Milwaukee Businesses Share How They’re Getting By

Local businesses are doing everything they can to stay afloat right now.

The pandemic continues to exact a toll on Milwaukee area businesses, many of which have struggled to make ends meet, or simply survive, since COVID-19 cases began to spread back in March.

Three prominent business operators in the hospitality industry shared their struggles during the Milwaukee Press Club’s virtual Newsmaker Luncheon on Thursday.

At this time last year, Potawatomi Hotel & Casino was completing its second hotel tower, expanded meeting space and banquet kitchen and looking with great anticipation to a coming year that was to include a Milwaukee-hosted Democratic National Convention.

Revenue at Potawatomi is down 50% compared with the same period last year, CEO and general manager Rodney Ferguson said. Slot machines are operating on the casino floor, but table games and bingo remain shut down.

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“We can’t get too many more people into the building based on how we have things structured with the six feet social distancing requirement,” Ferguson said.

Potawatomi’s workforce currently stands at about 1,000 employees, compared with a pre-pandemic level of 2,600, he added.

Revenue has plummeted 88% at Pabst Theater Group, which operates the Pabst Theater, Riverside Theater, Turner Hall Ballroom, and the Backroom at Colectivo Coffee.

Some revenue has been generated through offerings such as haunted tours of the Riverside Theater and a small level of sale of certain goods, Pabst Theater Group CEO Gary Witt said.

“We’ve pivoted and we’ve tried to do things that are creative to survive within the pandemic,” Witt said. “Instead of doing wedding receptions, which we’re not allowed to do now, we’ve done elopements on the stage of the Pabst or the Riverside or at Turner. We had over 180 people register to do holiday photos on the Pabst stage. We’ve pivoted toward finding unique ways to be able to drive in any revenue we can because we’re not even allowed to do small shows yet.”

Pabst Theater Group has had to cut its entire part-time staff, including ushers, bartender and stagehands. About 75% of its full-time staff has been retained.

“My partner and I are very fortunate that prior to this we managed our cash flow very well and planned for a day when we needed it but we never, of course, planned for when the music would stop.”

Long-time Milwaukee restaurateur Omar Shaikh, operator of Carnevor, said revenue at the upscale Downtown steakhouse is down about 40%.

Although Carnevor, which has about 70 percent of its pre-pandemic level of staffing, has experienced strong demand on Fridays and Saturdays, weekday business has been slow, and the restaurant is dark on Sundays and Mondays. Pandemic restrictions mean Carenvor is operating with about half the normal number of tables, Shaikh said.

“You can’t survive on just two days of revenue out of the week,” he said.

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.