Encouraged by a post-pandemic resurgence of activity on North Dr. Martin Luther King Drive (formerly Old World 3rd Street), longtime local bar owner Jake Dehne will soon add two new concepts to one of the city's hottest nightlife strips.
State Street Pizza Pub is slated to open in May at the former Point Burger Bar Express location at 322 W. State St., offering made-to-order personal pizzas, an extensive beer and seltzer list, and a sports-bar atmosphere. Dehne and his brother Seth Dehne own the three-story building, and after a few unsuccessful attemptsat securing a ground-floor tenant, they decided to fill the space themselves, he said.
Meanwhile, Irish-themed Lucky Clover Pub will open in June at 1048 N. King Drive, serving pub fare and drinks. The space previously housed Brudd Cafe, a cheese and wine concept by the owners of Wisconsin Cheese Mart - a complement to their retail shop next door.
Taking over that space is a "golden opportunity," said Dehne, who also owns the adjacent party bar RWB Milwaukee, formerly Buckhead Saloon. He said he's cooking up plans to use Lucky Clover's kitchen to offer a limited food menu at RWB, which currently serves beverages only. Lucky Clover will also bring more traffic to the east side of the street.
"On that side, we really only have RWB, Tavern and White Tail," he said. "When you have 80% of the bars on the west side of the street, it's hard to get foot traffic."
Business for downtown bars and restaurants has steadily picked up since the Milwaukee Bucks NBA championship run last season, which was around the time that the city lifted its pandemic restrictions on bars and restaurants. Dehne said the return of live shows and concerts at Fiserv Forum and other downtown theaters has contributed to the revival of King Drive's bar district. Plus, live music and dueling piano bar Howl at the Moon opens April 22, kitty corner from the future Lucky Clover in the former Pub Club space.
Now with the Bucks back in the playoffs - defeating the Chicago Bulls in Game 1 of the first round Sunday at Fiserv Forum - surrounding bars and restaurants are poised to capture even more business in the coming weeks. But Dehne said the influx of Bucks fans isn't everything.
"Anything that happens, whether it was at the Bradley Center or now at the Fiserv Forum, is the icing the cake," he said. You can't rely on it for your business model because there's been times where the Bucks weren't good and Marquette men's basketball wasn't good and nobody went to the games."
That's why his goal is to make the North King Drive's bar district its own destination - one that people from the suburbs and out of town will visit when they're in Milwaukee. He said ride sharing services like Uber and Lift have been a boon for night-time business because it allows suburbanites to stay out for another drink or two without worrying about the risk of getting behind the wheel.
"It all helps, don't get me wrong - I think having a Bon Jovi or an Eagles concert helps restaurants gets full," he said. "But that's only 100 days out of the year. You need to be busy on the days when nothing is happening."
Ironically, week-night games and events at Fiserv Forum can have a negative impact on some establishments, like RWB.
"If you don't have food, it's impossible to get people in before and if it's a weekday, most people who can afford to go to concerts have stuff to do tomorrow, so they don't stay out," Dehne said.
But after more than two decades running bars in the city, Dehne knows better than to leave food out of the equation for his newest concepts. And he's teamed up with fellow industry veterans James Sanchez, operating partner at State Street Pizza, and James Mankey, operating partner at Lucky Clover. He's also brought on well-known local chef Adam Pawlak of Egg & Flour Pasta Bar as a menu consultant.
As Dehne gets ready to open two new businesses, he's in limo with another. He recently closed Nicole's Third Ward Social at 333 N. Broadway after it was unable to renew its lease. The hope is to reopen the concept somewhere in the suburbs, he said.