Longtime server reflects on the iconic Coffee Trader
In the '70s and '80s, The Coffee Trader, 2625 N. Downer Ave., was one of the most happening spots in Milwaukee and definitely the crown jewel of the Downer Avenue scene, which also included Brewster's (later Webster's), Judge Jason Downer's/The Chancery, Henry's and El Condor Mexican restaurant.
Even though the Trader was notorious for slow service and so-so food, people returned again and again. Many stayed for hours at a time. The restaurant / bar and bakery was also known for a steady turnover of employees, with the exception of one.
Mary Beatty worked at the Coffee Trader from 1982 until 1994. She started her career as a waitress at the now-defunct Marc's Big Boy on Wisconsin and Plankinton Avenues.
"I liked the Trader right away. I liked the clientele. And the staff. They were all students studying to be what most of the clientele were: doctors, lawyers and Indian chiefs," she says.
When Beatty was hired in 1982, the Coffee Trader had already been in business for a decade.
"Everyone on staff was the same age when I started, but they studied and went on and I stayed and a whole new generation of employees came in," she says. "It was hard. I became the 'mom.' Some of the kids had never been on their own. Oy vey.
"I used to work with a manager who asked in the interview who was paying for college. If mom and dad paid, they were useless, they just needed party money. If they were paying for their college themselves, they really worked," says Beatty.
In 1984 the business was sold by John Gardiner to David Boxer and Loretta Kleczka.
Although she was offered numerous promotions, Beatty never accepted. She trained new employees, but other than that, enjoyed her job as a server which allowed her to interact with interesting people on a daily basis.
She waited on some notable customers, including many of the Milwaukee Bucks, comedian Robin Williams, Bo Black, Lawrencia Bembenek and numerous anchor people.
"Carole Meekins came in one Halloween as a French maid," she says. "That was a hoot. Bo and Lawrencia always had sunglasses on, even at 11 at night. Police Chief (Art) Jones would never remove his hat. And the Bucks came in with these beautiful women in fur coats draping on the floor."
But Beatty's favorite customers weren't famous. Lee and Esther were a neighborhood couple that came in every Friday night, and when Esther passed away, Lee continued to come in alone.
Lee's order was always the same: a burger without the bun, a potato and a Rob Roy. And at the end of his meal, he always tipped the server, bartender, busser and cook.
"Every single Friday he did this. He was an unbelievable man. He would bring me art, I still have it. He found out I loved yellow roses, and he brought me things with yellow roses on it," says Beatty.
In some ways, Coffee Trader was ahead of its time with such a strong focus on what was then considered quality coffee. The Trader used White House Coffee, but in those days, variety was determined by flavor instead of the origin and / or roast of the beans.
And unlike most coffee shops that perked up in the '90s and served locally roasted, higher quality beans, Coffee Trader drinks could be ordered with booze, like the aptly named drink, The Coffee Trader, made with hot chocolate, coffee and Amaretto.
The menu featured mostly salads, sandwiches, burgers and appetizers. The Trader tater nachos, which later became the Trader Tater noshers (chips were replaced with waffle fries), were one of the most popular menu items.
"They weren't one of my favorites, but a big seller," says Beatty. "I used to love the blackened chicken sandwich. And I remember the bottles of Coke and fries late at night that the kids would order."
For about a decade, there was a bakery downstairs, which made signature bakery items like the seven layer chocolate cake and The Napoleon.
Today, the space is divided into multiple businesses, including the Original Pancake House and Via Pizza, but then, the Trader was large and spacious, with lots of exposed wood and memorable ceiling fans.
"Everybody loved the fans. I remember when one fell down, right on a lady's table," she says.
Henry's, Valentina's (an upscale clothing shop) and Cafe Demi were also long-time building mates with the Trader. Schwartz Bookshop also had a small space in the complex for a time. Beatty and the staff would often drink at Henry's, now located around the corner at 2523 E. Belleview Pl., and play cribbage after closing.
One of Beatty's co-workers, "Crazy Daryl," would help the Henry's staff clear out customers at bar time. In exchange for a drink, he would pretend like he was drunk, crazy and just released from prison to make people uncomfortable and more willing to leave.
"Oh, dear Daryl," she says. "He started as a busser. Became a manager."
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