Restaurateur MVP

When two of Wisconsin’s greatest athletes ever team up to do a restaurant together, everyone wonders how.

Omar Shaikh is the how.

Shaikh is the co-owner and president of Milwaukee-based SURG Restaurant Group, which recently opened 8-twelve MVP Bar & Grill, a Brookfield restaurant collaboration between SURG and Milwaukee Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

Braun and Rodgers are major stars in the American sports landscape. Last year Braun was named most valuable player (MVP) of the National League and Rodgers was named the NFL’s MVP.

Shaikh, and his business partner Mike Polaski, have exploded into the Milwaukee restaurant scene and in the last three years have opened several high end restaurants and bars at different price points. Their Milwaukee restaurant lineup includes: Carnevor Steakhouse Moderne, Mi-key’s, Ryan Braun’s Graffito and Umami Moto.

8-twelve, the newest SURG restaurant open for just over a month, is already a major destination for Wisconsin sports fans. Shaikh said he has been pleasantly surprised by the restaurant’s immediate popularity.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve ever been so busy so quickly.”

It was Braun and Rodgers who approached Shaikh with the idea for the restaurant. Shaikh first met Braun and Rodgers at Carnevor, an upscale steakhouse that has a reputation as a popular Milwaukee restaurant for athletes.

“I’ve been pretty fortunate,” Shaikh said. “These guys came to me with the idea and right away I said, ‘Let’s do it.’”

Shaikh also worked with Braun to do Ryan Braun’s Graffito in Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward neighborhood.

“As soon as I met Ryan I knew he was a special guy. He’s just unbelievably classy and a tremendously good person,” Shaikh said. “Aaron is the same way. Both just really salt of the Earth type people. Solid individuals, and obviously elite athletes.”

The partnership between Braun and Rodgers was not surprising to Shaikh.

“They have a lot of things in common. They feel the same pressures and they continuously rise to the occasion,” he said. “That’s why they are such good friends. When they called, I knew we had to make this happen.”

The concept for the new restaurant was announced in March and 8-twelve MVP Bar & Grill opened its doors at 17800 W. Bluemound Road to the public for dinner on July 5. The restaurant began offering lunch and brunch menus in early August.

The restaurant’s location in Brookfield has helped draw patrons from both downtown Milwaukee to the east and the Lake Country area to the west, Shaikh said. It has also been a good spot for out of town guests to travel to as well, he said.

SURG, Braun and Rodgers have talked about additional locations for 8-twelve in the Fox Valley area, Madison, Wisconsin Dells and other locations throughout Wisconsin, said Polaski, co-owner and chief executive officer of SURG Restaurant Group.

“The demographics have to be right, but we for sure want to take a serious look at Madison and the Fox Valley area,” he said. “Both of these guys are long term ball players for the state of Wisconsin. They’re committed, and we’re committed, and we think fans will want to visit from all over the state.”

Shaikh declined to disclose details about Braun and Rodgers’ specific stake in the restaurant.

“They’ve helped us shape the concept and it shows they are committed to Wisconsin even more,” Polaski said.

Entrepreneurial journey

Shaikh wasn’t always the savvy restaurateur he is today, though.

He grew up as the youngest child in a strict household in Brown Deer. His father, Abdul Fattah Shaikh, was from Pakistan and was a professor of civil engineering and mechanics at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for 36 years. He passed away a few years ago. His mother, Sunja, was from Korea and is retired from running the Covenant Library systems.

“My parents had very high expectations for us,” Shaikh said. “We didn’t stay out too late. We always had a strong focus on our education and they were disciplinary people.”

He has two older sisters, Aysha, a doctor of internal medicine at Froedtert’s Sunnyslope Primary Care Clinic, and Sabina, an economics professor at the University of Chicago.

Shaikh spent his last two years of high school at Wayland Academy in Beaver Dam. When he was 18 he moved to Los Angeles to go to college. There, he became enthralled with martial arts and eventually became a professional jiu-jitsu fighter.

“I was amazed by the scientific aspect of the fighting,” Shaikh said. “How these small, skinny men would do amazing things just because of leverage. It fascinated me for quite a while.”

He went to school for three years in Los Angeles, and moved back to Wisconsin to finish his education.

“It was fun (in Los Angeles), but I didn’t really feel like I was accomplishing much,” Shaikh said. “I wanted to finish my education.”

Shaikh graduated from Cardinal Stritch University in Fox Point with a degree in international business. He briefly entered the corporate world, but later took a severance package instead of making a move to Denver when his employer relocated.

Shaikh began to develop an interest in the hospitality industry when he lived in Los Angeles.

“Back in Los Angeles I got by with various restaurant manager positions and by working the door at different night clubs,” Shaikh said. “I continued to do the same thing here in Milwaukee. I enjoyed it because I met a lot of people, I fostered a lot of relationships.”

In 2005, Shaikh and his aunt, Sunsook Lee, took the bold step to become entrepreneurs. They opened Sake Tumi, a Japanese/Korean fusion restaurant on Milwaukee Street in downtown Milwaukee.

“I can laugh about it now, but I was in way over my head at the time,” Shaikh said. “There was a lot of buzz about the opening and I had never done every part of running a restaurant before. I made a lot of mistakes, but at the same time I’m very proud of what we were able to accomplish there.”

A year later, Shaikh sold his stake in Sake Tumi. But his aunt still owns the restaurant.

“The charmer”

As a child, Shaikh was always the hospitable one, and he’s carried that customer service mentality into the business today.

“It came naturally to me,” he said. “When my parents would have guests over, I would always take their coats, get them drinks or see if they needed or wanted anything else. They called me the charmer. I guess it’s always been my passion.”

Shaikh said he strives to build lasting relationships, even lasting friendships, with his customers.

“I always want every guest to enjoy their experience in my restaurants,” he said. “I try to instill that quality in my staff as well. I have some of the best staff (members) this region has to offer. I continue to learn so much from all of them.”

Shaikh met his business partner, Polaski just like he meets everybody: on the streets and in the community.

“I had known Omar just from going to his restaurants,” Polaski said. “I had a little bit of knowledge about how the industry worked and I was interested in what he was doing and he expressed interest and so it just kind of happened. It was very natural.It wasn’t targeted at all.”

Prior to teaming up with Shaikh, Polaski was business partners with John Vassallo (Johnny V) in his restaurant operations.

“I wasn’t a very active partner at the time and so we made a change there and split up,” Polaski said.

Per the agreement with Vassallo, Polaski acquired the restaurant space at 811 N. Jefferson St. in downtown Milwaukee, which now houses Mi-key’s, once the partnership was ended.

The 8-twelve MVP Bar & Grill location previously housed Monsoon, another former Vassallo operation. Vassallo still owns and operates Mo’s Irish Pub locations in Wauwatosa, downtown Milwaukee and Noblesville, Ind. and Mo’s A Place for Steaks in downtown Milwaukee, Indianapolis and Houston.

Shaikh and Polaski formed SURG Restaurant Group in 2010.

“I feel like I have more experience and a better background in business and Omar has a better background in restaurants and people,” Polaski said.

The name SURG comes from Polaski’s other companies, which all emerged from his first company Specialty Underwriters, which was established 20 years ago. Located in Oak Creek and now named SU Group LLC, the company provides equipment maintenance management services to corporations.

SURG Restaurant Group now operates ten restaurant locations including two in Wellington, Fla. and the Bradford Beach beach house.

SURG works with a few local banks, but most of the financing comes from Polaski himself.

“Most of the banking relationships we have are banks that have been on the books for a while,” he said. “Everything new, the last four or five places, has been my financing.”

In 2011, SURG closed its Brookfield Charro location and announced the concept for 8-twelve. In March, SURG closed its downtown Charro location, which is currently being used to prep the food for Bradford Beach, Shaikh said.

“We’ve learned a lot in the last three years,” Polaski said. “I’m more the numbers, the books and the marketing guy and he (Shaikh) is the training and operations guy. He finds the people, he does the menu and we meet in the middle from time to time. It’s a nice balance.”

“Something for everybody”

“It really comes down to us providing something for everybody in our restaurants,” Shaikh said. “Our hope is to attract several types of clientele and I think we do that well in our spaces.”

SURG Restaurants vary in price point and cuisine, but all have elements of a high class atmosphere, Shaikh said.

“Our goal was to provide casual fine dining,” he said. “We have elements of fine dining in all of them, but we offer high end service and quality ingredients as well.”

Quality ingredients and quality food is important, and even through the Great Recession the firm never sacrificed the integrity of the food, Shaikh said.

“We buy the best ingredients from all of our vendors,” he said. “The restaurants that survive are the ones that stand by their quality products and their commitment to customer service. We have a lot of loyal customers that helped us get through the recession and they deserve the best quality ingredients.”

SURG Restaurant Group has an advantage when it comes to quality food. Polaski owns and operates Hidden Creek Farms in New London, Wis. The 700-acre farm provides top quality beef and pork for portions of SURG Restaurant Groups venues, including the new farm-to-table concept at 8-twelve.

“I’ve been in the horse business for more than 25 years,” Polaski said. “The horses eventually got me interested in the cows, and I decided I had to go big or get the heck out altogether.”

Polaski first purchased a farm in West Bend adjacent to property he already owned. Later, he relocated the entire operation to land in New London.

“Initially, I started out just selling (cow) semen and embryos to other commercial farmers,” he said. “After I got into the restaurant business I realized there was some good potential there to provide specialty meats for the venues.”

Hidden Creek Farms raises Angus and Kobe beef and Mangalitsa pigs. Polaski has approximately 400 to 500 cows on the farm, and while he can’t afford to provide the meat for the Carnevor restaurants just yet, they do use some of it in their other venues.

“We want it to be special,” Polaski said. “It demonstrates our commitment to keeping things local, and these are high quality meats that we can provide our customers.”

Shaikh believes the farm to table concept gives his restaurants an edge. There’s even a small herb garden behind 8-twelve.

“It’s an incredible resource to have, and people appreciate our commitment to growing things here and I think they appreciate knowing where their food is coming from,” Shaikh said.

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