Local restaurants around Marquette face financial restraints

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Photo by Jordan Johnson

Soblemans’ Marquette location will face difficulties the longer the pandemic continues, Dave Sobelman said.

Sobelmans and Real Chili, two campus restaurants located on Wells Street between 16th and 17th streets, continue to be under economic restraints due to the coronavirus.

The spread of COVID-19 has slowed many business and downsized business operations as fewer employees are needed to run and manage takeout or delivery-only restaurants.

Sobelmans @ Marquette is one of three Sobelmans Pub and Grill establishments in the Milwaukee area started by Dave and Melanie Sobelman in 1999.

The other two locations are in Mequon and downtown Milwaukee. There are also two franchised locations in Waukesha and Richfield.

Dave said he worries about the effects of the prolonged quarantine on business if it extends into summer, especially with the Marquette and Mequon locations.

“The Mequon and Marquette location will have real difficulties if that happens,” Dave said.

The Mequon location is the most recent establishment Dave and Melanie own and has not had enough time to sustain itself financially yet, Dave said.

Dave said even before the coronavirus pandemic started in Wisconsin — which now has 3,875 cases as of April 16 according to Wisconsin Department of Health Services — the Marquette location was struggling.

Now one of Dave’s main concerns is generating enough funds to pay all the employees and pay off food costs.

“We’re not even staying open to make money. We just want to stay open to make enough money to pay staff and food costs that we’re still ordering,” Dave said. “My wife and I are working for free right now.”

One method the Sobelmans have implemented to keep more employees working is creating more roles for their workers. Dave said their servers for sit-down customers have become food runners or takeout handlers for pick-up orders now.

Despite some servers being able to work routine hours, fewer servers and cooks are being employed, Dave said.

Down the street, Real Chili, a Milwaukee staple for late night chili, is facing its own set of worries.

Real Chili has two locations in Milwaukee, but only the Marquette location at 1625 W. Wells St. is open for pick up.

The other location, located at 419 E. Wells St., is temporarily closed so Real Chili can consolidate sales and minimize loss, Brian Van Spankeren, the manager at the Marquette location, said.

“Sales went down big time. I’d say we are at 60% of our total work rate right now,” Van Spankeren said.

There were a total of 15 employees working at both establishments. Nine worked at the downtown location, and six worked at the Marquette location. Now, only two employees can work at a time throughout the 11am-6pm work day.

“Everyone works reduced hours, and it feels very different but whoever wants to work can work a shift,” Van Spankeren said.

Van Spankeren said sales during the day have been pretty normal, but the biggest loss comes from the lack of nighttime and weekend sales.

Van Spankeren said they are still looking for ways to adapt to make up for lost revenue and fewer staff.

“Maybe we look into delivery, which we were initially against, or maybe we extend hours until 10 at night,” Van Spankeren said.

Both Van Spankeren and Sobelman said their businesses are expecting federal government aid to come in the following weeks.

According to an April 10 Forbes article, the U.S Small Business Administration Economic Disaster Relief Loan is designed to provide working capital loans up to $12 million. The Payment Protection Program will defer standing payments for up to four years and provide up to $2 million for business that maintain workers salaries for eight weeks.

Real Chili and Sobelmans qualify for the awaited SBA financial relief packages, as a small business is defined as a company with fewer than 500 employees.

This story was written by JK Rees. He can be reached at james.rees@marquette.edu.