Last updated on March 7th, 2022 at 11:27 am
A new bar-restaurant will open inside downtown Milwaukee’s historic Turner Hall this summer, with a business model centered on strengthening the local culinary career pipeline.
Turning Tables Tavern & Eatery is a full-service dining establishment that provides hands-on training to up-and-coming chefs and food entrepreneurs as a “teaching restaurant.”
The idea is to offer a crucial, yet largely missing step between baseline culinary training and launching a restaurant business or a long-term culinary career, said Emerald Mills, founder and chief executive officer of Turning Tables.
“There are so many things that could be massive barriers for someone that’s starting out, so it can be very discouraging and impossible,” said Mills in an interview with BizTimes. “We give people an opportunity to do and learn and work at a lower risk, so that when it’s time, they have the support and resources they need and it’s not as big as a risk.”
Barriers tend to be higher for minority restaurant owners, especially when it comes to securing the initial funding to launch a business, she said, adding that the restaurant industry is among the largest employers of minority groups in the U.S. Even with sufficient start-up funding, there’s ongoing staffing and supply chain shortages, among other pandemic-related challenges that have rocked the entire industry over the past two years.
“The timing couldn’t be any better – unfortunately because of all the things that are happening, but it’s definitely a solution that’s needed now,” said Mills who, as founder of Milwaukee-based Diverse Dining, has seen first-hand the struggles that restaurateurs face.
For three years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Diverse Dining hosted monthly dinner events at local restaurants across the Milwaukee area as a way to facilitate conversations and connections between people of different backgrounds. Mills later added corporate diversity & inclusion training to her business offerings and has since worked with organizations like Associated Bank, BizStarts, and the Urban Economic Development Association of Wisconsin.
When the pandemic hit and restaurants were forced to close, Mills partnered with local food business incubator UpStart Kitchen to launch Diverse Dining Boxes, a monthly delivery subscription of locally sourced food items, conversation starters, crafts and other products made by local entrepreneurs. It was through this endeavor that she met Emilio De Torre, executive director at Milwaukee Turners, the nonprofit group that owns Turner Hall and has run a variety of social, civic and wellness programs there since the 1880s.
De Torre had arranged to pick up a Diverse Dining box that his wife had ordered so he could meet Mills in person and hear more about her work. He told Mills that Milwaukee Turners planned to put out a request for proposal for its first-floor kitchen and restaurant, and Mills later applied. The space had previously been run by Caravan Hospitality Group as a bar and event space, called Tavern at Turner.
Now, in addition to Turning Tables Restaurant & Eatery, the space will serve as a home base for Diverse Dining and its monthly dinners, corporate training events and other programming. The national historic venue’s centralized location seems to fit Diverse Dining and Turning Tables’ shared mission of connectivity, said Mills.
“There are not many places in the city, at least that I know of, where different cultures can come together and enjoy different food and build relationships cross-culturally, so being centrally located where people are coming in and out of the city … there are a lot of benefits,” she said.
When Turning Tables opens in June, its initial menu will focus heavily on barbecue by Jervel Williams, co-owner of Mister Bar-B-Que. Eventually, it will feature dishes from additional food entrepreneurs on a rotating basis.
Williams is the first restaurateur to go through the Turning Tables training kitchen program. He started selling hot dogs on North King Drive (formerly Old World Third Street) nearly 15 years ago and has since expanded to a mobile trailer and then a food truck, selling his popular barbecue at street festivals and events. Williams plans to continue growing his business and customer base through Turning Tables’ teaching kitchen.
During the six to 18-moth program, participants will receive on-the-job training, personal and professional development opportunities, and in-house marketing and accounting support, while making a living wage. Graduates will have access to on-site training and other resources once the program ends. But beyond that, they’ll walk away with potential business partnerships and connections to Milwaukee’s entrepreneur-driven food operations like Sherman Phoenix, Crossroads Collective, The Restaurants at Eleven25, and Third Street Market Hall.
Participants will also earn a Diverse Dining accreditation, which would signify that their own restaurant or employer upholds community standards for diverse and inclusive operating practices. The hope is to create somewhat of a network of restaurants that agree to such standards and are held accountable through an annual auditing process, said Mills.
After its first year the program will enroll two cohorts annually. Mills plans to forge partnerships with the culinary arts program at Milwaukee Area Technical College’s and other community-based training organizations like UpStart Kitchen to recruit aspiring restaurateurs interested in taking their skills to the next level.
Turning Tables is asking for donations to support the build out of its training program and help cover the cost of launching the restaurant. Donations can be made here.