Last week, Milwaukee-based Bartolotta Restaurants announced plans to open a new restaurant and catering venue on Nagawicka Lake in Delafield. Slated to open in summer 2023, The Commodore will breathe new life into a historic waterfront property that previously housed Weissgerber's Seven Seas Restaurant for nearly 40 years.
Bartolotta is launching its newest restaurant concept in partnership with David Herro and Jay Franke of HF Hospitality Group, which purchasedthe 3.9-acre property from the Weissgerber family for $4.5 million last year. Franke is known for his work in designing The George and Madcap Lounge event venues, which opened last yearin the newly renovated historic National Block Building in Walker's Point.
When HF Hospitality approached Paul Bartolotta earlier this year, it wasn't the first time the co-founder and owner of the renown restaurant group had eyed the 27,000-square-foot venue as a potential addition to the company's 17-property footprint. BizTimes associate editor Maredithe Meyer spoke with Bartolotta about how the partnership took off, his vision for the lakeside restaurant and the company's growth trajectory coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The following is a transcript of portions of their conversation:BizTimes: What’s the story behind the partnership with HF Hospitality?Bartolotta: "Going back in time, we had found out that (the Seven Seas property) might be for sale when my brother was still alive, and Joe and I drove out there and we drove around and we looked around. It was years ago, and I just remember seeing how beautiful it was and (Joe) goes, ‘Man, this is such a great location on the lake.’ If anything, we’ve learned that views count and (locations near) water and so on and so forth, and we both sort of looked at each other and he goes, ‘Wow, this is a pretty big undertaking, it’s beyond our reach. I know it'll be a ton of money, it’s an old building,’ and we let it go. Years later, a broker contacted me after Joe passed and asked if I had any interest … I drove out there on my own and drove around again and looked at it and thought what a great opportunity, but not practical as a business model.
[caption id="attachment_452650" align="alignright" width="474"] Paul Bartolotta and the late Joe Bartolotta.[/caption]
"And then I got connected with David and Jay. A friend of mine called me and said, ‘They want to talk to you, … you should call them,’ so I did. … I went out (to Lake Country) and had a preliminary meeting and the connection was immediate. They were very transparent on what they wanted to do. Jay loved the design part of it ... David was very interested in this long-haul view of Lake Country. This is where they live, and it’s very important to them. Within a short time, we connected on values, on vision, and all of it. They have the financial wherewithal to be the capital partner, and they literally said let’s do something great here. So, we’re super excited to do this with them because it would have been something, quite honestly beyond our reach initially."BizTimes: How did the concept behind The Commodore come about?Bartolotta: "The reality is (HF Hospitality) had the vision already. They had done a lot of work even before meeting with us on what they wanted the vision to be, and they just hadn't fully settled in on an operator, and initially maybe their mindset was getting someone to either lease it or manage it. We weren’t interested in leasing, and we weren’t interested in having a management agreement. We were only interested in a partnership. And so we proposed the terms on which we would do it. "Obviously, there was a conversation but the reality is that they had spend a fair amount of time on their end really taking a deep dive into the history of the building; the history of Lake Country; coming up with the name The Commodore, which attaches itself to the leader of the yacht club or the head of the yacht club; and past and then present and looking at the history of it. The ideas that they had in terms of respecting the history of the building and coming up with a theme like this really connected with us, with me. We connected with the idea that we can do something that respects the past but also lives in the present and is built for the future, and that’s exactly the mindset that they have and we aligned with that almost immediately." BizTimes: What's your vision for the menu and atmosphere? Bartolotta: "It’s certainly a modern take on a yacht club theme. Looking back on the history of Lake Country, we want to pull in things that have typically been done and been done successfully and do them in our way. "When we develop a concept, a third of our development in our concept has to do with the environment - what it feels like, how you feel in that environment, what the arrival looks like, what the parking looks like, what the first person you meet feels like. ... It is all in the details. The other third has to do with the food and beverage offerings, what’s going to be on the menu, what’s going to be served to drink, you know, the wine program, cocktail program, after dinner drink program. And then of course, the element we’ve always leaned into as well is the hospitality component - what is bartolotta hospitality, what is our promise in terms of standard of service, hospitality and building real relationships where people feel that they are recognized. ..."We view what we do as finding a way to be intrinsically invested in whatever community we’re operating, whether it’s Joey Gerard's in Greendale or Mr. B's in Brookfield or Ristorante in Wauwatosa or any of our Milwaukee restaurants. It’s important that we’re engaged in what’s going on in those communities, and I see this now as an extension into Lake Country, where we fully intend to be deeply immersed in the activities and the community and the culture of Lake Country."
[caption id="attachment_537031" align="alignleft" width="300"] Paul Bartolotta[/caption]
BizTimes: What growth opportunities do you expect will come out of this next venture? Bartolotta: "We did a little bit of research on our own, and we found out that there is a significant number of individuals that are already members of our rewards program that live out that way. Realizing that it’s located almost halfway between Milwaukee and Madison, it makes you realize that this could draw from several counties around the Lake Country area as well as Milwaukee. It’s not a far drive for our people who live in Brookfield or Elm Grove or Wauwatosa, for sure, but I think the place is special enough that it’s going to draw a lot of our customers from wherever they live now, but we’ve already determined demographically that out of the 120,000 members in our rewards program, there’s a pretty significant number of them that we have out in that neighborhood, so hopefully, our opening there won't be a secret. "To our regular customers, it’s an opportunity for them to visit another diverse restaurant in our collection. It’s going to have a beautiful catering venue, plenty of small private event and meeting spaces are available above and beyond the restaurant, so it’s going to offer a lot from business opportunities for the business diners that are out on the west side, for small conferences, and social functions from rehearsal dinners to weddings to baby showers to bridal showers to closing dinners, to retirement parties or whatever it may be, there’s a tremendous opportunity from the event side of the business out there at the Bartolotta standard of hospitality." BizTimes: It’s been a while since you launched a new full-service property, and the state of the dining and hospitality industry has since shifted. What are the factors you're considering now that you maybe didn't think about in a pre-pandemic world? Bartolotta: "We’re excited about growth, we’ve always been a company about growth and that hasn't changed. The pandemic was something that none of us could have imagined and, in some regards, it really gave a chance to rethink everything about our businesses. I don't think any of us has worked as hard as we have in the past couple of years to make sure that we not only survived it but that we were able to revive the company in a way that its vibrancy comes back and then move it into a thrive mode, which is growth and advancement, and that’s exactly what this is about. We have an organization, we have a lot of talent within our group, we have people that are ready for the next challenges. It’s our job to create opportunity and career pathways for the people who work in our company, we want them to know that growth is continually on the horizon. I don't intend to stop at the Commodore, there’s more to come. ...
"People get excited very quickly, and the feedback already and the number of calls (from people) wanting to book weddings, everybody in Lake Country has a story at the Seven Seas. I think there’s a real, genuine excitement for it. The community always wanted food service back on the lake, it's an iconic building and together with David and Jay, we fully intend to bring it back to its former glory and propel it into a long, happy and healthy future for the community." BizTimes: Are there already events on The Commodore's calendar at this point?Bartolotta: "We would love to start writing down events, but we’re going to walk before we run here. Clearly one of the challenges is going to be the delivery of the building, we’re hoping in early summer of 2023, so that we can get some summer business in. We’re driving hard toward that result. It’s going to be more dependent on supply chain and availability of products - things that we need for the fabrication and the kitchen and so on and so forth - than it will be on our desire to get there. This wouldn’t be our first opening, we’ve done a few of these, so in terms of our being organized to get there, that is not the big challenge. It’s whether or not we can meet the construction and the other timelines, but that’s the goal. We make no small plans."