restaurateurs bring state's unique culture to rest of country

Illustrated by Drew Maxwell

December 2013

People in other parts of the country are discovering what Wisconsinites have known all along — a friendly demeanor and the liberal use of cheese is an almost guaranteed recipe for success.

From New York City to the Pacific Northwest, it seems there’s a Midwest food renaissance taking place. But what makes Wisconsin-themed eateries appealing beyond the borders of America’s Dairyland? For many it’s the relaxed environment and dishes that taste like home.

"The atmosphere of our restaurants feels very familiar," says Brian Bartels, director of bar operations for Little Wisco, a collection of six dining spots in New York’s West Village started by Wisconsin-born restaurateur Gabe Stulman. "There’s a small town aesthetic."

Wisconsin Charm

Bartels, who grew up in Reedsberg, Wis., and attended UW-Madison with Stulman, likens New York City to a "small big town" with its pockets of neighborhoods and close-knit ethnic communities.

Perhaps that’s why the Little Wisco group has found so much success there. Stulman opened his first restaurant, Joseph Leonard, a gourmet American bistro named for his grandfathers, in 2010. From the get-go, he wanted to re-create the relaxed, friendly atmosphere of Wisconsin restaurants.

And Joseph Leonard has accomplished just that. With only 31 seats, the understated corner bistro, which serves familiar foods with a gourmet twist, became the start of an accidental neighborhood empire.

Three short years later, Little Wisco has expanded to six restaurants — five of them within three blocks of each other. The most recent, Montmartre, opened in April, is named for a former downtown Madison jazz club and restaurant where Stulman bartended while attending college. Stulman’s New York version is a classic French restaurant with an Asian flair.

Although all six Little Wisco restaurants serve dramatically different fare (Jeffrey’s Grocery is a seafood and oyster bar while Perla dishes up Italian cuisine), they share the same warm, welcoming ambiance.

"There’s a neighborhood camaraderie," says Bartels. "Our regulars constantly bring their parents and family members when they come to New York to visit. I think that speaks a lot to the way Little Wisco treats its customers."

Barrie Lynn, aka the Cheese Impresario, says there’s an authenticity about people from Wisconsin. "It oozes out everywhere you go," says Lynn, a New Jersey native and former advertising executive turned cheese expert who hosts events all around the country.

Desert Connection

Fond memories of family gatherings served as the inspiration for Karl Kopp’s AZ 88, an upscale bar and restaurant in Scottsdale, Ariz. The desert mainstay, originally opened in 1988, has a decidedly distinctive style not unlike Kopp’s Elsa’s on the Park in downtown Milwaukee.

Located across from Scottsdale’s Center for Performing Arts and Museum of Contemporary Art, AZ 88 draws pre- and post-theater crowds. Despite the hip crowd and sleek decor, the restaurant’s primary focus is on delivering good food, drink and conversation.

General manager Dale Joidon, who likens AZ 88 to a modern-day saloon, says the restaurant attracts its fair share of Midwest transplants and vacationing Milwaukeeans. "Karl created AZ 88 to pay homage to family celebrations at his mother’s home," says Diodon of the restaurant’s Wisconsin connection.

Craving Comfort

Whether its sushi or tater tot casserole on the menu, restaurants run by Wisconsinites in every part of the country seem to have a common thread.

"Our customers consider the cafe their home away from home," says Jay Wergin, who runs the Heartland Cafe in Seattle. According to its mission statement, Heartland Cafe strives "to be a friendly, neighborhood cafe, serving Midwestern comfort food like mom used to make."

Missing the hearty home-cooked meals of his childhood, Wergin, who hails from Green Bay, opened the Heartland Cafe in 2010, with his close friend Jeff Loren, a Minnesota native.

"I’ve always been a fan of the kind of food you’d find at supper clubs and backyard barbecues," says Wergin. Inspired by the owners’ Midwest roots, the Heartland Cafe menu features classic comfort food like meatloaf, mac ’n’ cheese, fried chicken and fried cheese curds — even a traditional Friday fish fry. Meals are served family style on rustic picnic tables that run down the center of the dining room.

The Heartland Cafe staff encourages fellow Midwest transplants — and patrons who simply have a hankering for a hardy meal — to share their childhood stories and favorite comfort foods.

"Customer favorites have been known to show up on our menu or specials board," Wergin says.


No Frills Attitude

That same unpretentious demeanor can be found at Kettle of Fish, a basement sports bar just off Sheridan Square in New York’s Greenwich Village. The tavern, which has a history dating to once-frequent customers Jack Kerouac and Bob Dylan, shamelessly displays its love for all things Wisconsin — especially its sports teams.

Bar shelves are adorned with an array of Packers and Badgers collectibles, and it’s not unusual to find a couple of expat Wisconsinites bellied up to the bar on any given day.

Patrick Daley, formerly of Wauwatosa, bought Kettle of Fish in 1998 after bartending there for 15 years. He describes the joint as "a Greenwich Village bar with a strong Wisconsin tint."

Although Kettle of Fish started out as a beatnik bar in the 1950s, it grew into a favorite watering hole to watch Wisconsin sports after Daley took over.

When Kettle of Fish first began showing Packers games on Sunday afternoons, a handful of fans gathered at the bar with Daley slicing up summer sausage and serving it directly from the knife. The clientele grew as word of mouth spread, and today the line outside Kettle of Fish entrance on Packers Sundays snakes around the block well before kick-off.

"We’re fortunate to be fairly well-known because we are what we are," he says. "There are a lot of Wisconsin expats living in New York and a lot of people visiting the city."


Homesick Remedy

Dan Schuman, a Milwaukee native, who operates a custard stand called 5oz. Factory in New York’s West Village, says he’s always shocked by how many people in New York are from Wisconsin. "They seem to seek us out," says Schuman. "We’ve met people from Wauwatosa, Neenah and Appleton."

With its genuine custard and melts spilling over with cheesy goodness, 5oz. Factory, which opened in August, fits right into the Little Wisco area. The shop is located within just a few blocks of Kettle of Fish and Joseph Leonard and its counterparts.

Schuman, who has lived in New York for nearly 10 years, decided to open 5oz. Factory when the city’s selection of ice cream shops and frozen gelato stands left him unimpressed. "No one was doing my childhood treat the right way so I thought ‘Why don’t I just do it?" he says. "After all, I have the story. I was born and raised in Wisconsin."

The former attorney attended the Frozen Dessert Institute at Voss Equipment in St. Louis to get custard-making down pat. Legally, he says, custard must contain 1.4 percent egg yolk and 10 percent butter fat to be called custard.

"It’s a taste of home for a lot of people," Schuman says.

Liz Davis, who serves up her own frozen custard concoctions at The Dairy Godmother in Alexandria, Va., agrees.

"Frozen custard is such a pastime in Milwaukee," says Davis, a former Waukesha resident who introduced the frozen treat to Virginians when she opened The Dairy Godmother in 2001. The shop was made famous when President Obama and his daughters visited in 2009.

A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York and former pastry chef, Davis sees The Dairy Godmother as more than just a spot to buy frozen custard. "I wanted to create a place where people feel welcome and comfortable," she says. "People need a place where they can find old and new friends and easily join in the conversation."

The desire to make people feel at home is yet another sign of Wisconsin authenticity, says Lynn. "People from Wisconsin have a sense of place," Lynn says. "It’s very different than Hollywood or New York."


Cheesehead Culture

Indeed, that down-to-earth Midwest attitude seems to be one of the primary draws for patrons of Wisconsin-breed restaurants.

"Our restaurants are places where you can come and be yourself," says Bartels. "They’re designed to be intimate spaces where people break bread together."

Heather Porter-Engwall, director of national product communications for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, witnessed the Little Wisco phenomenon firsthand when she visited New York in October.

"I was blown away,"she says. "It’s like they’ve brought a little bit of home with them."

Among her observations, Porter-Engwall found the restaurants’ ultra-friendly waitstaff and general laid back vibe reminiscent of our home state. "Wisconsin has its own culture that seems to appeal to other people," she says.

Perhaps that’s the reason so many former Wisconsinites seek employment with Little Wisco restaurants. Bartels says it’s not unusual for recent college grads to show up unannounced saying they heard the restaurant group hires people from Wisconsin.

"It shows you how small the distance between (Wisconsin) and New York really is," he says.


This story ran in the December issue of: