Food has always been an important part of my life. I had my first retail experience with food at about 10 years old. We would sell extra tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, and anything in abundance from my grandparents’ garden. We had a table in the front yard packed with veggies, and my cousin and I would sit for hours selling the goods. Growing up in our house, it was like a holiday to have fast food. As I grew older, I treasured the home-cooked meals and the thought process behind each meal. I have always enjoyed cooking, but my true food awakening came via my partner Tami Lax. She opened my mind and palate to everything food is and can be.
The restaurant business intrigued me early on. We were the total supper club family. Growing up, we spent birthdays, anniversaries, and many Saturday nights at some of the best supper clubs around the Watertown area. I remember thinking how cool the guy was behind the bar talking with everyone. It just looked like fun. So, 25 years later when Tami filled me in on her idea for The Old Fashioned, I knew I wanted to be a part of it.
A Commitment to the Best
I love food, but knew that my strengths would be best utilized in the front of the house. I grew some passions rather quickly: cheese, beer, promotions, and customers. With some research, guidance, introductions, and a great deal of driving, I discovered some of the great products the state has to offer. Some of my best moments involve eating a piece of cheese or having a sip of beer that literally has given me goose bumps because it’s so good. Bringing those products back to the customers has been my mission. Whether it is finding distributers to pick up the products for us or getting in a vehicle and picking them up myself, I will get them for others to enjoy.
Creativity All Around
Being creative is an area I never really knew existed in myself prior to The Old Fashioned. Now one day about every two weeks, I tell the staff it’s party planning day and we sit and think of new promotions/events. It’s one of my favorite times. Nothing makes me happier than when a promotion or party goes well and it turns into a tradition. Late this summer will be our Fifth Annual $1.00 Old Fashioned Party. We get packed for three hours, and it is a blast making over 1000 Old Fashioneds. Customer age ranges from roughly 22 to 65, and it seems like a big family reunion with all our regulars. Who wouldn’t enjoy a Korbel Brandy Old Fashioned for $1.00? Our annual Cherry Bounce Party is always a big hit as well. It’s so satisfying to see crowds of people laughing, smiling, and enjoying all the hard work we put into events like these.
The Learning Never Ends
The learning curve is endless at The Old Fashioned; it’s like a big classroom every day. The list of everything I have learned from this adventure could be made into a novel. A few main points stick out. The first is that in order to be an effective leader, you must be respected. I try to carry a bus tub full of dirty dishes to the dishwasher every day. I do this to remind myself that busing tables is a hard, physical job. I fully believe you must know and have the ability to perform every job in the restaurant, no matter how physically difficult or dirty it is; I feel I cannot ask anyone to do a job which I cannot do or do not have the knowledge to complete. I have found that this mentality has created an equal respect between the staff and me.
Secondly, I am a firm believer that you must always try to improve yourself, staff, menus, products, and atmosphere. The slightest re-invention to keep it fresh—whether it is related to a menu or the atmosphere—is important. And listen…Listen to what your customers and staff have to say, whether it is good or bad. Listen to what they want, and try to meet their expectations.
Thirdly, I have learned that everyone likes memories—whether they are past or future. So, I strive to touch on the things that remind customers of their parents, grandparents, or products that seemed to be lost along the way. I keep in mind that customers and people in general just want to feel good. Food is not just a staple of life but an institution of culture and happiness.
Finally, I’ve learned never to be afraid to ask. Asking the staff about their opinions and ideas or just bouncing ideas off of them is very valuable. When putting together a promotion, I will sometimes bounce ideas off of the staff for three reasons: for further input/ideas, to get them excited for upcoming dates, and to create a sense of ownership that they had input on the event. We are fortunate to have a wonderful crew that truly believes in our philosophies and passion for everything Wisconsin. They get just as excited as customers when we have a new beer or a special of the day. All of them help make The Old Fashioned the institution it is becoming.
The Rewards are Plentiful
The most rewarding feeling comes when people walk in and see our beer list with 55 different tap lines—or the goblet of PBR with a pickled egg in it—with full amazement. Or when I hear customers talk about how their parents used to make brandy slush in summer and they haven’t had one in twenty years. It is rewarding to hear patrons telling stories of their past because something at The Old Fashioned reminded them of it, or to see the faces of customers that have never eaten a cheese curd before after their first bites, or to serve the person that swears they hate bleu cheese a piece of Wisconsin artisan bleu cheese and they are blown away. Those are emotions and experiences I want to bring to everyone that walks in the door. A place they can feel at home, share experiences, meet new friends, have great food and drinks, and develop more memories. That is the supper club I remember as a kid. And nothing is more satisfying than seeing that continue.
My favorite evening here was a Friday night about a year ago. A group of 12 people came in for an 80th birthday party. The lady who was celebrating her birthday was shy and so cute, about five feet tall, wearing a cute red sweatshirt with a cardinal embroidered on it. The wait for a table was one-and-a-half hours, so the group bellied up to the bar. To make a long story short, three-and-a-half hours later, when they were leaving, she came up to me and gave me a hug and said, “This was the best birthday of my life. I have never laughed so hard and had so much fun. This was my first time here but will not be my last. Thank you.” Then I noticed that she had on a t-shirt over her sweatshirt that said “Badgers Rule” (which had belonged to a twenty-something gentlemen sitting near them at the bar), and a birthday hat made from one of our beer menus. I asked her how she obtained the shirt and the hat. She said, “All I said was, ‘I like your shirt,’ and the good looking bartender made me the hat, just think if I would have had three Old Fashioneds instead of two—what I would have gotten?!” She was laughing all the way out the door. I just watched her walk away, thinking, “That’s what it is all about.” Those are the moments that warm my soul and make me proud to be a part of The Old Fashioned.