Owner Bob Weiss - An Interview in NOLA
A few months back, I had the opportunity to interview the boss-man himself. In my 4+ years of working at Shakers, I've had plenty of chances to hear the inner-workings of this man's brain in reference to his business. But despite all of the ramblings, sometimes cocktail-induced, that have transpired between us over the years, in conducting this interview I was able to gain some real, down-to-business insight on the history of Shaker's and its founder, and even hear some stories that I, myself, had never heard before.
Marley Decker: "What was your relationship like with the paranormal prior to owning Shakers? What were your beliefs?"
Bob Weiss: "My first opportunity to experience the paranormal was when I was four years old. My maternal grandfather had just died. We had been shoveling snow the day before. It was very heavy, thick snow, and he succumbed. Fell over. First, my mother and then, of course, the paramedics finally showed up. By the time they got there, he was already blue in the face. So that night – we had lived in a duplex above my grandparents – I had gotten up to pee. My bedroom was right off of the kitchen, and there at the kitchen table was my grandfather. I wasn’t really him, but it was a silhouette of him. This neon green. I just kind of watched for a while, and then he kind of noticed me and waved me over. I came and I stood next to him for a while, and then I felt okay about his passing. Then he kind of waved me on, and I went to pee and said goodnight, and that was that. So, the next morning my mother is trying to get me dressed because her father has died and there are a ton of people that are downstairs. I’m four, and I’m trying to tell the story about what I saw the night before. Finally, I was able to get this out and she grabs me – I’m still not dressed – and runs me downstairs to the front door where the priest was and everybody else. I told that story about a dozen times that day. So that was my first experience with the paranormal. The second part of that – about my beliefs – I’ve always thought that essence precedes existence and therefore, at least in my mind, that essence succeeds existence. It’s basic metaphysics, but when you are done with the shell that you occupy right now, you will continue forth as that energy. It might not be 'Marley Decker,' but the energy is going to continue on. I think that is true for all beings, actually. Right? Because energy doesn’t just dissipate. And that little spark, that little 'something' – call it sea dust if you want to or cosmic dust if you want to – whatever that is, that little je ne sais quoi continues on."
MD: "You’ve never told me that story before – that first story you told. You obviously have a very strong past with this, as Shakers does with the paranormal and so beyond that, too. Do you find any difficulties in running a historically-branded business within this modern culture and ever-changing trends? Do you have any issues upholding the history of Shakers through changing times?"
BW: "That’s a really good question, because we build this now as a cultural museum. I did that because I think, in many ways, we are more than just a venue. We’re certainly more than just a restaurant or a bar or even just a tour company. We are so enmeshed with the past and the historical significance of what took place in Milwaukee. Certainly, from a paranormal perspective as well, we have something going on that defies normal explanation and logic. And because of that, there is a bit of a disconnect, sometimes, with people. We have people that just come because we’re the only licensed cigar bar in the city of Milwaukee and they come to smoke a cigar or to have a bourbon or a scotch. We have people who come just for this extraordinary food that we have. We have these people – primarily young women – that come for the Ghost Tours or the True Crime – the serial killer – tour. So there are things that ought not work together. Generally, you don’t think about food and cigars, or young woman and cigars. You don’t think about all these different things working together, but they do there. So, there are challenges on a daily basis, but certainly the least of these is probably how we market this. They all have a different spin. They all have a different call-to-action. I mean, there are significant challenges to everything, but that’s also part of the ride. It’s part of what’s so interesting. There’s no stale day at all, because there’s so many different components that take place that it is constantly interesting, no matter the cultural changes that occur around it."
MD: "You brought up young women and cigars. Cigars have always kind of been thought as a male-dominated hobby. How much have you seen that change over the years?"
BW: "Oh yeah, I mean, I’m a dinosaur. We’ve been there for 35 years. There has been a constant change in the drinking, eating and smoking habits of everybody. Obviously, cigarettes are pretty much revoked now, right? And this little vaping thing is just a passing fad and that, too, will disappear. Cigars and pipe smoking are things that have been around hundreds – neigh, perhaps even a longer number – of years. From my perspective, there is a real, gastronomic association between cuisine and cigars. With the amount of time I spent in Europe, I’ve found that it is customary there. Especially in Central and South America, it’s customary to have a cigar after a fine meal. As we’ve seen more woman get away from the fruity cocktails and get into legit bourbons and scotches in the past 30 years, they have also gotten into cigars. You know, they’re around their boyfriends, husbands, work associates, paramours, whatever – and these guys are successful and they can afford to be in Shaker’s and are spending money – women, by association, have broken through that glass ceiling and they want to make it apparent that they are every bit as viable as everybody else in the room. They’re smoking cigars as well. That’s starting younger and younger. It’s not just the babe who’s gotten herself through law school and she’s in her late-20s early-30s. Now it’s women who’ve gotten their bachelor’s, they’re out there, she’s an RN, whatever they might be. And again, things that you may think are contrary to cigars are every bit as involved as they can be."
MD: "Do you have a favorite cigar pairing right now?"
BW: "I honestly wish I had a cigar right now. Unfortunately, here at this lovely hotel we don’t have that opportunity. I really like the Romeo y Julietta Churchills – the Cubans – and I like those with the Cuban rum, like Habana Club. The seven-year-old vintage is exquisite. They marry so nicely together. The depth of flavors carries through in each one. You get pepper-y components. That is a delightful combination. If not that, you can find any number of exquisite Arturo Fuente cigars, like the Don Carlos series that they have, and pair that up with a scotch or a bourbon. That’s dynamite as well."
MD: "A lot of famous faces find their way into Shaker’s. Do you have a favorite famous appearance?"
BW: "[Laughs} The cat that I liked the most that we catered a gig for was Regis Philbin. Once upon a time, there was the Kathy and Regis program, and Regis was a performer 50 years before that. He was wildly popular for several years with what would now be your generation. We cleared a gate for him at The Riverside and then back to Shaker’s after. He was incredibly gracious and humble, and there are a bunch of celebrities who I won’t name who are not that. You could not find a more genuine person than Regis was. One of the wacky things that he did when he had his performance at the Riverside was, he got up and he challenged a marine in the front row to a push-up contest. So, it started with two-handed push-ups. Regis, who, at the time was 65-70 years old, started doing one-handed push-ups and out-did the marine. And I thought, this is something rather unique all by itself. Because t’s not just this guy who’s been around forever in the business, but he’s still playful and having a good time with this. And he conveyed that along the process. I mean, there are so many performers that we’ve had, whether it’s music or the big screen or anything else – certainly stage. I like the ones that are really genuine and unique and approachable that you can actually have a conversation with. Not everyone’s like that. Especially, by the way, the professional sports people. Some of those guys are incredible primadonnas. But, people are people. Some you like and some you don’t."
MD: "Shakers is a place that has a lot of dark secrets – probably more than you’ve already uncovered even though you’ve unearthed so much. Do you think there’s any secrets there that you’d be better off not knowing?"
BW: "Yeah. I think the big one there, for instance, would be the safe in the cellar. The safe predates me, and we have psychics that perform every weekend. Many different psychics by-and-large say no matter what we do, don’t open the safe. The other side is that they say that there’s something of great value inside of the safe, but do not open the safe. We had a guy who was with the largest safe firm in Wisconsin come by every Thursday for 50 weeks and attempt to open that safe. At the end, he said it can’t be opened. We’ve had federal agents, the FBI, that open safes and they couldn’t open it. Now, certainly we could drill that, we could blow it, we could do all sorts of things to it, but I’m not going to do that. Aside from the psychics, something says to me don’t open the safe. That’s one thing that I think we shouldn’t go any further with."
MD: "What is the most difficult part about being small business owner?"
BW: "There are myriad challenges. We have 37 or 38 people on staff. We have an incredible team. Now, that being said, everyone has good days and bad days. Because Shakers is as busy as it is and people being people, even with a very intelligent and articulate staff like ours, it can be a little bit much there. And we’re not just operating on one floor anymore. The main bar and restaurant are on one floor, we have tours on all four floors, for over half of the year we have our second-floor rooftop bar and restaurant open as well, and last year we opened up the fourth floor. We have a lot of different dynamics taking place inside the operation. Same thing with the ghost tours. We have days in October where we can process 250 people a day. That is above and beyond the bar business and the restaurant business. We have tour sizes of generally 15 people per tour, so this is a non-stop production taking place. There are so many parts, which is kind of what I’m getting at here. We’re juggling a lot of different things every day. Even though it’s a well-established system and it works and we’ve got really good people, there’s a lot that could go wrong. We basically don’t have those issues, but sometimes it’s like you’re walking on a tightrope. Then, this pandemic was brutal. We’re basically that small percentage of small businesses that has been able to weather the storm of the pandemic, keep everybody employed, and keep the ship moving forward. Again, I owe that to my people. They’re phenomenal staff. You think about the issues today, though, on a political basis and think about the way that our country is going through social upheavals right now that really are contrary to anyone succeeding in anything. And working with the changing revolution of what people’s tastes are is a challenge as well. Also getting staff right now in this post-pandemic period is very difficult. Front of the house is fine. Back of the house has been a little bit quirky for us. It’s just that there are no guarantees – in life or in anything, really. Certainly not in business. Certainly not in small business. But, we have been able to find our niche and keep moving ahead."
MD: "How different is Shakers – what it came to be and what it is today – from your original vision of what you wanted it to be?"
BW: "Well for years before then, I had owned a joint that had the largest selection of imported beers in the Midwest – if not the country. I didn’t want it to be that. Because I did that. I always had a thing for wine and for single malt scotches, and so that is the direction I wanted to take. I spent a couple of years in the Caribbean, so I really was smitten with the food stuffs. And rum. My intent was really to shake up the local food and beverage scene. We certainly did this with a product that literally everybody in the industry said was going to fail because we were a real high-end, high-volume bar that had an upscale bar menu, and then we had this really phenomenal food menu cooked right in the front. When I started in ’86 doing this open-kitchen concept, nobody was doing an open-kitchen concept. It just didn’t happen. We were on complete display in the kitchen, but I originally wanted to get people to cook that creole/Caribbean food stuff that I had experienced and I couldn’t find people in Milwaukee to do that thing. I know you’re shocked at that, right? So, there was no island-cuisine or cookery taking place until me. Since I couldn’t find a cooking team with experience in that, it became me doing these things and, though I had cooked before, it wasn’t what I wanted to do with this. But it just overtook me. We were discovered by Marshall Field’s in 1989. They’re based in Chicago and they came up to Milwaukee. They stayed at the Pfister Hotel and the Pfister sent them to me for dinner on a Friday night. After dinner, they asked the server to have me come and talk to them. At that time, they had asked if I could manufacture a line of food products that they could carry. Honestly, that was not remotely in my mindset. Within three months, I'd had a facility that’s set up, and we’re doing production runs of sauces and other things. We even got into baby food at one point. We got into oils and vinaigrettes and chips and ice creams and all sorts of things. From Marshall Field’s we went to Washington State and then back to Macy’s in New York. Lots of high-end retail, and at the same time we’re in high-end grocery stores throughout the country. Then Rykoff-Sexton picked us up for national distribution for country clubs, restaurants and hotels. That was swimming, and I kept expanding the product line and then we went international. All of UK, France, Germany and the Netherlands. The DATCP had also gotten us into Japan and Korea. Then my life changed as my wife filed for divorce because I was never home. [Laughs] And there you go!"
MD: "So, obviously there are a lot of different cultural influences in all of the different facets of Shakers. Is there anywhere that you haven’t really explored or implemented into any of your projects yet that you would like to?"
BW: "I'm not sure if it’s necessarily a matter that I haven’t. The primary menu is creole, Caribbean and Cajun, but I go off on wild tangents sometimes. You know, we have these monthly theme dinners and we focus on things and specific food items that could be from a certain area. South America, throughout Europe, Africa, India, we’ve done Persian royal meals – we’ve done virtually everything there is to do, but I’m not stopping with that. We’re continuing forward. Being here (in NOLA), one of the things I like about New Orleans is this incredible mix of culture and people and things. Think about Milwaukee – and I love Milwaukee – it is, in some ways, the basis of mediocrity. It’s white-bread mediocrity. I can come to places like this, like New Orleans, and experience a variety of different cultures that influence the food and the drinks and the music and everything else. This city is alive and vibrant. There is so much here that you can’t find in other places. It’s basically very positive to me, and it’s basically what I come down here for. I really have an affinity for Central and South America. We had a spin about a month ago where we had a spin and spent 8 days in Mexico, from Mexico City to Oaxaca, the Yucatan, and a moment in Cancun. I just think that, overall, people should get out into the world and see things. If you can’t – in the meantime, come to Shakers and we can kind of expose you to part of that."
An interview with Bob Weiss at Hotel Monteleone, given by Marley Decker February 3rd, 2022.