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Bears, beers, Battlestar Galactica. (PHOTO: Milwaukee County Zoo Facebook)

You like beer gardens in the Parks? Next up is a Bear Garden at the Zoo

Milwaukee County has found enormous success putting beer gardens in the Parks, tapping a fresh revenue stream and activating underutilized green spaces, and now it's proposing to do something similar at a beloved local institution.

County Executive Chris Abele on Wednesday announced plans to bring a "Bear Garden" to the Milwaukee County Zoo as part of an expanded public-private concessions partnership that will financially benefit the Zoo, add new full-time jobs and feature local food and drink vendors. The Bear Garden launch will coincide with the opening of the new Zoo entrance, expected to be completed in the fall.

Zoo visitors, though, won't have to wait until then for a taste of something more than just Animal Crackers. Starting on Memorial Day weekend, the Zoo will provide concessions, merchandising and catering through Service Systems Associates (SSA), a top service-provider for public and private cultural attractions for four decades, according to a news release from Milwaukee County.

As part of the new agreement, SSA will provide $3 million for capital investments, including major renovations and upgrades to the Zoo's existing restaurants and gift shops. And, per the County, because of the shared local commitment of Abele and Zoo Director Charles Wikenhauser to continuity and consistency, SSA will retain and hire all current Milwaukee County Zoo employees working in concessions and merchandising.

Going forward, SSA will reportedly hire additional full-time staff, including a dedicated Executive Chef for the first time in Zoo history, and the company will emphasize recruiting high-quality talent through the County's existing workforce development efforts, such as the UpLift MKE program.

"Our public-private partnerships in the County's successful beer gardens have been a huge win, serving up top-notch local food and beverages and bringing more than $1 million dollars back into our Parks," Abele said in a statement. "I'm thrilled we are bringing this same approach to the Milwaukee County Zoo through our new partnership with Service Systems Associates.

"This is truly a 'win-win' situation for Zoo visitors, the Zoo and Milwaukee County. Guests will benefit from a wider variety of food choices and merchandise selections, offered at competitive and affordable price points. Most importantly, SSA aligns with the Zoo's mission of conservation and will be a key supporter in achieving our overall vision and goals."

According to the news release, SSA guarantees commissions to the Zoo based on annual attendance, and it projects future growth in subsequent years. Visitors, the County says, will benefit from an enhanced Zoo experience, including not only more employees and the new Executive Chef, but also higher-quality products in concessions, catering and merchandise.

On a local level, the increase in full-time staff is expected to create job growth and strengthen the Zoo's economic impact to the community. SSA will employ local suppliers for food service offerings, taking advantage of Milwaukee's culinary tradition and, when appropriate, using sustainable, environmentally friendly options for both concessions and retail. SSA will also serve as one of 25 approved caterers available for both internal and external events held at the Zoo.

"We're extremely excited about this partnership, and what it will mean for the Zoo and our visitors," Wikenhauser said in a statement.

"As a premier provider of food service and gift shop operations in zoos and aquariums across North America, SSA will elevate the Zoo's menus both in quality and variety. The fact that SSA will seek out local partners to provide products to enhance their offerings is quite significant. SSA is a very conservation-minded organization, with guiding principles in its sourcing and purchasing of gift shop merchandise."

SSA partners with more than 35 other zoos, aquariums, conservancies and museums throughout the country, including the Denver, Minnesota, Cincinnati, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Honolulu, Nashville, and Detroit Zoos; the St. Louis Science Center; and the National Center for Civil & Human Rights.


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