Brewers’ return impacts local businesses

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Photo by Zach Bukowski

In-person commencement will be held at American Family Park, previously Miller Park.

As the 53rd Milwaukee Brewers’  regular season began April 1, fans also made their return to the ballpark, newly renamed American Family Field. The Brewers delivered fans in attendance an opening day comeback win, as the home team beat the visiting Minnesota Twins 6-5 in extra innings.

The season debut for the Brewers saw over 11,000 fans in attendance, getting their first glimpse of in-person baseball in 18 months. The team announced earlier this year that “as a result of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the ballpark is limited to 25% capacity for the start of the 2021 Brewers baseball season,” the Brewers’ website said.

Although the Brewers’ return offers fans an exhilarating way to watch their home team, it has also had a major effect on the local small businesses that have been hit hard during the pandemic.

The 2020 season was played during the pandemic, but no stadiums allowed fans. In that time, a lot of local restaurants and bars could not get the same draw of Brewers fans due to restrictions.

Paul Budiac, the owner of Paulie’s Pub & Eatery in West Allis, said during that time he had to change up their events because Brewers games didn’t see the same attendance at his establishment compared to a normal year.

“We had to find different ways to get people interested like bands, trivia — things like that where we had to limit the people,” Budiac said. “We had to do a cost analysis to see if it would work, and then if it didn’t work, we had to change it. I’ve been doing this for 30 years and this is the most interesting year that we’ve ever had.”

Steve Sazama, a Milwaukee native and owner of Saz’s State House Restaurant, just two miles from American Family Field, talked about how in the 46 years his business has been open, last year was a down year.

“It definitely hurt the restaurant because we were taking like 150 people that were eating here beforehand and then they would go to the game,” Sazama said. “So, it was really quite a loss for us.”

One of the major ways Brewers fans get to games is from local bars and restaurants. Many of the bars in Milwaukee offer shuttle rides to and from the game when the Brewers play at home. In a year without home games with fans, the shuttle services were shut down as well.

Drew Retherford, the shuttle manager for Milwaukee Brat House Downtown, Jack’s American Pub and Milwaukee Brat House Shorewood, said once the news broke of no fans at games the impact was immediate for him and his employees.

“It was a little scary, I’ll be honest, as the primary source of income is to be a shuttle driver and not only that but shuttle manager,” Retherford said. “I reached out, from somebody that it affected so dramatically last year, to a team of 12-14 other bus drivers whose livelihood is very much affected and say, ‘hey, we don’t have the people to take to the games, we just don’t have that this year.'”

The shuttles come from restaurants and bars all across Milwaukee and the surrounding areas to bring fans to and from the ballpark. This year, these companies will be allowed to offer the shuttle service again, but much like the rest of the game day experience, it will have limitations to protect the fans.

“Safety is going to be a new fold this year. The Milwaukee Health Department has handed down some guidelines for any buses operating to Miller Park,” Retherford said. “So, it’s new safety practices and limited capacity. It’s not like you’re used to in some of the buses in years past where it’s like a party on wheels, that’s not going to be the case this year.”

For Sazama, who is located in Milwaukee, the shuttles will be limited, just like the bars and restaurants have been during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our shuttle holds 15 people and we’re allowed to take seven,” Sazama said. “We hope that will change but that’s the restrictions for right now. We have been doing our COVID-19 plan and we’ll stick to it.”

Another change the Brewers implemented in their COVID-19 guidelines is the restriction of parking lot tailgating — “Tailgating is not permitted before or after games or events at American Family Field,” the website reads.

Sazama said the new limitations on tailgating have positive and negative impacts on local businesses.

“Well, it helps because people won’t be able to get outside so they’ll want to come which should help us quite a bit,” Sazama said. “We love people taking the shuttles but if you don’t, there’s only going to be around 10,000 people so you’ll be able to drive in and out for parking.”

Retherford said he believes with the Brewers not allowing tailgating, the local businesses will have a chance to see more fans inside their establishments.

“The camaraderie and the community that is built in the parking lot area, it’s something that’s very unique to Milwaukee,” Retherford said. “Without having tailgating as an option for fans, I expect that more of the social aspects will take place in bars and restaurants throughout the community.”

Camaraderie was one word that kept coming up when some of Milwaukee’s local business owners were talking about the fans of the Milwaukee Brewers.

“Milwaukee is a huge baseball town, everybody knows about it,” Budiac said. “It’s nice to talk to people about it. There’s this camaraderie between customers and fans and that’s what I’m looking forward to the most.”

Sazama said he is just looking forward to getting back to normal as the vaccines continue to roll out.

“(Milwaukee) is going to go crazy. (The Brewers) are going to have sellout after sellout once this gets lifted. Of course, the restaurant here will be happy to be at full capacity,” Sazama said. “We could have 240 people, so we’ll be quite happy. The Brewers are going to be pretty good this year too, I got a funny feeling.”

With the Brewers’ return, the focus for small businesses is on the fans who take part in their version of game day.

“I’m looking forward to seeing people excited about baseball. If somebody’s day can be a little brighter because of a smile when they get on a shuttle, if I’m giving them a bit of Milwaukee history or maybe cracking a joke or two; If they can experience their game day a little better because I’m part of it, that’s absolutely what I’m looking forward to on game day in Milwaukee.” Retherford said.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated opening day was April 2. The story has been updated to correctly state opening day was April 1. The Wire regrets this error. 

This story was written by Bryan Geenen. He can be reached at Bryan.geenen@marquette.edu or on Twitter @BryanGeenen.