Southern-style seafood boil restaurant Lowcountry
is gearing up to open at the former Bar Louie site in downtown Milwaukee.
New signage has been up on the 1114 N. Water St. building for the past couple of months, but the Chicago-based business still needs city approval on its operating licenses and COVID-19 safety plan.
"We should be open within a couple of months," said owner Pan Hompluem. "From a construction standpoint, we're ready to go."
The downtown Milwaukee restaurant will be Lowcountry's third location, joining its two locations in Chicago. Hompluem, who's worked in the restaurant industry for two decades, launched the concept in 2015 in the Lakeview neighborhood and later expanded to the South Loop.
Hompluem cited a couple reasons for his move into the Milwaukee market. He's a big fan of the city - he and his wife Dana have enjoyed taking weekend trips to hang out or to visit friends and family living in the area. And in recent years, Hompluem noticed that Lowcountry was attracting a lot of Milwaukee-area diners who would make the drive just to eat at his restaurant.
"That made us feel special," he said. "Knowing that we have a customer base driving down already, on top of the fact that we love the city - it just made sense."
Lowcountry restaurants are known for their casual backyard atmosphere, with indoor plants and large picnic tables where diners enjoy bags of boiled shrimp, crab and lobster by hand instead of utensils. The concept was inspired by Hompluem's childhood memories of summer trips to New Orleans and sharing seafood with his family.
Hompluem toured the former Bar Louie space soon after the restaurant closed its doors in late January, and he knew right away that the 5,000-square-foot space would be the perfect fit for the concept, thanks to its high ceilings and large outdoor patio.
The business moved forward with the lease agreement in June, despite the heavy toll the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic had already taken on the restaurant industry.
"We knew there was a lot of unknowns, and even now there's a lot of unknowns, but what gave us confidence was, with our two locations in Chicago, we learned really quickly how to adapt to the pandemic," he said.
Prior to COVID, carryout business accounted for less than 5% of Lowcountry's sales. Now in the midst of Chicago's second shut down, the restaurant is fully reliant on off-premise business, with both locations currently open for carryout and delivery only.
Hompluem was initially unsure that the restaurant could survive without the dine-in experience, but customers continued to order Lowcountry's seafood, some recreating the atmosphere at home to post on social media.
As a result, the business has done well enough to support its staff and remain profitable each month, all while building confidence in its approach to challenging, ever-changing times. However, shutting its doors the second time around, said Hompluem, has proven to be more difficult than the first.
Once Lowcountry's Milwaukee location gets the green light, the plan is to open for dine-in service, as permitted by the city. Currently, bars and restaurants with approved COVID-19 safety plans must not exceed 50% of a location’s capacity, and those without safety plans are restricted to 25% capacity.
Bringing diners inside the restaurant means Lowcountry has had to adjust some of the key elements of its dine-experience. Seafood combos used to be served family-style, in bags that would be shared between three or four people. Now, each diner gets their own bag and individual serving.
"During a pandemic, sharing food is not something that is not as acceptable..." he said. At the end of the day, though, it's about experiencing food together."
Menus will be available to view on mobile devices via QR code, and all utensils and plateware will be single use. In addition, the restaurant's layout has been designed with social distancing practices in mind and includes a separate entrance for carryout customers.
Since the food is messy, there are large sinks in the middle of the room so diners can wash their hands after their meal, but that isn't new to the Lowcountry concept.