Despite the obstacles of the past 15 months, Asheville-based Tupelo Honey is in the final stages of opening its new downtown Milwaukee restaurant.
The southern-style eatery will open to the public Aug. 4 on the ground floor of the newly constructed Huron Building, located at East Clybourn Street and North Broadway. A friends-and-family soft opening is planned for July 27.
This is the 17th restaurant location for Tupelo Honey, which has expanded into 12 states since its founding in 2000. The group first announced plans to enter the Milwaukee market in March 2020. Due to uncertainty created by the COVID-19 pandemic, as BizTimes reported last fall, moving the project forward required Huron Building developer and owner Milwaukee-based J. Jeffers & Co. to work with Tupelo Honey to push back the opening timeline about six months and renegotiate the financial terms of the lease deal.
Now as downtown activity returns and office buildings, like the Huron Building, prepare to house workers again, Tupelo Honey has high hopes for its prime spot between the central business district and the Historic Third Ward. Law firm Husch Blackwell anchors the Huron Building, occupying roughly 76,800 square feet on the top three floors.
"The opportunity we saw was a connecting point between the downtown workforce and the people that stay here and the people that are here and the Third Ward," said corporate executive chef Eric Gabrynowicz.
As a city, "Milwaukee hit every metric" of what Tupelo Honey looks for in a market -- from income levels to how people socialize, he said.
Prior to Milwaukee, the company's most recent opening was in Grand Rapids, Michigan last September -- in the midst of industry turmoil as restaurants were forced to scale back operations or close down due to the pandemic.
But that location saw early success and has continued to thrive, which in turn has helped build momentum for more growth, said Gabrynowicz.
"It was kind of our moment of rebellion against the pandemic," he said about the Michigan expansion. "We're still riding that high."
A key takeaway from the experience of opening during the pandemic was the importance of prioritizing people, said Gabrynowicz. It was a reminder to show extra care and empathy for employees and how the pandemic impacted each of their lives in different ways.
And now with the challenge of an industry-wide staffing shortage, putting people before business remains important to recruiting and retention. Tupelo has so far onboarded 85 employees at its Milwaukee location, which is not too far off its typical opening target of 100 new hires, said Gabrynowicz.
"We're pretty aggressive comparatively to the industry with our benefits program," he said. "We give benefits -- medical, dental, paid time off ... our 'Honey Pot Program' where your gym membership can get taken care of, tuition reimbursements. They're all small things but they add up."
Last year in response to the pandemic, the company created an employee relief program called 'Biscuits for a Cause,' which so far has raised more than $500,000 and given away nearly $350,000 to employees in need of financial help. The charitable effort is funded by proceeds from the restaurant's well-known biscuits, priced at $4 for a serving of two.
Labor is not the only challenge Tupelo Honey has run into as it opens its Milwaukee location. Ongoing supply chain disruptions have resulted in delays and unfulfilled orders of everything from kitchen equipment to bottles of alcohol.
"We ordered 13,000 different types of small wares, and 70% of them were available," said Gabrynowicz. "Trying to open up a restaurant without 30% of what you need is a real challenge right now, but I think we're ready."
The menu at Tupelo Honey will feature southern-style staples like shrimp and grits, fried chicken, chicken and waffles, and fried green tomatoes. It will also serve fish fry as a nod to local cuisine.
The 5,431-square-foot space will seat 255 guests inside and 64 outside. The dining area was designed by renowned architecture and interior design group Edit Lab at Streetsense. The space also features a large bar area and 24 craft beers and cocktails on tap, including 10 locally sourced brews and with two from Tupelo Honey’s home town of Asheville.
Once it opens next month, Tupelo Honey will serve brunch, lunch, and dinner for dine-in or carryout. Online ordering will be available. Operating hours will be Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Sunday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.