A long production line, an expansive oyster and seafood bar and extraordinary views of Milwaukee museums and Lake Michigan set this upscale seafood restaurant apart from Bartolotta Management Group's other restaurants in this classic Midwestern city.
The adage that location, location, location is the key to success is certainly apropos to Harbor House. located on the shores of Lake Michigan, the restaurant sits on a filled-in lakebed situated between two of Milwaukee's most popular and world-renowned structures — Discovery World at Pier Wisconsin and the Milwaukee Art Museum's Calatrava Wing.
Harbor House's location is one of the restaurant's most appealing attributes and one of its riskiest. "The restaurant is on a lease from the city of Milwaukee that expires in 2018," says John Wise, COO. "We hope that the public will embrace the new restaurant and the city will believe we are important enough to Milwaukee to permit us to continue after 2018 with a new lease."
The lease rights were purchased for $1 million from Specialty Restaurants in July 2009 by Michael Cudahy, a Milwaukee businessman and philanthropist. Cudahy partnered with Bartolotta Management Group, which owns and/or operates 12 other venues in Milwaukee, now with five near the lake, to remake the restaurant.
Nearly $3 million was invested in a renovation of the former Polynesian-themed restaurant, known as Pieces of Eight. "The building was gutted, the roof raised and a sophisticated Nantucket-style restaurant unlike anything that existed in Milwaukee was created," Wise says. "We didn't want it to be too casual because our clientele said they could get lots of casual dining experiences in the area and that wouldn't match the décor and our other restaurants' image. However, we wanted customers to feel comfortable dressed casually or more formally for a special occasion." Wise's relationship with Joe Bartolotta, one of the owners of Bartolotta Management Group, dates back nearly 27 years when Wise hired Bartolotta to work for the Playboy Club in New York just a year before it closed. After returning to work for Lettuce Entertain You in Chicago, where he was previously employed for 13 years, Wise joined Bartolotta's group in 1996.
The beginning days at Harbor House were scary, Wise recalls. "We like to do soft openings, but we didn't have that opportunity once word was out we were open. We interviewed 1,000 people and hired 150. Most of the servers hadn't worked in a restaurant so we trained them. We were taking reservations to fill half the seats, but every day 100 people would walk in and fill up the bar. We didn't have the patio area open yet." This year, an 80-seat outdoor patio area opened. On a busy night, the restaurant attracts about 550 guests. Harbor House is the busiest fine dining restaurant in Wisconsin, Wise says.
The main challenge for the restaurant design was the long, narrow shape, Wise explains. Windows run along three of four sides. One side looks out onto the water. "We were committed to gutting the space," Wise says. "We stripped it down until only about one-third of the roof and 10 percent of the walls remained."
When guests enter the Nantucket-style building, they see a striking interior design with white marble tile surrounding the bar, white subway tiles in the production areas, windows outlined in dark wood molding, suspended light fixtures and an expansive raw oyster and seafood bar. "The traditional nautical roots are evidenced in the interior architecture, moldings, doors, windows, beams, lighting and finishes that all reference a classic American fish house," says Mark Knauer, principal, Knauer Inc., which provided the interior design. Seating contains built-in booths and free-standing tables. "There are more modern elements creating a feeling of evolution or lifespan to the restaurant, bar, service area, kitchen, wine display and raw bar. The layout takes advantage of downtown Milwaukee and the museums, so we drew a plan with only three rows of tables. The farthest seats from the windows — "U" booths — are elevated so customers can see over the heads of others." Adding as many window seats as possible was desirable, Knauer adds, and was accomplished by elongating the dining room and moving what became an exhibition kitchen into the back of the space away from the water.
Walking past the large rectangular bar, guests see two oversized beer dispensing towers and drainers. "The beer towers are as unique as some of the beer selections offered," says Megan Scott, project manager for The Boelter Companies.
The bar consists of three drink mixing stations, including a dual-purpose station with a pass-through ice bin. The design of the bar's pass-through station, which serves as a drink pickup area, allows for more efficient use of labor because during busy periods bartenders can focus on making drinks and pouring beer, while the waitstaff can fill their own glasses of soda.
"Within the bar, we included as much refrigeration storage as possible because the walk-ins and back kitchen are located farthest away from the bar," Scott says.
Next to the bar, opposite the pass-through ice bin, a wine and service station contains eight additional doors of underbar refrigeration. The service station itself contains the POS stations along with glass and utensil storage. "All this is designed to keep the space open and allow patrons to feel a part of the experience," Scott says. Together, the bar and service stations occupy 600 sq. ft.
"The challenges for the bar layout were dealing with two columns located at the center of each end of the bar as well as the underground beer chase," Scott says. The beer chase run is more than 142 ft. and branches off at the service bar located at the opposite end of the chef's line.
In the dining room, the exposed kitchen adds a "wow" factor to the space. The 38-ft.-long chef's line combines with the 12-ft.-long oyster bar to create a culinary space that has only one entrance.
Bartolotta was very involved in the kitchen design. "Joe's not a chef [his brother Paul is highly acclaimed], but he loves opening and designing restaurants," Wise says. "He always starts in the kitchen because he believes if it is too small, you can't power the body of the restaurant."
"Joe comes into our offices and works with a CAD designer and me to do the layout," Scott says. "We finish it off and add all the details. This process works very well and Joe gets exactly what he wants."
The front-of-house operations receive support from the back kitchen. "Due to the limited space within the back kitchen and the need for cooler space for fish, the walk-ins were installed outdoors with a portion of the kitchen wall opened up for the walk-in door," Scott says. "All compressors for the walk-ins and ice makers were installed on a pad beside the walk-ins to allow for ease of maintenance and serviceability." The walk-ins occupy 459 sq. ft., while the kitchen occupies 1,154 sq. ft.
"The set up is great for the staff member checking in food and supplies because he can receive and check-in everything in a temperature-controlled environment that is out of the way from production," says Zachary Espinosa, Harbor House's executive chef. Espinosa has been working in kitchens for more than 18 years and joined the Bartolotta group in 2003.
As the Harbor House name might imply, fresh fish represents the menu item customers consume in the largest quantities. In fact, shrimp and crab legs represent the only frozen products in the restaurant. The restaurant staff store the fresh fish in a separate cooler.
"This saves us the headache of worrying about raw products and contamination with vegetables," Espinosa says. "When we bring fish out of the coolers, a chef supervises other staff members as they break down these proteins. We keep very tight controls over the handling of the fish. Higher cost items are handled by more experienced and more highly trained staff. All raw products are converted into mise en place, which goes either to the back or front production areas."
The back-of-house prep area also includes blenders for making avocado and root vegetable purees, and a meat slicer to cut pork loin and turkey breasts cooked in the kitchen's double-stacked convection ovens. These ovens are part of the small cook line, positioned under an exhaust hood. Adjacent to this area is a four-compartment sink. Staff use this area to provide support for the front of house and for private parties. "We can run a small restaurant back here," Espinosa says. "It's very convenient and helps us save labor."
In addition to the ovens, the line includes a six-burner range for making sauces and soups and a tilting braising pan for cooking bisques and chowders. On busy nights, staff also use the braiser to wilt spinach or sear pork loins and short ribs. "We can get very creative with space and fill the braiser with ice and water to chill soups if needed," Espinosa says.
A nearby pastry station contains an ice cream maker and candy stove. The station produces the restaurant's popular desserts such as key lime pies, carrot cake, panna cotta, crème caramel, and strawberry rhubarb and other fruit cobblers. Staff use a conventional oven positioned beneath the range to bake the desserts.
All stainless steel work tables were put on casters to make the space flexible and functional. In order to maximize storage within the back kitchen, all available vertical wall space contains free-standing shelving, wall shelves or wall track with wire grids.
Across an aisle from the production cooking station is the dishwashing area. "The dishwashing area was strategically placed so soiled dishes could be dropped immediately as one walks into the back kitchen," Scott says. "We were able to use existing equipment, which dictated the set-up in this area.
The space works well now, though we would have liked to have added an employee restroom and a little more dry storage."
In the front of the house, the oyster and seafood bar is what Espinosa calls the "crown jewel" of the line. "It is glorious with a full display of oysters, clams, shrimp and whole fish," he says. "This display of fresh products on ice and in the two-door refrigerator behind immediately tells our guests that we're proud of what we serve and are not the average seafood restaurant, but rather, we're one of the best." Hundreds of pounds of ice keep fish and seafood chilled at this station. Several times a day, staff fill bins with flaked ice produced by the machine in the main kitchen. The bins sit on carts that are wheeled to the oyster bar. "The location of the ice bin is a bit inefficient but we make due," Espinosa says. "Sometimes, though infrequently, we'll store ice in our freezer on line if we know we have an incoming rush."
"This area works efficiently as a separate station," Scott says. Guests can view the seafood that is displayed on sloped beds of ice while they dine at a sit-down counter. "Since the raw bar station is located at the end of the chef's line, without its own entrance, it needs to be as self-sufficient as possible to prevent unnecessary cross-traffic." Therefore, the station contains a prep and hand sink, work counters, refrigerators and storage.
"The full sink and prep table are necessary so we can meet sanitation standards when handling raw products," Espinosa adds.
Adjacent to the raw fish area is the garde manger station where staff make salads and desserts. A refrigerated salad hopper is affixed to the wall giving staff easy access to romaine lettuce for Caesar salads. The end of the station contains a single-door freezer for ice creams, sorbets and ice. Nearby fryers cook breaded perch and chicken tenders for kids.
Next to the garde manger station, the chef's cook line divides into two stations to accommodate Bartolotta's expansive menu. A hot apps station shares two prep tables with other stations. "We have a total of 60 inches of work surface at the garde manger station," Espinosa says. The hot apps station, which has another 48 inches of work surface, shares two six-burner ranges and a salamander with the pasta/sauté station.
A double-deck steamer sits at the end of the line and cooks lobsters, crab legs and salmon. "It's one of the workhorses in the restaurant," Espinosa says. "When we're challenged with special dietary requests, we can steam menu items and provide customers with healthy products. A lot of restaurant staffs don't know how to use steamers properly, but if they do they are extremely useful."
The other part of the cook line contains a charbroiler where staff cook meats, chicken, prawns and swordfish. A double deck convection oven finishes meats and assists with extra prep as needed. Culinary staff sauté fish on the shared six-burner ranges and use a salamander to finish bacon on a white fish menu item and melt cheese on burgers. The station shares a 72-inch prep table with refrigerated drawers.
"Due to the walk-ins being in the back kitchen, far from the main line, we maximized the refrigeration storage," Scott says. Overall, the line has 22 refrigerated drawers that can hold two 12" x 20" pans per drawer.
Sinks along the line provide staff with easy access and prevent them from crossing paths with employees from other areas.
The chef's line contains a double overshelf with heat lamps 24 inches in depth—very long and very heavy. "We did a cantilever design that helps minimize (though not eliminate altogether) the support legs for such a massive structure," Scott says. "This type of design allows the chef's line's refrigeration equipment to be put on casters for ease of servicing and change-out in the future without any remodeling required."
The overshelf, along with the sinks, are the only permanent pieces of equipment on the line. "The main supports and/or uprights for the double overshelf go down through the backside of the stainless steel waitstaff pick-up counter," Scott says. "The waitstaff pick-up counter is located on the back side of the chef's line and is the major structural support component for the double overshelf cantilever design. The stainless steel cabinet base provides storage for plates and other miscellaneous items."
This type of design allowed the placing of casters on the chef's lines' refrigeration equipment so it is mobile and therefore easy to clean, service and, if necessary, replace in the future without having to do any major re-designing or remodeling of the line. "We would have liked to have had landing areas on the line, but it would have made the line too long. So we incorporated the oversized sinks into the small stainless steel table that allows for a small landing," Scott says.
"We initially made a mistake with heat lamps," Wise says. "Joe bought beautiful, decorative lamps but they didn't generate enough heat. Within a few weeks, we had to rebuild shelving units with stronger heat lamps and the decorative ones to fit over them."
The oyster bar and chef's line occupy approximately 850 sq. ft., including the 5-ft. aisle for the expo line and pick-up. Despite the fact that two wall sections of booths partially conceal it, the expo line is open enough that the customers can see the action and feel they are a part of the cooking experience.
"The long line is challenging but has assets," Espinosa says. "It's one straight line, which is challenging for the expediter because there are about 30 ft. from the salads to the fish stations. But we can accomplish amazing things. I can put 15 cooks there in busy periods and pump out high-end meals for 550 guests.
"How the equipment is placed and the flow is planned is crucial to efficiency," Espinosa continues. "One or two minutes can mean the difference between a happy or unhappy guest." Communication among the chefs is also a key to success or failure.
At the end of the chef's line is the service station consisting of two island tables with a separate service bar occupying 474 sq. ft. The service bar helps take off some of the pressure from the main bar during busy hours. Due to the dining room being a long rectangular space, having a service bar provides better efficiency for getting drinks to the waiting customers.
Throughout the restaurant, when available, kitchen designers selected energy saving equipment, such as refrigerators, fryers and open-burner ranges. Placing the refrigeration on remote on a concrete pad allows staff easy access and noise reduction. "We're also working to bring in the more sustainable species of seafood," Wise says. "For example, our oysters, clams and salmon are farm-raised."
With six and a half years available on the lease, Harbor House's owners and staff continue to do everything they can to build a stellar reputation and become a "must-have" restaurant in Milwaukee. So far, they are making impressive strides toward that end.
Opened in July 2010, Harbor House occupies 8,800 sq. ft., including 848 sq. ft. for the oyster bar and chef's line; 474 sq. ft. for the end-of-the-chef's-line service station with two island tables and a separate service bar; 599 sq. ft. for the bar; 1,154 sq. ft. for the BOH kitchen; and 459 sq. ft. for walk-ins. The restaurant contains 180 seats in the dining room, 80 seats at the bar and 80 outside seats. Traffic averages from 325 to 550 people per day, and can go higher in the summer months. The restaurant's average check is $60. Total annual sales are $6 million. The restaurant operates Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m. – 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. – 10 p.m.; Sunday brunch, 10 a.m. – 2 p.m.; and Sunday dinner, 5 p.m. – 9 p.m. Staffing consists of 180 individuals (35 on an average lunch shift). The total restaurant design investment was nearly $3 million. The equipment investment was $600,000.