A cornerstone eatery in the heart of Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood is closing later this week, perhaps permanently. The cafe that is part of the Riverwest Co-Op Grocery plans to serve its last meals on July 10 due to ongoing financial issues.
A steady stream of customers visited the cafe on Sunday, ordering popular vegan and vegetarian menu items such as the Phamous Philly, Sloppy Jones and the Ultimate Vegan Biscuit. Many ate their meals at an array of tables set up on the sidewalk outside the cafe on the sun-splashed morning. Some arrived on bicycles and rode off with their to-go meals.
Despite outward signs of a thriving business, a message posted on Riverwest Co-Op’s Instagram account later Sunday unveiled some unwanted news. The post began with the following message announcing the cafe’s closure: “So Long to the Cafe… for Now.”
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Co-Op operators offered hope in the post that the shutdown could be temporary.
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“It is with heavy yet hopeful hearts that we must announce the closure of the cafe as of Monday, July 11th. We sincerely hope that this is not a ‘goodbye,’ but a ‘so long for now.’” The post goes on to state that the Co-Op will be “putting all of our energy into pivoting our operations in the hope of securing the future of the Co-Op’s grocery store.”
The Co-Op operates a grocery store that shares space with the cafe in a historic building at the corner of West Clarke and North Fratney streets that once served as the Schlitz tied house. The business is across the street from the Falcon Bowl, which is also in transition following the retirement of long-time proprietor Lyn Okopinski in June and the sale of the building, built in 1882, late last year.
Funding is being sought to bridge the gap “between where we are today and where we need to be to keep the doors of the Co-Op open,” the post states. “Unfortunately, we have looked hard at the numbers and deemed it impossible to continue to have regular cafe service.”
The Co-op indicated that it has plans to keep the cafe space activated and is looking at partnerships with other businesses to offer pop-up meals of the cafe’s favorite menu items, baked goods, grab-and-go products and more.
“We are hopeful that with all of the energy influxing right now, we can set a plan in motion to reimagine and reopen the cafe again in the future,” the post states.
The Grocery store opened in November 2001 and the cafe launched in 2004. The Co-Op features organic, local and fair-trade products and operates as a community-based, member-owned and volunteer-run organization.
On Monday, supporters held a pop-up cookout fundraiser to support the Co-Op.
Riverwest Currents, a free newspaper that has long served the community, noted the co-op’s struggles in its July edition. Publisher Vince Bushell, a lifelong Riverwest resident, stated in a note on the paper’s front page that the Co-Op “is in financial trouble.” Bushell helped launch the Riverwest Co-Op.
“Though I am certainly concerned, I am not a decider for the (Riverwest Co-op),” Bushell wrote, noting that he resigned from the Co-op’s board a while ago.
In his publisher’s note, Bushell wrote: “I can promise that Paula Gelbke and I will try to find the best community use for this wonderful building in a wonderful location.”
Bushell and Gelbke bought the building in which the Co-Op is located to allow the business to get up and running more than two decades ago.
The Co-Op is encouraging residents to volunteer on a committee or in the store as it works through its issues. Anyone interested can email email@example.com.