MILWAUKEE — When Dave and Melanie Sobelman bought a corner tavern in an industrial neighborhood of the Menomonee River Valley in 1999, there were no tables, a Bloody Mary was unassuming and the upstairs was a flophouse.
The former dive bar, however, has been transformed over the past 16 years. Now, the Sobelmans believe it is time for the rest of Wisconsin, the Midwest and beyond to have their own Sobelman’s Pub & Grill. The business is known for its award-winning hamburgers, cheese curds and its outrageous Bloody Mary concoctions that have grabbed national headlines for toppings that can include shrimp, grilled steak, cheeseburger sliders or even a whole fried chicken.
The Sobelmans are franchising their business model. While it’s unlikely to surpass that of Prairie du Sac-based Culver’s that has more than 500 restaurants in 22 states, the couple have their eyes on expanding their brand to Madison, Green Bay, Appleton, Kenosha and other communities with populations greater than 30,000 people. They’re also talking to potential franchisees in Chicago and Rockford, Illinois, and St. Louis.
“You just want to be the best at what you do,” said Dave Sobelman, 48, when asked about why he wants to franchise his business model. “A basketball player wants to score more points. A baseball player wants to hit more home runs. I want to open up more restaurants and be more successful.”
The investment to open a Sobelman’s ranges from $447,000 to $1.9 million. That includes a $45,000 franchise fee and a training fee of $10,000. The agreement also calls for an ongoing 5 percent royalty fee.
One reason for the dramatic range of investment is the type of building the Sobelmans require. They don’t want newly built buildings or remodeled space in a strip mall or a former fast food restaurant. Instead, the Sobelmans like locations in historic buildings that offer character and a sense of place.
The Sobelmans founded their business in a building that dates to 1889, five years before the cornerstone of Milwaukee’s City Hall was laid. In 2011, they opened a bar and grill in leased space on the Marquette University campus but in August opened their third location, this time in an 1892 building in the suburb of Mequon, just north of Milwaukee.
Because of those requirements, most Sobelman’s will likely be in downtowns or in rural but historic structures. Sobelman’s also has licensed its name and concept to a concession stand that opened in October for Bucks and Marquette Golden Eagles games at the BMO Harris Bradley Center.
“It’s consistency, really. Doing the same thing every day and doing it well,” Melanie Sobelman, 42, said when asked about the reason for the company’s success. “You have to be proactive, not reactive. When our customers come here, they’re going to get the best experience they can.”
The Sobelmans like quality and local ingredients. They use Milwaukee-based Jimmy Luv’s Bloody Mary Mix and spend 44 cents for each hamburger bun from Breadsmith, a Whitefish Bay baking company. The tap lines are full of Wisconsin beer.
Owning a restaurant, however, can be a challenging proposition. Issues can include pricey lease agreements, remodeling and on-going maintenance costs; the hiring and retention of employees, food waste, affordable price points and a glut of competition.
Madison-based Nitty Gritty has expanded to Sun Prairie and Middleton while Milwaukee-based AJ bombers has a location at 201 W. Gorham St. in Madison and another open on game days at Miller Park. Monk’s started in downtown Wisconsin Dells in 1947 but now has its sports-themed bars in Lake Delton, Baraboo and Middleton. In 2013, Monk’s began franchising with its first franchise opening in December 2014 in the Shoppes at Prairie Lakes near Cabela’s, Costco and a Woodman’s Market in Sun Prairie.
Mark Siebert, CEO of iFranchise and a speaker for the National Restaurant Association, said those looking to franchise a concept need to start with a successful operating prototype, offer something that draws customers to the brand and differentiates itself from marketplace competitors. It also needs to be easily replicated.
“The more teachable your restaurant is, the more likely it will translate well in a franchise format,” Siebert said in a post on the NRA website.
Dave and Melanie Sobelman have been married for 23 years and met when she was working as a waitress at Michael’s Family Restaurant at 22nd Street and Wisconsin Avenue and he was running his own carpet cleaning business. When the owners of Michael’s offered to sell a bar they owned to the Sobelmans, they jumped at the chance.
At first, Sobelman’s was a typical corner bar with the main food crowd coming in for lunch. Tables were first added to the bar area and then, in 2002, a dining room was added to the east side of the building. The bar also happened to be next to Bay View Packing Co. that was formed in 1923 and is known throughout the country for its pickled products like eggs, Polish sausages, pork hocks and herring.
A few months after buying the bar, Dave Sobelman started using some of Bay View’s products to jazz up his Bloody Marys. The pickled additions included mushrooms, Brussels sprouts and asparagus. The hamburger sliders were added to the drinks in 2012 as a joke but caught on. In 2014, a whole fried chicken was added and is part of an 80-ounce Bloody Mary with a $45 price tag.
The concept will likely translate well to the rest of the Midwest, said Reinhard Liebner, owner of Bay View Packaging.
“I wouldn’t sell him short,” Liebner said of Dave Sobelman. “He’s a tireless worker and a great marketer and promoter so I don’t see any reason why it won’t work for him.”
Dave Sobelman could have easily wound up living in the former flop house above his bar. Instead he owns one of the most talked-about burger joints in Milwaukee.
Sobelman lived in a group home for boys in his junior year and part of his senior year at Milwaukee Washington High School. He worked at a restaurant and got his own apartment in the spring of his senior year and needed summer school to graduate. Instead of college, he worked at a moving company and sold used cars before opening his carpet cleaning business. He hit it big with the bar and grill.
In 2014, his location just off Interstate 94 at 1900 W. St. Paul Avenue did $2.5 million in business, $500,000 of that in Bloody Mary sales. It’s not uncommon for the bar to sell more than 300 Bloody Marys on a Saturday with 25 to 30 each week during the summer topped with a fried chicken.
“I think I have a fun concept, and it’s pretty simple,” Sobelman said. “I just make what the people ask for: cheeseburgers, cheese balls and Bloody Marys.”