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For Some Eateries, Third Time May be the Charm

Despite the sluggish economy, there’s been a slight uptick in restaurant ownership in Milwaukee. The health department reports 1,461 eateries: that’s 26 more than last year and on par with the number before the recession hit. At least one establishment in the Third Ward, south of downtown, appears to be bouncing back. WUWM’s Marti Mikkelson found that some of the ‘new’ establishments are actually recycled restaurants. Entrepreneurs have moved in, believing they possess the formula for success.

The décor at Ryan Braun’s Graffito restaurant along the Milwaukee River features graffiti-inspired paintings of, you might have guessed: baseball scenes. Yet one of the new owners, Omar Shaikh, says the name was selected for another reason as well.

“Graffito is the plural for graffiti and graffiti in Italian means scratch. We make everything from scratch here, everything from our pasta to our sauces to our bread to our sausages to our mozzarella, ricotta,” Shaikh says.

The tall, dark-haired Shaikh is working the room, stopping at tables to chat with customers. He explains that the Milwaukee Brewers’ star owned the former restaurant here, Ryan Braun’s Waterfront, but it was struggling, so Braun asked Shaikh and his SURG Restaurant Group to take over. The deal allows it to continue using the all-star’s name, and occasionally, he stops by.

“He was here Sunday for the Braun bash. Ryan was walking around talking to everybody. He really enjoys that aspect of it and I think it’s a good fit to keep his name on the restaurant,” Shaikh says.

Jay Fulkerson is dining with three friends near one of the big windows. He says this is the first time he’s been to “Graffito” – it just opened in April, but he used to frequent the old restaurant. It closed over the winter and Fulkerson wonders why.

“Beautiful setting, we were actually here in the summertime. We sat outside, the food was good, the service was great. I’m not sure. There (are) a lot of choices, I suppose,” Fulkerson says.

Word on the street is that the former restaurant here and its predecessor, Fratello’s, closed because customers found items on the menu not worth the price. Current owner Omar Shaikh will only promise that his restaurant will deliver delicious food.

While the managers of Graffito are confident they’ll succeed, a few miles away on the south side, another recycled eatery near the airport continues struggling. Yum Yum opened in 2009 and specializes in Middle Eastern cuisine. Owner Tarek Fleifel says he still is not turning a profit, partly because of high overhead.

“Before March, the price of meat was something and now I’m paying between $50 and $75 extra on each box. Meat prices went up like gas and everything else,” Fleifel says.

Fleifel says the place is pretty busy on weekend nights, but things are quiet during the week, so now he’s closed on Wednesdays. He’s pinning his last hope on a truck he purchased this year. Fleifel plans to take it into heavily populated neighborhoods this summer, serving food from the traveling kitchen. If business still doesn’t pick up…

“After I try the truck, it’s quits, for sure,” Fleifel says.

Fleifel took over the restaurant from his father, when it was called Sahara. Before that, a series of ice cream parlors tried to make a go of it. All failed. Fleifel believes he’s figured out the reason: a lack of foot traffic.

“There’s not a lot of footsteps, not a lot of people. A lot of people closed here and went and opened on the east side where a lot of people walk. Students and teachers like to try exotic foods,” Fleifel says.

“People go in without a good concept, maybe the location wasn’t good," Lump says.

That’s Ed Lump, head of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association.

”Some people don’t think through all the reasons why the other place failed. A lot of them are undercapitalized when they start,” Lump says.

Lump says many factors go into making or breaking restaurants. And when there are failures, someone else always seems to emerge with a new recipe.

“We have eight to 12 different kinds of chili on our menu at any given time," Schiek says.

Customers chat over chili at Chili Lili's.

Jay Schiek recently opened Chili Lili’s last June in the former Holiday House. It’s near the Maier Festival grounds…a neighborhood packed during the summer, but sparse other times.

“We went out on the sidewalks and talked to the people and introduced our restaurant to them and a lot of people came back after Summerfest to see us,” Schiek says.

Schiek says he now has repeat customers, but admits he took a risk by locating here.

“We call it the bad side of the Third Ward. Everything else seems to happen on the other side of the Third Ward,” Schiek says.

Schiek says others doubted the wisdom of opening a restaurant during the midst of a recession. The good news may be, that the Wisconsin Restaurant Association reports a ten percent increase in membership this year, raising hopes that the economy is strengthening. President Ed Lump says even in good times though, restaurants fail, but overall historically, more succeed.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.