A new philosophy: Central Wisconsin supper clubs transition for trying times
By Kris Leonhardt
CENTRAL WISCONSIN – Supper clubs are deeply rooted in Wisconsin culture. The essence evokes an image of soft lighting, a cozy setting, and a lot of conversation.
When asked to define a supper club, many cannot provide a clear definition of what classifies, but they know that it involves prime rib, fish fry, and an old fashioned.
Many area supper clubs have a long-term presence in the community and are filled with locals who enjoy coming to socialize.
Historians date supper clubs back to the post-prohibition era, and while the past eight decades have brought their share of challenges, the central Wisconsin industry has remained resilient by providing good food and great service.
But, what do you do when customers are kept from entering your doors?
A sudden blow
“Business was very robust right up until March 17. We were having another record-breaking year underway; and then from nowhere, we were totally shut down, without any warning at all,” recalled Joan Allen, who has owned Pinewood Supper Club with her husband for over four decades.
“It was extremely difficult, because there were a lot of things in the mix right here for us.”
The couple had just completed some major renovations and had placed large food orders for upcoming events.
“When they did the Safer at Home order and closed us down, we were left with all of this hanging, thousands and thousands of dollars of food that had just been delivered that morning. Things that we have been anticipating on paying for over the next month, that couldn’t be done,” Allen added.
“I am also part of the restaurant association…so I am unfortunate to hear some information ahead of time. This, obviously, we did not,” Eric Freund, Sky Club Supper Club co-owner and Wisconsin Restaurant Association board member, said of the shutdown.
“The week before we had our restaurant expo in Milwaukee – the week of (March) 4th, 5th, and 6th, I believe it was.
The following week, the business was preparing for spring break and St. Patrick’s Day.
“We all woke up on St. Patrick’s Day, and I think it was about 1 p.m., or maybe it was 3 p.m., in the afternoon and all of the sudden, boom, we were all shut down. I think that everyone was in disbelief trying to figure out what was happening, and we were all scared because nobody knew what was happening at that point.”
Freund, whose family has owned the Sky Club since 1961, said that the next issue was figuring about how to transition into a viable sales model.
“How do we as a supper club – fine dining – transition to a carry-out system. From our standpoint, well we do carry-out fish frys, but that is it. From a fine dining standpoint, we were like what are we supposed to do; we have steak, seafood, a salad bar. We were just lost,” he explained.
The Sky Club then completely modified their menu and made adjustments day by day.
“As a non-drive through business, like fast casual, I could say like Culver’s and McDonald’s, they are used to this drive-through system of food service. Well, you start getting us independents…,” Freund said.
“The first week we probably had 50 plus cars in our parking lot waiting for food.”
In a matter of nine days, the business instituted an online ordering system, retooled their menu, and developed a system that worked for them.
“We really wanted to make family-style dinners in that early part of COVID, because we were trying to feed families,” Freund said.
But Freund says that even with the transition to carry out, the business had dropped 50-60 percent in sales.
But, he wasn’t alone.
“We had to reinvent what we do,” Allen said
“We figured out some kind of carry-out strategy for us, because we are a supper club. We are only open in the evenings. We are located on the outskirts of Mosinee. We are not a typical carry-out kind of place.”
John Ross of Savory Steakhouse had just purchased the fine dining establishment and built up a strong customer base when everything was shut down.
Ross recalled that carry-out orders were slow to come at first.
“Then, Fridays and Saturdays started picking up,” he said. “Then it became like, I’ve got a good base here; which I was shocked, because I’m so new.
“Somewhere around early April to mid-April it became apparent to me that I actually do have a base and they are really trying to support the restaurant, so I could get through COVID.
“We (were) just trying to figure out how to move forward, to keep our community safe and also to feed them; and also to support our staff who have been here for 25 years,” Freund said.
As information came out, the Sky Club began preparing for a reopening which they were able to move to in late May at a much smaller capacity and with many more precautions.
As the doors opened, supper clubs were now seeing couples and groups of two, instead larger groups, in a socially-spaced setting, as well as operating during fewer hours.
“When we came back, instead of the full six night a week, (we were open) only four nights a week and our hours were cut a little bit,” Allen explained. “We started serving just Wednesday through Saturday, and we were able to establish enough business on Wednesday and Thursday to remain open, and then the weekend was fairly good. But, we are doing one-third of the volume that we’ve done previously.”
“What was the most devastating feeling was when the Supreme Court lifted the order, and I opened back up,” Ross recalled. “I had two weeks of zero customers. Take-out orders, 100 percent disappeared. I had nothing, no take-out orders, no customers. That was a dark period, very dark.
Ross said that he was not alone and some of his colleagues were experiencing the same.
“I am missing a huge demographic and that demographic is the 60 and older crowd,” Ross said.
Ross said that his sales have been cut by over half of what it was when he was operating at full speed, which forces him to lay off his high school employees so he can keep his full-time workers “with mortgages” employed.
But as they enter what is typically the busiest time period for supper clubs, they are doing it in a mode that will keep workers employed and customers safe.
“We had to change our entire philosophy and our entire menu, and we became creative,” Freund added, while reminding us that we are all in this together.