On Nov. 3, the day after Republican Scott Walker was elected governor, local restaurateur Chris Berge tore up an unsigned, 10-year lease for a restaurant he felt would no longer be financially viable to open.
For a guy who seems to have the magic touch when it comes to the restaurant business — he co-founded the Blue Marlin and Barriques; co-owns the Weary Traveler and Natt Spil; and co-owned Restaurant Magnus until Jan. 1 — Berge says he saw the writing on the wall.
Berge had based 20 percent of the business plan for Restaurant Magnus’ replacement, Velo Bahn, on the building’s East Wilson Street proximity to the planned downtown rail station.
Since Walker’s first order of business was to halt construction of high-speed rail from Milwaukee to Madison, Berge knew East Wilson Street was no longer the right spot to open a bike-friendly restaurant that relied on train traffic for a fifth of its business.
Last week, The Capital Times caught up with Berge, 46, at the Weary Traveler — one of his favorite spots for conversation — to talk business and, of course, politics.
Cap Times: You’ve been a presence on the Madison restaurant scene since 1989. Give me a few words to describe the establishments you’ve been connected with, starting with Barriques (now owned by a brother and brother-in-law).
Chris Berge: Coffee, wine and light food in a hip, eccentric interior.
CT: Natt Spil.
CB: The closest thing to an underground bar that Madison has ever had.
CT: How about the Blue Marlin?
CB: The first place to truly crack into the fresh seafood market. It’s fresh seafood done in an elegant 1850s building.
CT: The Weary Traveler.
CB: It has the homeyness of an Irish pub with international pub food.
CT: What would the Velo Bahn have been?
CB: A lifestyle restaurant built around cycling. The Velo Bahn will ultimately be built on a bike path in a remote part of the city.
CT: So you still plan on opening the restaurant?
CB: Oh, I’ll do it, just not downtown.
CT: Restaurant Magnus opened in 1998. New Year’s Eve was its last night in business. Describe that night.
CB: The last night was the most spectacular night of my restaurant career. It was certainly the most lucrative. We had close to 600 people come through the door.
A busy Saturday night usually means seating 150 people. We sat four full dinners, or around 300 people. We had about 300 more people who came through to the bar. We made $22,000 and tipped out $4,000.
CT: So no sadness?
CB: No. It was awesome. We had Mama Digdown’s Brass Band show up at 3 in the morning and play until 5. We definitely didn’t fade away.
CT: Let’s switch gears. The train, had it gone ahead, would have been in Madison by 2013, its station a few blocks from Velo Bahn. You didn’t waste any time pulling out of the downtown site. Why?
CB: Because the very first thing on the agenda of the Scott Walker administration was to kill the train. I knew they would be willing to sell out the state and sell out (voters) all for the political gain of clipping union jobs and for killing off an initiative that would have made the Obama administration look good in the long run. They did it to be punitive against Madison. Because of that, I am a small business guy that killed a great idea.
CT: What should Madison do?
CB: This is a time to be proud of Madison and to fight for it like a city-state.
CT: What about Walker’s claim that Wisconsin isn’t business-friendly?
CB: I don’t see it. My businesses and much of the business in Madison are based on good-paying, highly professional jobs. He’s coming from Milwaukee County, and the type of business people he is surrounding himself with are looking to find all the lowest common denominators. They want to keep the minimum wage low, keep benefits low and keep regulation off of businesses. It’s a race to the bottom.
CT: Have you had problems operating because of government regulations?
CB: Give me a break. I operate in one of the most regulated industries out there. My industry and the hospitality industry thrive when we have a healthy environment for people to live in and when we have a healthy middle class. Then people eat out. A healthy middle class is way more helpful to me than a tax cut.
CT: You haven’t found the business climate difficult?
CB: No. Because I actually cater to people that read and who are looking for an interesting, unique place to go out in Madison. That may sound condescending to the rest of the non-reading public that may get all of its information from Fox News, but it’s true.
CT: Do you vote?
CB: Yes. I’ve missed two or three primaries, but I’ve voted in every presidential election back to the 1980s.
CT: Who was your vote for governor?
CB: Tom Barrett. I thought he was lackluster as a candidate, but he was on the right side of the train.