Coffee table book features 50 Wisconsin supper clubs

Last updated on July 3rd, 2019 at 07:17 pm

Ron Faiola is passionate about food. He is the author of, “Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old-Fashioned Experience,” a coffee table book chronicling the unique Wisconsin tradition of the supper club.

The book, published by Agate Publishing, is filled with hundreds of photos from more than 50 establishments. Faiola put 5,000 miles on his car traveling to every corner of the state to capture the timeless charm of the supper club.

As the president and founder of audiovisual production company Push Button Gadget Inc., Faiola has directed and produced the documentaries “Fish Fry Night Milwaukee” and “Wisconsin Supper Clubs,” the latter of which was written about in the Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post and The New York Times and broadcast in several cities on PBS.

The 225-page book was released in April and is now available at local bookstores, major retailers and Faiola recently was interviewed about the new book by BizTimes reporter Dan Shafer. The following are excerpts from that interview.

BizTimes: What inspired you to investigate the world of supper clubs?

Faiola: “It started with my fish fry movie, ‘Fish Fry Night in Milwaukee.’ In ‘Fish Fry Night in Milwaukee,’ I was looking for a supper club fish fry and as I found that there were so many interesting supper clubs out there, I realized that was a whole film in itself. So that’s what led to the movie. Then, it kind of went the reverse way. I made the movie and then a publisher saw an article on it in the Chicago Tribune and called me up and said, ‘Let’s do a book.’ They called me in the summer of 2011, and a got a contract around December or so and I went out on the road in late February through mid-May, 2012.

BizTimes: Despite this instant gratification-fast food era we’re in, it seems that supper clubs are not only thriving, but making a return. Why do you think that is?

Faiola: “There are a few reasons. One is I’d like to think my movie helped (laughs). I know the places that are in the movie certainly did better business because of the movie being broadcast on PBS here in the state and around the country. But the real reason is that people are getting a little bit tired of the cookie cutter chains. Maybe the experiences aren’t as good. When you go to a supper club, they’re family-owned and family-run, so there’s a higher level of service because the family is always there.

“Not only are the places family-run for generations, but the people who go there, the families that go have been going for generations. One supper club owner put it, ‘I’m serving kiddie cocktails to the kids of people I used to serve kiddie cocktails to when they were kids.’ It’s the cycle of generations. And it’s comfort food; it’s food made from scratch. They all have their own family recipe for just about everything.”

BizTimes: What do you think has made Wisconsin home to the supper club and the fish fry? It’s something you don’t really see in other states in the Midwest.

Faiola: “Certainly, yeah. If you cross the border, it’s not the same. You can’t find a fish fry across the border. Because Wisconsin still remains a vacation state – north and south – that’s why I think it really stuck here. New York had supper clubs, but they were those fancy places that you see in the movies where people are twirling around on the dancefloor and the big, huge band would come out. But in Wisconsin, it was a place you’d go where you’d find food you wouldn’t have on the home table – big cuts of meat, lobster, shrimp and so on.”

BizTimes: I also saw that you had a Kickstarter campaign for the book. Can you tell me about that?

Faiola: “To do the book, I ended up buying some new equipment. My advance was really covering my road costs. I just thought maybe I could raise some money to help cover my equipment expenses, and it was successful. The publisher agreed to it. I think I went up to 120 percent (of the initial $2,300 goal). It was strictly to help me pay off a brand new camera and lighting and some of the other stuff. I was real happy about it.”

BizTimes: You’ve been combining food and film for quite a while. Your first film at the UW-Milwaukee Film Department was about cocktail wieners. What has been the driving force behind combining those two interests?

Faiola: “I don’t know, honestly. Maybe I’m just a ‘foodie’ guy. I just like putting food in films. Part of it is having a food service background. I worked at Kentucky Fried Chicken, as a short order cook, at Suburpia, and at Rocky Rococo’s. So I’ve had experiences with that, and I suppose with seeing all these food shows on TV now and people are paying more attention to what they eat.
“A big influence was George Motz, who did the documentary, ‘Hamburger America.’ When I did my fish fry movie, his film was in the back of my mind, although I used narration and he didn’t. I ended up meeting George, and he has a book out as well, and now he has a Travel Channel show called ‘Burgerland.’ Then there’s Rick Sebak, who did food documentaries for PBS. I like that stuff. I like to see the preparation and what goes into it. I like to cook at home, too. I like to see what the recipes are and what goes into things. It was interesting to be allowed into kitchens at supper clubs and see how they do things and operate.”

BizTimes: Is there a goal for how far you want to take things with supper clubs?

Faiola: “Well, to sell a lot of books. That would be great (laughs). I would like to go out and do another 50 of these places. It’d be good to do a part two or just a bigger version of the book.” n

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