Milwaukee Talks: Bar entrepreneur Mike Vitucci
Mike Vitucci has a bit of a household Milwaukee last name. After all, his family's been in the bar and cocktail business since the 1930s and the East Side tavern that carries the Vitucci name is a neighborhood landmark.
But the bar and property owner, who recently turned 50, has more than made the Vitucci name his own with his own places, success and strong commitment to his young, growing family at home.
Days after Vitucci's Belmont Tavern turned 4, I caught up with Mike for this latest edition of Milwaukee Talks.
OnMilwaukee.com: Your family opened Vitucci's Cocktail Lounge in 1934, correct? So, are you from a bar family? Or, better yet, talk about your upbringing bit.
Mike Vitucci: Well, my great-grandfather was a bar owner in the Third Ward. His name was Michael Vitucci. He owned a tavern and was recognized as "the king of the Third Ward."
His son, my grandfather Frank Vitucci, owned his tavern called Frank's, which is now The Eastsider on Oakland and North Avenues. In 1934, he moved his business and changed the name to Vitucci's, which is on North and Cramer and is still currently – of course – Vitucci's. After my grandparents passed away, my father and his 3 brothers managed the bar and it's currently managed by the cousins.
I was raised in the bar business and helped my father with odd jobs through grade school and later bartended in my late teens. I eventually left to manage a Marquette bar for a few years and in my early 20s, I managed a popular nightspot called The City Club.
Over the next years, I went on to manage McCormick Place in Brookfield until I was hired by the Marcus Corporation as assistant to the food and beverage director.
Finally, I returned to Vitucci's – my home base for many years – where I began to own my own bars. I opened Murphy's at 1613 W. Wells St. in early 1996, Caffrey's in 2001, Mantra Lounge in 2002, Whiskey Bar in 2009 and The Belmont Tavern in 2011.
OMC: Talk a bit about Mantra Lounge on North Avenue. Looking back, how was that experience?
MV: Mantra Lounge was one of my most unique venues in 2002. It made the cover of one of the world's largest night and bar magazines, and was featured because of its unique and successful combination of combining electronic music and a hip-hop format.
I managed it for 5 years and left a mark on this city with the DJs we booked. We booked some of the world's most well-known names like Mark Farina and KasKade Green Velvet who now both earn millions annually.
I owe a lot of Mantra's success to James Amato who was the ultimate in electronic music talent bookings. This guy knew how to book, entertain and cater to music artists.
OMC: Whiskey Bar opened in 2009. How has it changed since?
MV: The ultimate plan for Whiskey Bar was a lounge bar creation for a boutique hotel that was slated to be a tenant in my building. A very good friend Joel Lee had big plans for that building prior to the economic collapse in the housing market. Fortunately, that economic collapse did not affect Whiskey Bar.
We opened in the summer of 2009 with a bang. It was overwhelming for us because our plan was a swank, non-smoking lounge with DJs and live music and before we knew it we had 400 inside and 100 waiting to get in Thursday-Saturday.
After opening, our plan was to add a kitchen with small plate menu to complement our lounge and cater to hotel guests. Unfortunately, the hotel was put on the back burner due to the sluggish economy. The economy didn't affect our business and that continued to grow steadily. So October 2009 we decided to open the dance floor area with live music and Dj's. Opening night was Halloween. That night was the beginning of the transformation of Whiskey Bar.
The demand for live music and Dj's in my market was overwhelming. Now came the crowds. We went from 900-plus through the door to 1,500-plus is a matter of a weekend. The place became a sensation with the 25-plus crowds. To maintain the dress up image we began to enforce a dress code and continue to maintain that which has a lot to do with its success and upscale image today. Eventually the dancing brought in a younger crowd going into the late night, which helped us maintain a unique range of diversity. We have a mature 30-plus crowd from 4 p.m. to midnight and a younger crowd going later into the night.
OMC: Speaking of change, what would you change about the bar/tavern scene in Milwaukee?
MV: I think the tavern scene in Milwaukee is amazing. What is there to change? The demands from the people dictate the trends. Now with social media and internet usage, people demand more and want things faster. Another change I've noticed is people eat later, go out later than previous years. Milwaukee is heading in the right direction, especially the wide variety of restaurants that we have as in comparison to larger cities. I do see more establishments having a need to serve more food going forward. Having food adds more variety and increases the time a customer stays at your establishment.
OMC: How do you balance family and late nights at work?
MV: All my friends know I am a family man first. I always put my wife and children before work. Why have kids if you don't plan to spend your life investing in them? I would leave this industry for them if it got in the way of raising them. I generally do not do business from 4 to 9 p.m. because that is family time Monday-Friday and the weekend days are about the kids. My wife and I have always believed in a weekly date night and we love to wine and dine so I work the late shift after family time. I will say the biggest sacrifice I have is sleep. That's a tough area and a sore subject which we as a family are working to help Dad improve on. The nightlife and young kids have been a challenge but as they grow older, it's getting much easier.
OMC: Define success.
MV: Wow, define success. I guess that's an individual's reflection and can be personified differently by many. I've always been a goal setter. Ask my wife, sometimes that bugs her. But I think, if you don't have goals then what are you living for? Where are you going? I also believe that success comes hand in hand with loving what you do. I believe if you love what you do, money will follow. There are too many people in the world that are unhappy in their jobs and feel miserable. That's not success.
I feel success when I see an employee who worked with me open their own place. Someone who comes to me for advice and acts upon it. I'm generous and always help people. Ask some of the successful operators in Milwaukee who have worked with me and I am sure they will have a positive story on their climb to success. I'm always there for them.
Every day my wife and children tell me they love me. Every day I wake up appreciating the life that I have, the family and friends around me. Most of all I love what I do and I make a good living doing it. That is what I define as "the icing on the cake of success."
OMC: You're a big Bucks fan, right? Thoughts on this year's team? And, what would a new arena mean to you and your places?
MV: I am a huge Bucks fan and especially a Jason Kidd fan. I've been a season ticket holder for over 15 years. My family has been taking us since 1970s which are now my seats. This team has better direction under Jason Kidd, John Hammond and the new owners. I have to admit, I wasn't a fan about the trade with Brandon Knight and it shows since he was traded, however adjustments were made and things turned around. We're a young team and very exciting to watch. It seems like they love Jason's Kidd's coaching style and play hard for him. It helps that he's young and played in the NBA for 19 years, that's impressive. I like his cool coaching demeanor, as well. He rarely gets upset and the team seems to like that.
OMC: Speaking of hoops, how do you work the differences in your Marquette places – Caffrey's Pub and Murphy's Irish Pub? Different crowds, hours, etc. And, how has the MU bar scene changed in the past 10 years?
MV: People ask me which bars are my favorite. I always say all four are like my children, you love them all equally. It just depends what you're in the mood for I guess. Caffrey's is similar and yet different from Murphy's. If you want conversation and more socializing you go to Caff's. If you want a more party environment you go to Murph's. Downtown is where I spend most of my time. Like my campus bars both Whiskey and Belmont offer the same yet are significantly different. I generally start at Belmont and then whoop it up at Whiskey later in the evening when the dancing begins after 11pm.
OMC: What are you three favorite TV shows?
MV: "Seinfeld," "Breaking Bad" and "House of Cards."
OMC: What's next for bars in Milwaukee? And, what's next for you?
MV: I think people really like being outside. Rooftop bars will grow and those quaint local taverns will make a comeback if they already have. Having food is becoming more essential today. People are drinking less and not staying as long.
OMC: Finally, you're granted two wishes to help change Milwaukee. What are they?
MV: We have a poverty gap and are known as being segregated. Both are problems that need to be resolved. Don't get me started on how this city got there. Someday will make that our next interview. It needs to be addressed with compassion and hard work.
My second wish would be to bring the private sector closer together with local government. It's difficult to start a business. Local government needs to shadow this city's creative entrepreneurs to see how difficult it really is. Making it easier for these creative minds will develop a stronger fabric to create more jobs. How can the city foster this when most people in government haven't created a business themselves? Create think tanks to include government employees and entrepreneurs. Government has to be receptive to change. Without change we are stagnant
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