When Milwaukee-based Black Shoe Hospitality closed down its Shorewood brunch restaurant Blue's Egg early in the COVID-19 pandemic, plans were already in the works to fill the prime North Oakland Avenue space with a new dinner-focused concept that would better fit the neighborhood.
As the pandemic dragged on and restaurants adjusted to shifts in diner behavior, the group saw two possible ways it could successfully introduce a new restaurant to the market.
"You could strip stuff down and its all about to-go, basic, and convenience, or the step we chose to take, which was to refocus on why going out should be special," said Dan Sidner, co-owner of Black Shoe Hospitality. "It's everything from ingredients you can't procure for the home, to preparations that are well-above, presentations that are beautiful, and then a heightened level of professionalism on the part of the staff."
Those "extra touches" became the drivers behind Black Shoe's newest concept, Buttermint Finer Dining & Cocktails, which opened its doors last week at 4195 N. Oakland Ave. Sidner describes it as a "neighborhood restaurant that creates special occasions daily" - welcoming enough that locals can stop by for an appetizer and drinks on a week night but upscale enough for celebratory outings.
While Black Shoe was satisfied with business at Blue's Egg prior to the pandemic, the location wasn't doing as well as it could have been due to the lack of daytime traffic in the area, he said. On the other hand, the original Blue's Egg on North 76th Street and West Bluemound Road in Milwaukee has no problem drawing a weekday brunch crowd, being right off I-94 and in close proximity to Froedtert and the Medical College of Wisconsin campus and the Milwaukee County Research Park. Shorewood becomes busier in the evenings, so transitioning to a dinner concept made sense for that location.
Buttermint's decor and some menu items draw inspiration from the early 1960s, an era that gave way to modern restaurants and dining trends with the birth of continental cuisine, celebrity chefs and upscale eateries. The name, Buttermint, is a nod to the sweet treats diners during that time period received with their check at the end of the meal.
For now Buttermint serves dinner only but plans to add a weekend brunch program in spring 2022, if operations and staffing allows.
"We need to know that dinner is hitting on all pistons before we take on brunch," said Sidner. "And we've hired as many good people as we can find at this time. It's an extraordinary challenging time to find people at all of our restaurants, so we said, 'Let's take this in doses.'"
Staffing shortages continue to be a forefront issue for service and hospitality, partly due to a wave of full-time workers leaving the industry during the pandemic. Sidner referenced a recent statistic from the Wisconsin Restaurant Association that claimed 25% workers who were fully employed in hospitality jobs pre-COVID are now fully employed in a different industry. He said full-time hospitality professionals are necessary to the vitality of restaurants.
Prior to the pandemic, Black Shoe's workforce was 65% full time and 35% part time. Now, that ratio is about 45% to 55%. In an effort to increase full-time staffing, the business is bulking up its compensation packages next year, offering vision and dental insurance, 401(k) plans, and higher pay rates.
"We can piece this together with part-time folks, but to really return to greatness as an organization and be able to grow again, it's all about full time people," said Sidner.
Buttermint is actively hiring for all positions, with specific need for front-of-house managers. Applications and information are available through Black Shoe’s website.
The industry is also dealing with disruptions in the global supply chain. Black Shoe's year-long renovation project included outfitting the space with all new glassware, furniture and decor. Thanks to shipping issues, Buttermint's opening was delayed about six weeks.
Black Shoe Hospitality is co-owed by Sidner and chef Joe Muench. Buttermint's ownership also includes the business' administrative czar Amy Kerstein and director of operations and beverage director Jason Kerstein. Besides Buttermint, the group owns three other Milwaukee-area restaurants: Maxie's, Story Hill BKC, and Blue's Egg.
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