Milwaukee Talks: Karl Kopp
Despite the fact that his surname is a household name and legendary in Milwaukee, Karl Kopp is not one to seek the limelight. Many people wouldn't know him if he led them to their table one night at Elsa's – which could very well happen at the restaurant he named in honor of his mother.
Elsa Kopp opened the first Kopp's frozen custard stand on 60th Street and Appleton Avenue in 1951, and a local tradition began. Today, Kopp's has three custard stands around the area, in addition to Elsa's on the Park, across from Cathedral Square, which, nearly 40 years after it opened, remains a popular gathering spot Downtown.
Kopp has also owned restaurants in New York and Phoenix. We caught up with him to ask – among other things – about the history of Kopp's and Elsa's, other places he's considering opening beyond Milwaukee and if he ever thinks of opening a Kopp's Downtown.
Enjoy this Milwaukee Talks with Karl Kopp.
OnMilwaukee: Let's talk a bit about how your mom got into the business and how then you got into it.
Karl Kopp: OK. Well, if you want to go all the way back, and maybe that leads you into the right direction. You know my parents both came from Germany.
Where in Germany did they come from?
My dad came from close to Stuttgart. But it was a little town, you know, and my mother came from another German town. My mom lived on a farm and her dad died, so her mother was the farmer, and she said, "I knew I never wanted to do that, so I wanted to get to America."
That's interesting that she had a strong female role model. People think of
Elsa as being sort of a strong woman at a time when a lot of women didn't own and run restaurants.
Right, so she came over here. My dad came over here, and they met someplace, probably some German dance or something. You know, because they always kind of congregated. "You can speak German? I can speak German. Let's go there."
So they met here.
In Milwaukee. At Jefferson Hall on Fond Du Lac Avenue. I can remember going to parties there; they had like little social events.
Is that where your parents had settled, on that side of town?
My mom had some places on the East Side (of Downtown). The one I remember is on Burleigh, 24th and Burleigh.
So fairly close to Jefferson Hall.
Right, so that's where they met and that's where they hung out together, but then what happened, they had a friend. He was a German guy, too. You know, they all hung with Germans, right? Because they could speak it. His name was Art Richter, and he had the Milky Way.
And so she went to work for him, because they were always trying to make it better. They had the opportunity now to go to America and so they didn't want to squelch that, you know? So they said, "Well, if we got to work a couple extra hours, we're going to do it. We're going to save some money and then we're going to buy our own house. Then when we buy our own house, we're going to get a duplex, and then we're going to rent it out."
This is the Milky Way on 63rd and Capitol, right?
That was on 63rd and Capitol.
Your mom took over at some point and managed the place, right?
Right, she took it over, because he was expanding. He was an aggressive guy, and he had the one on Bluemound Road. And then he had the one on Port Washington Road where I am now.
And you know, so he's expanding and she went to work for him, and then he said, "Do you want to go in on some sort of ..." whatever it was, some sort of partnership where she would run it and he would give her a percentage, or she would give him a percentage. Some kind of deal. So they did that.
She was working at Militzer's, too, wasn't she? Was this concurrent?
Off season. You know, the custard stands used to close up. So then she would go to work at Militzer and Mrs. Militzer was so good to her. She was a Dutch woman, but you know Dutch and German isn't that far apart. "You're OK, you're Dutch." (Laughs)
So she did that and then she was working there and she met a man by the name of Leon Schneider, and that's Leon's, okay? And so she said, you know, that she's working there and she'd like to open her own place. He said, "Oh, I'll help you." So he did.
Karl Kopp with his parents and sisters. (PHOTO: Courtesy of Kopp's Frozen Custard)
And Leon obviously already had Leon's at that point. Was he selling machines at that point?
I think he was.
This is not to take anything away from Leon because he was clearly a good guy, he helped a lot of people out, but he also wanted people to open custard stands because he wanted to sell them machines.
Oh, absolutely. Sure. He was a very good businessman. Smart man.
So then your mom is really running this business because your dad who was working in a machine shop ...
Tool and dye. He took sick and it was such a sad thing, and I still remember it now. At the time, you think, "Well, he's sick. He'll be all right again," or something.
You were fairly young at that point.
Yeah, and he brought his tools home, so it had to be a terrible event for him to bring everything home (on his last day), you know. He went to school in Germany, he was enrolled in one of the best and here, when he went to Globe Union, he worked there and they thought he was just great because he had very little waste, or whatever. I can just imagine what (that last day) would be like, but at the time, I couldn't.
So your mom is sort of a no-nonsense person, it sounds like, right? She just forges forward and says, "It's on me."
Right, so then they had the Milky Way, and I think they had that for two years, three years, something like that. I don't know if it went bad or went good or they just wanted to be on their own, or wanted to get 100% instead of 50/50. I don't know.
For whatever reason she decides she wants her name on the front.
Right. So then she and my dad ... and I can remember him going along with her, and he had Parkinson's ... It's a progressive disease, as you well know, so in the beginning it wasn't good, but it wasn't as bad. He could feed himself and he could do things. He could shave, and he could do all his little things.
Was he in good enough health to work at Kopp's, or not so much?
They were concerned that, you know, he had the tremors and they thought that people might say, "Is that contagious?" I can remember he would get up early in the morning and people were much different than they are now, right? There were no trash cans, so they would just throw all the paper cups on the ground. He would go out and clean up the parking lot and they didn't have any sort of garbage people who picked it up or did this or that. Right there was a field and a couple of oil cans and he would burn the trash.
Did she build that stand?
So that was just an empty lot when she got it?
Did Leon help her with that?
He kind of set it up for her a little bit, you know. It wasn't anything fancy or anything, but it worked. He was very, very good to her, and then they would deliver a piece of equipment that was crated up. What's she going to do with a crate, right? So he was very, "So I'll get somebody to fix it for you, get it for you, open it up. We'll do it." She had no idea how to do those things, you know? So he was very, very good.
Let's jump ahead a little bit. When it opened in 1951, at that point, how old were you?
I don't know, 10, 12.
Were you working there already?
She'd say, "Well, come along with me. You've got to take over for dad, pick up the parking lot." You know, and things like that. Then later on we got busy and I can still remember that. I was there and I guess I peeled onions. Beautiful job.
Did you like it? Were you happy to go along with her and help, or did you feel like it was a chore?
Oh, you know, you complain as a kid. You go, "My friends are doing this and that, and I'm over here peeling onions. What's this?" But you kind of realize that family wasn't a bad way.
Did your sisters work there, too?
Yeah, my older sister worked there, too. We had carhops there and my sister wanted to be a carhop, so she was. Anything she did, she was very, very good at, so she did that but after a while the custard business wasn't for her. She went to Marquette. She went on and became a nurse and nurse teachers, and all sorts of things, but the custard business wasn't in her blood.
Lizzie, that's my sister...
Your little sister?
Yeah, she got to be a mom at a young age, and my mom helped her. They all worked together, right? And at that point, my dad was pretty sick where he couldn't do much for himself, so you had to be there with him. My mom had to go to work at the drive-in and my sister was home feeding her young child, and she said, "I'm going to bring Papa over today because he can't stay alone."
This is what families do, right? Run custard stands and they take care of each other.
Did she ever work at the custard stand?
Oh, sure, I can remember sometimes. Then after a while I took it over.
Did you want to do that, or did you feel obligated?
I felt a little obligated, and I also thought, well ... I had gone in the service in the Army and got out, I would say it was probably late '50s, and thought, "Well, now what am I going to do? I didn't go to college," so I kind of got involved in running it myself. Eventually, my mother said, she says, "Take it over now. Run the place. You're going to run it. You got your ideas, I got mine. You do it your way."
Did it work out that way?
Yeah, she was pretty good, but she charged me rent, and when the rent was due, the rent was due. I can remember a lot of times at night, I'd be busy. I didn't have enough help or I didn't have enough ... because you just didn't know how much to staff for and it was a little different way. My sister lived a block away. "Lizzie, can you come over?" Elspeth was her name at that time. "Elspeth, can you come over and help me?" "Sure." So she would come over and help for an hour, hour and a half, and go home again. Without them, it would have been difficult. They smoothed the way for me, and I'm forever grateful and she's still here (working at Elsa's, whose son also works at the restaurant).
Were there still carhops there when you started?
I did have car hops for a while, and I don't know what is was, you know. Nobody showed up or one didn't show up or two or whatever it was, and I said, "We're done with carhops."
They can get out and walk up. My mother says, "You can't do that. No, you can't do that." I said, "Yeah, I'm going to do it." So we got rid of the carhops, because the girls didn't want to be carhops, and if they did, their boyfriend was there in the car and they would stand at the car and talk to their boyfriend.
You built a new stand at some point, right?
Mm-hmm. You know, at that time McDonald's came in, and they set the whole new level of what to do, right? And when they made a lot of money, made big inroads, other people were jumping on the bandwagon. There was a Robbie's, there was this, there was that. Some went for years and then faltered or whatever. But they were brighter, they had more lights, and they were year round.
So then I thought, "Well, I'm falling behind, here. I've got to build a new one, or do something else." And that went well. Everybody still helped, sister and mom and this and that.
So did your mom ever actually retire?
No. What happened was there was a man that wanted to buy Kopp's, and I don't know why I wanted to sell it or thought about selling it but I sold it to him, and I probably was a bad landlord. Not a bad landlord, but realtor. You know, "You're doing this wrong, this is not good, you're ruining the name." And this and that. So he said to me, "Karl, you're just driving me crazy." He says, "I'm having a nervous breakdown." And probably so ... he lived someplace in Illinois, so he had to drive up in the morning and drive back.
What was this guy's name?
John. I don't know if he has a last ... probably didn't have a last name. (Laughs)
He was like Madonna. Or Cher. (laughs)
Yeah, so he would drive back and forth, and then he said, "I just can't do it." He had it for about a year, maybe a little bit more, and then he says, "If I can have all my money back and then I'll get out of it." Meanwhile, I had another ... the 76th Street store, which was Happy Cappy's. Then I thought, "Oh, no. How am I going to run both of these." So there was a man that was working for me, Dick McGuire, and then I said, "Do you want to buy (60th and Appleton Avenue) or take it over or something like that?" He says, "Oh, sure." So that's how we worked out our arrangement, and that's how he got into business.
And then your mom came back to work with him.
Right. Then she says, "You know, I think I'd like to own a little bit." She probably didn't want to work for me anymore. (Laughs)
Was she working with you, or had she pretty much stopped?
Yeah, she stopped then, then she was working more, and the she said, you know ... She was working for me over at 60th, but then when Mac bought it and so on, she says, "Well, I think I'm going to invest a little money with him and go back in business."
You know, he was so good to her. And she was good to him, too, because she did anything. "Does this need cleaning?" She cleaned it. She did this or that, so she was terrific for him. And then they opened Brookfield together. He sold out then on 60th Street, and then they opened Brookfield. She says, "Well, I'm going to put a little money in there, too."
And he still owns that, right?
Yeah. Now his son's got it.
It's interesting how seamlessly it is, I think, to customers, in terms of flavors of the day and the looks of the place ... I don't think most people realize that Brookfield is not really yours.
It's by choice, you know. "Let's all run it together and let's just say, 'This is the flavor and this is how we make burgers'." You know, and he did it that way already. That's what he grew up learning (at Kopp's) how to do it, so when it was his own, he just naturally followed in that path.
What do you think has made Kopp's kind of the institution that it is here?
I think a big part of it, is how you start it out and this and that. You know, my mom had it. She'd be closed up, right? And some guy would drive in. "Oh, no, I'll put the grill on again." "Jesus, Ma, we want to go home." But, no, the guy wanted a hamburger yet, and she'd make it for him. "Take a little pint home for your wife," she'd say, or something. She was just so loving. I remember this woman, and I don't know if she ever knew it or anything, but we're Kopp, right? But the way the artists spelled it, it looked like not K-O-P-P, it looked like K-O-R-R. She said, "Hi, Mrs. Korr" for years! Nobody ever corrected her. "Hi, Mrs. Korr."
And she just took it.
Oh, she didn't care. "Oh, she can call me Korr, call me this, but just eat the custard." (laughs) So, she was really the instigator, and she didn't go to any kind of special school to learn this, it just came from the heart.
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"I had a guy who was helping me find space..." that guy was my dad Joe. He and Karl worked a lot of "deals" over the years of their friendship. In typical Karl Kopp understated and quiet demeanor, he would never toot his own horn. So I will toot it for him. Not only is Karl an amazing restaurateur and businessman, he is also the most loyal, kind and generous friends anyone could hope to make. The reason Karl has employees working for him for 40+ years is because he is a thoughtful and generous man who sees value in hard work, but also in people. I could fill a book with stories about how blessed my dad was with Karls friendship over the years, but I can sum it up in one story. My dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease in his 60's and had to retire from the commercial real estate business and that is when his mind really declined. I stopped over with my new baby in tow and I was visiting with my dad when an alarm on his watch went off and he said "oh Julia! I have to meet Karl Kopp to look at a property, can you give me a ride?" I assumed it was his Alzheimer's and thought nothing of it and said "of course daddy-o, whatever you need." He went upstairs to change his shirt and came down and handed me a piece of paper with an address on it in Milwaukee...on MLK Dr. I believe. He looked so happy and asked me "will you take me?" So I thought "why not?" And I snapped my new babies car seat into the base and helped my dad into my truck and off we went downtown. I'll be damned if Karl Kopp wasn't standing outside the front door talking to two gentlemen when we pulled up. Immediately I was filled with dread thinking "oh God, no one told Karl he has Alzheimer's, crap." So I unbuckled the car seat and went around to open the door for my dad (writing and door handles were a lost memory by this point). We walked up and I was trying to figure out how I was going to tell Karl about my dads disease. And introductions were made, I remember Karl said "This is Joe, we've been doing this together a longtime." And they walked into the building and started their tour. My dad quietly followed behind and I followed him carefully making sure that he didn't trip on anything, all while balancing the baby seat on my arm. We went over every book and cranny and wood beam of that building, and then at the end we stepped out into the daylight and Karl matter of factory said "what do you think Joe? It's nice, right?" And me dad smiled, with a sparkle in his eye and said "yes, real nice." That is when I realized that Karl knew he had Alzheimer's, but was just being an incredible person by inviting my dad along that day. I couldn't help it, I was hormonal! But the tears started and when Karl reached to shake my hand I hugged him. And I shook the other two gentlemen's hands warmly as well. As I read this article I learned two more things...one, I learned the story of the lady who owned the Italian Restaurant who was always kissing them. I imagine that the sparkle in my dads eye that fall day in front of that building on MLK was probably the same sparkle he had when he told Karl about this ladies need to kiss everyone! A On a more serious note, I learned the story of what happened to Karls dad. Hearing him talk about "how hard it must have been to have to pack up his tools and come home" after being diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease made me realize the depth of what Karl did for my dad. I'm guessing one of my brothers stopped by Elsa's and innocently mentioned that my dad was depressed in retirement and going down hill faster than we anticipated. Karl follows up by calling my dad and inviting him to tour the building with him. Including him gave my dad the dignity of still feeling like a trusted friend and acknowledged the 40+ years my dad had dedicated to his career. Not only did Karl honor my father that afternoon, but he also honored his father. Karl Kopp is a class act. The loyalty and compassion he has shown his employees and business partners, along with his delicious custard and burgers will be his legacy. While I'm sure he'd prefer to just blend in, Kopps is a standout and part of Milwaukee folklore. I've packed Kopps burgers and custard in coolers and flown them to New Orleans, Minneapolis, New York and Tampa! Tourists know about Kopps and miss these delicious treats when they leave. Karl Kopp is an institution and his work ethic is like no ones I've ever seen. And now I hope I've answered the question of why his employees bartender for him for 40 years or manage his restaurants here in Milwaukee and in Arizona so responsibly. I hope that his loyalty and compassion will become as legendary as his custard! Thank you Karl. You are a true gentleman. (reposted this comment since it was removed for some reason)
Bobby Tanzilo | Jan. 5, 2017 at 1:53 p.m. (report)
Peter Buffett, whom I interviewed in 2007 at a table in Karl Kopp's Bar 89 in Soho! The circle has closed. ;-)
Elsa's... where I met my wife, Jennifer, 25 years ago (and counting)... Thanks Karl! - Peter Buffett
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