9 Milwaukee frozen custard stands we miss
While the fame of Gilles, Leon's, Kopp's and Culver's endures – and their legendary status continues to be further cemented in the Milwaukee psyche – through the years, dozens of other custard stands have come and gone.
While some shimmered ever so briefly, others were pioneers that endured for decades, searing themselves into the memories of those who experienced them.
On the eve of National Frozen Custard Day, celebrated annually on Aug. 8, here is a sampling of some of those places, adapted from our book, "Milwaukee Frozen Custard," published by The History Press and available from all booksellers.
1. Al's/Jessica's Frozen Custard
Al Lach, who got his start working at Leon's, opened Al's Frozen Custard at 524 E. Layton Ave., across from the airport on Aug. 3, 1946. Sometimes in advertisements, Al's would claim to be the "Home of the Original Butter Burger," but that's hard to verify, considering the number of long-lived Milwaukee institutions that serve butter-slathered hamburgers.
A classic drive-in, Al's boasted carhops and a variety of sandwiches, including cheese steak and the Starkey Special. Named in honor of 42-year South Milwaukee High School teacher Archie Starkey, it was a cheeseburger topped with a fried egg.
Al's was renamed Jessica's when Lach's wife took over in 1990, and it remained popular for decades, renowned for its focus on creating a delectable vanilla custard. Jessica's – which called itself the "Wizard of Ahhs" – closed at the dawn of the 21st century and was replaced by a used car dealership and, later, a staffing service.
2. Bella's Fat Cat
(PHOTO: Andy Tarnoff)
Kim and Michael Schmidt – who learned the business during two stints working at Kalt's – opened Bella's Fat Cat at 1233 E. Brady St. at the start of the new millennium, and the sleek new custard and burger stand quickly grew in popularity. Within a few years, the Schmidts had opened new locations on Kinnickinnic Avenue in Bay View (2004) and on Oakland Avenue, near the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (2005).
In addition to classic burger fare, the Schmidts also catered to more health-conscious diners. "The stuff we use is fresh and not processed," Mike told OnMilwaukee. "We do offer healthful selections like whole wheat bread, veggie dogs and veggie burgers. We don't try to slather on a pound of butter, just use fresh ingredients to make it [as] tasty as possible without overdoing it."
The Schmidts also worked to create their own custard style. "We put a lot of pride in our food and try to be unique with our custard flavors. Custard tastes a little different everywhere you go. That's what makes it so great, and that's why Wisconsinites love it."
Sadly, the Brady Street location closed in 2008, and within a couple years, the other stands were gone, too.
3. Clark's Frozen Custard/Dutchland Dairy
(PHOTO: Dutchland Dairy Facebook)
Legend says that Joe Clark tasted frozen custard at the A Century of Progress world's fair in Chicago in 1933-34. From there, he's also credited with bringing custard to Milwaukee in 1935, when he opened his first Clark's Frozen Custard Stand at 2020 W. Capitol Dr.
By 1938, a second Clark's location was open at 6032 W. Bluemound Rd. Clark was soon joined in the custard game by his former employee Paul Gilles, who opened Gilles Frozen Custard at 75th and Bluemound, and by Eat Mohr Frozen Custard Stand at 18th Street and Forest Home Avenue on the South Side.
Within two years, Clark opened a short-lived third location at 5408 W. Center St., which was closed by 1942. But by then, Clark had also opened a dairy store at 3905 W. National Ave. that, within a few years, would be renamed Dutchland Dairy. By 1949, a second Dutchland location was open at 208 E. Capitol Dr.
Dutchland also operated the Fiesta Drive-In on Highway 100 at Wisconsin Avenue in the 1950s and '60s (another Fiesta later operated for about five years out west on Bluemound Road), which was known for its innovative features. In 1955, Fiesta was the first in the country to install heat lamps over its 50 drive-in bays, allowing it to operate year-round. A decade later, Fiesta toyed with the idea of going fully automated, with machines for automatic ordering and conveyor belts to deliver orders directly to customers.
It is for the beloved Dutchland Dairy chain of sit-down and carry-out restaurants – with attached dairy stores – that Clark is best remembered. But Dutchland Dairy also sold its own branded dairy products, including milk in distinctive brown bottles, eggs, ice cream and even goat's milk, along with a variety of foods, most notably buckets of fried chicken. Advertisements boasted that Dutchland's chicken was "so good and so tender you can even EAT THE BONES!"
In 1968, Clark sold Dutchland Dairy to B-G Foods Inc., of Chicago, and the following year he and his son, Jay, launched Little Angus Restaurants – which a company classified ad described as a "self-service restaurant specializing in sandwich menu and carry-out foods."
In 1970, B-G Foods' Dutchland Dairy tried a carry-out only location on 16th Street and Forest Home Avenue on the South Side. But the chain had entered its waning years, and the stores, indebted and in financial straits, were closed by the beginning of 1977.
During the 1980s and '90s, Steve Kalt operated his own eponymous custard stand in a former Boy Blue on the city's northwest side – at 5653 N. 76th St. – after having learned the business from nearly two decades working at Kopp's.
Kalt's continued the tradition of training other stand owners when he employed Michael Schmidt, who would go on to open Bella's Fat Cat. Schmidt – whose wife and business partner, Kim, grew up patronizing Kalt's – even hired four fellow Kalt's alumni to work at Bella's.
In 1998, Kalt sold the stand, which was reopened as Dave's Frozen Custard. After a few years, however, Dave's moved up 76th Street into the former Sweets Frozen Custard stand at 6309 N. 76th St. The old Kalt's place is still recognizable as a custard stand and is home to a fried fish and chicken restaurant called Shark's.
5. Larry's Lunch-ette
Specializing in southern fried chicken, jumbo burgers and hot lunches, Larry's Lunch-ette was, as an ad proclaimed, "Where chicken is king and frozen custard queen."
Larry's, 619 W. Walnut St., as it was known in 1950, was one of many restaurants along the main street of the city's busy African-American Bronzeville neighborhood and one of at least two places – along with Williamson's Frozen Custard – that sold frozen custard there.
Larry Hill's restaurant appears to have changed names a few times, later becoming perhaps best known as Larry's Chicken Shack, but it never stopped serving as a neighborhood anchor.
Raised in Des Moines, Hill arrived in Milwaukee fresh from the navy after World War II, and with $300 borrowed from a barber, he opened his restaurant with just four green-and-maroon vinyl-covered booths.
His food became so popular that, according to an obituary published when Hill died at age 90 in February 2002, "folks would line up for a block for his cooking, burgers and fixings, especially that chicken. 'It was tremendous,'" Hill told the Journal Sentinel in 1998. "'I had as many as six large cookers, and they were full all the time.'"
Veteran newspaperman Richard Carter remembered Larry's as the place to be for neighborhood teens.
"Moving on toward 7th [Street], there was Larry's Frozen Custard, home of the delicious Orange Blossom," Carter wrote in his Milwaukee Journal column in 1987. "Although Larry's offered a number of eating delights, it mainly served as a meeting place for teenagers and young adults seeking nonbinding, close relationships. And, as someone observed, you'd have to be a monk to strike out.
"The sidewalk outside Larry's was perhaps the spot to hang out on the set. Just about anybody was liable to show up. For example, I recall the night Joe Louis was there explaining how he demolished all those clowns in the ring. And then there was the time a vocal group called The Five Notes sang a cappella for hours, and you thought you were hearing the Moonglows."
Larry's Chicken Shack, the kingdom where custard was queen, fell – like so much of Bronzeville – to the wrecking ball when the freeway came through in 1959.
Lixx, next to the Downer Theater at 2597 N. Downer Ave., was an East Side institution, drawing big crowds in summer, especially on weekend evenings, for frozen custard, ice cream and froyo. It was a popular meet-up place and after-film destination.
The shop was opened in 1990 by Daniel Katz, a real estate developer who owned a large portion of the commercial property on Downer Avenue at the time. In 2005, Lixx was denied a liquor license, and the following year, Katz sold a chunk of his holdings on the block, including the building in which the custard shop was located. In 2009, Lixx closed.
Jake Provan opened Jake's Big Dog Frozen Custard at the location in 2010, selling hot dogs and three kinds of custard: vanilla, chocolate and a flavor of the day, but it proved short-lived, and the space is now occupied by Pizza Man.
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