Nearly four years after entering the Milwaukee market, Hacienda Beer Co. has sought to reintroduce its beer and its brand to local craft beverage lovers and foodies alike.
In the fall, the Baileys Harbor-based Door County Brewing Co.offshoot renamed its Milwaukee location as Hacienda Taproom & Kitchen (from Hacienda Beer Co.), following a months-long effort to redesign its business model and menu coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hacienda Beer Co. opened its 125-seat taproom and restaurant in May 2019 at 2018 E. North Ave. on Milwaukee's East Side; the pandemic hit less than one year later. While the business was able to make it through the initial turmoil and uncertainty of 2020, it stood on shaky ground as still a relatively new addition to Milwaukee's craft brewery scene. There had not been enough time to gain a foothold in the local market before the pandemic kept patrons from coming through the door and getting the full Hacienda experience.
"Nine months before pandemic was (Hacienda's) opening, and then you spend almost two years doing little food and primarily selling beer and not being open to the public for dine-in service and that really kind of stunts your growth," said Ashley Turner, executive chef at Hacienda Taproom & Kitchen.
[caption id="attachment_562148" align="alignleft" width="250"] Ashley Turner, executive chef at Hacienda Taproom & Kitchen.[/caption]
Turner was brought on in early 2022 to take Hacienda's Latin-inspired culinary program to the next level. Luckily, she wasn't starting from scratch. The idea was to build upon the success of Hacienda's beer program, which had gained a following - even during the pandemic as people purchased cans to consume at home - for its experimental brews that are known for being hoppy, high in ABV and bold in flavor. As a microbrewery, Hacienda had defined its niche, but as an eatery, it lacked direction.
"I think (the restaurant) always had Latin flavors, but (it) moved through a lot of different chefs, and I think just by virtue of all of the things going on, the world that we were in and just building a team through limited operations, there’s so much time that just fell into a void," said Turner.
Seeing that Hacienda was up against some major hurdles at the height of the pandemic, the Door County Brewing Co. ownership group called in some reinforcement. They retained former local restauranteurs Joe and Angie Sorge to oversee operations of what's now known as Hacienda Taproom & Kitchen. The Sorges are well known within Milwaukee's hospitality industry as the founders of Hospitality Democracy, which is now called Benson's Restaurant Group and includes Onesto, Blue Bat Kitchen & Tequilaria, Smoke Shack and AJ Bombers. The couple led the group from 2000 to 2018 before handing over the reigns to Milwaukee-based Marcus Investments. Around the same time, they launched their own company, Sidework Hospitality Consulting.
Taking over operations at Hacienda, the Sorges put together a team of experienced restaurant professionals, including two former colleagues in Turner and Jim Anderson, who serves as director of operations, along with Meghan Keyes, who serves as restaurant manager.
The process of rebuilding the menu took shape gradually over the past several months, starting with weekend brunch and then moving to dinner, gathering feedback from patrons each step of the way.
Turner, a native Texan whose family has owned barbecue restaurants for generations, tapped into her southern roots and added a smoker to the kitchen so she could introduce Texas-style barbecue items to the menu, incorporating them into dishes such as French toast, which is topped with smoked pork belly burnt ends, and nachos, which are served with Texas brisket chili.
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And for almost every meat-focused dish on the menu, there's one that appeals to plant-based eaters as well.
"We wanted to make sure our offerings cover a lot of dietary needs. And it's also important to me that if you're going to build a vegan dish it's not just an omnivore dish that we can sub something out. Let's build a vegan dish that has its own point of view and is intended to be vegan and be great as that," she said, pointing to the popular brussel sprouts, for example, which now include cauliflower for some additional substance.
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As part of the relaunch, Hacienda has also added a selection of seltzer-based cocktails to its beverage program in hopes of appealing to a broader array of drinkers, including those who don’t like the taste of beer or can’t drink beer due to dietary restrictions.
The brewery enlisted Sheboygan-based 3 Sheeps Brewingto create a neutral-flavored hard seltzer that could be mixed with other ingredients and used as a substitute for liquor. Hacienda’s brewing license prohibits the business from selling liquor at its taproom, but that didn't stop the team from thinking outside the box.
"This is our innovative twist around that to be able to offer something to people who want a cocktail," said Anderson.
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The new cocktails might be uncharted territory for Hacienda, but the idea is derived from the same emphasis on bold flavor and high-quality ingredients that its beer-loving customers have grown to know and love, said Turner.
Another major goal of Hacienda's relaunch was to shift to a more sustainable business model - one that reflected ongoing changes within the industry, especially related to labor. The business set out to find a way to increase benefits and pay while remaining financially viable.
"We arrived at a formula that works for us that incentivizes our back of house based on sales," said Turner. "That program has really been incredible because it's allowed us to increase their wage rates, but it really did take working through a lot of models and gaming it out to see how we could do it where our guests would support and appreciate it."
Since adjusting the wage structure, Hacienda has seen improvement in employee retention and has received positive feedback from employees. Hiring continues to be a challenge - as it is industry wide - but for now, the focus is on driving sales and bringing customers through the door so the business can eventually have the standing to offer additional full-time employment opportunities. The taproom currently has 16 employees, split evenly between full time and part time.
Improving internal systems and culture was one of the new team's first priorities as they embarked on relaunching the Hacienda brand, said Turner.
"Even before we were at the menu, it was, 'How do we take care of the culture piece of it? How do we take care of our people correctly? It was really serious to us," she said.
From a business standpoint, Hacienda is still recovering from the losses of the past three years, and, Turner said, "the restaurant landscape is still on unknown footing," so it's hard to pinpoint what a successful relaunch would ultimately look like down the road. But as Hacienda works to "clearly articulate" who it is and what makes it unique in relation to competitors within the local craft beer market, the business is aiming for organic growth across the region.
"We love our East Side neighborhood and want (locals) to be here all the time," said Turner. "We also want them to bring their neighbors from Germantown, Shorewood, Walworth County, Lake Geneva, wherever. We want to be able to expand that guest base."
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