When some big-name restaurants bid their adieus in seemingly quick succession, it set off alarms. Wolf Peach and its sister Supper, Coquette Cafe, AP Bar & Kitchen, c.1880 all fell in the last several months, leading some to wonder if the city is able to support the growing number of restaurants.
Each of these businesses certainly had a unique set of reasons for closing, but when you look at the challenges facing the restaurant scene at large, the rapid proliferation of new establishments figures in: Just in the last 18 months or so, we’ve welcomed to the city Birch + Butcher, Snack Boys Snack Bar, The Diplomat, Strange Town, Laughing Taco, Stella Van Buren, Kindred, Fuel Cafe on Fifth Street, plus a variety of smaller operations.
For restaurateurs, problems include the limited pool of cooking talent, which is scooped up quickly. Dan Jacobs, who co-owns DanDan with Dan Van Rite, encountered this problem last year when there were “four of us [restaurants] fighting over a line cook,” he says. The native Chicagoan, who in recent months has co-opened the bakery Batches (and has another iron in the fire), says when he and his wife moved here seven years ago, there were “five to six great restaurants and many mediocre ones. Now there are 20 good ones and many, many mediocre.”
Offbeat, unexpected food is what Jacobs thinks sets DanDan apart, one of the keys to standing out in a market that offers so many dining options, he says.
While increased competition puts pressure on businesses, it can also be the catalyst for innovation. That’s how Joseph Property Development’s Nathan Bernstein sees it. Joseph Property is the landlord for DanDan, the now-shuttered Coquette, Smoke Shack, and Water Buffalo (which closed and is being converted to the Mexican enterprise Blue Bat Kitchen and Tequilaria).
Bernstein rah-rahs Milwaukee as a “legit foodie destination” and says it’s only getting better. Water Buffalo’s closing, he says, was because the concept “ran its course. The market will dictate. For every restaurant that closes, one will open.”
Odd Duck co-owner Melissa Buchholz echoes that sentiment. “I think the market has handled the saturation really well,” Buchholz says. “It’s pushed the restaurant scene to stay relevant and has resulted in different collaborations,” such as chefs from Odd Duck who have gone on to Goodkind and Vanguard.
It’s places like Snack Boys and Vanguard and Goodkind that are huge success stories to Gary Witt, the Pabst Theater Group sire. He doesn’t buy the saturated market/bubble bursting as the reason for closings. The restaurant scene “doesn’t get enough props for keeping the city up,” he says. “I’ve been here since 2002, and restaurants are holding up the rest of the scene on shoulders that can only hold so much.”
It’s unlikely there’s just one answer. And dining critics (like me) don’t do established places any favors by focusing coverage on the hot new thing in town. While establishments like DanDan are having good months, many others are struggling, which makes me think that there are more closings to come.