Hotel Foster’s Classic Cocktails
In two years, the bar has developed a reputation for its eclectic atmosphere and hand-crafted cocktails.
Starting with a gutted-out building and just a shoestring budget, three guys teamed up to create The Hotel Foster, a bar and coffeehouse, located at 2028 E. North Avenue, in April 2011.
The trio included co-owners Doug Williams, John Revord, and Michael Kempka, who would later drop out of the partnership. After leasing the place in February 2011 from building owner Gary Johnson (owner and operator of G Daddy’s BBC Bar & Grill), the three men spent two months renovating and pulling 18-hour days.
“It was just brick walls,” says Williams. “The people who left were pretty angry they were leaving and literally stripped everything out.”
Prior to The Hotel Foster, the space was home to Live on North ran by Bob Overmier and before that was Lava Bar and Grill. Back in the late 90’s, it was The Globe, which according to Williams, was the Cactus Club of the East Side.
Before getting into the bar business, Williams was making furniture in New York and here in Milwaukee. He graduated from MIAD in the early 2000’s with a degree in sculpture and interior design. This talent saved money for the three partners, as he built a lot of the tables and the wooden bar.
The initial business plan and bar’s name were primarily Williams’ ideas. After his time in New York, Williams returned home and attended UW-Milwaukee for business where he constructed the business plan for what became Hotel Foster. “I was the sperm of the thing,” Williams jokes.
As for what to name his son, Williams has an interest in the old tavern laws in medieval Europe, when it was common to call a tavern an inn, so why not a hotel, he thought. And Foster is one of the top names on the baby list nowadays.
The partners sank a bunch of money into the place, tearing out a dropped ceiling and adding a ton of antiques, chandeliers and stained glass windows, all put together into an eclectic mix of Victorian, Americana and Industial styles.
The actual bar itself was made out of walnut, using old bowling lanes and old doors and was a nightmare to build, says Williams. It took approximately 500 hours. The front bar was mainly his handiwork, while the back bar was constructed with his friend and old furniture building partner, Joseph Wagner.
Wagner helped Williams create the churchlike appearance of the back bar. The front bar came later after they tried doing a Panini station there for the first several months of operation but failed. They ended up wasting more than they were selling.
So with Paninis out, the partners decided to primarily focus on craft cocktails and retro-fitted the front bar area with interesting found objects, says Williams.
“We’re using the best products financially available” for a particular drink, Williams says. “It’s not run of the mill tavern fare with liquor, though we have that too.”
This spring, the bar featured drinks like the Rhubarb Margarita made with rhubarb jam or the Basil Fizz constructed with fresh squeezed grapefruit juice, basil and more.
For Jozi Tatham, these drinks were a challenge when she began working for Hotel Foster in May 2011. This was her first gig tending bar, so mixing the craft cocktails with no experience was like “getting thrown right into the fire,” she says. Now she suggests them to guests and even offers up a challenge.
“Walk into our bar with only a taste for a specific liquor,” says Tatham. “Then tell the bartender if you like sweet, sour, bitter, fruity, refreshing or any adjective you want and they will concoct something delicious for you. I doubt you’ll be disappointed.”
“It’s kind of our shtick,” adds Williams.
This summer expect to see the following: Bourbon Sweet Tea, Cucumber Basil Collins, Bellini, Vodka Lemonade with orange blossom water and a twist on the Tequila Sunrise mixing tequila, fresh squeezed orange juice and real pomegranate grenadine.
Williams enjoys taking drinks from the 80’s and revitalizing them by adding his knowledge and research, and of course, different ingredients.
“We don’t do dry ice or an absurd amount of garnish,” says Williams. For him it’s less about trendy drinks and more about the core: classic drinks using modern ingredients. They do a lot of long (meaning taller) drinks, unlike many bars with a heavy focus on juices and fruits.
They also have kegged cocktails that are predetermined and change often. The best seller is the Paloma— Spanish for dove, popular in Latin America, and their version of a margarita consisting of San Pellegrino, tequila, lime and salt.
“I’m kind of the cocktail guy and Johnny does the booking and social media stuff,” notes Williams.
Co-owner John Revord agrees but notes he’s also the events coordinator, designer, staff control and lead pirate for the business. “We share many roles and work very well off each other,” says Revord. “However, it’s safe to say I’m in charge of our music scene. Doug doesn’t like any music newer than 1972.”
Fortunately the two have “have very similar tastes when it comes to décor,” says Revord. “We fight a lot… but it gets the job done.” And that job has gotten bigger, as they added another bar into their partnership: in May 2012 they opened Boone & Crockett in Bay View.
And the two may open more bars in the future. “We’re nothing if not opportunists,” says Williams.
“We are lifers, that is for certain,” Revord concurs. “I have too many ideas and concepts in my head to stop at two bars.”
Williams sees Milwaukee as a place of destination neighborhoods, meaning that when people go out they choose to go to Brady Street or North Avenue, as opposed to a certain bar. And for these two owners, there are plenty of other streets and avenues out there that may be perfect for a new bar with the right touch.
Says Revord: “My sleeves are full of tricks.”
Recent Tavern Stories
People: Bob Overmier, Doug Williams, Gary Johnson, John Revord, Michael Kempka
Neighborhood(s): Bay View, East Side, Murray Hill