Benno’s Bar – Think globally, drink locally
Marty Weigel is far from your average Milwaukee bar owner, and Benno’s Bar and Grill, the establishment he has watched grow and flourish over the past 30 years, is much more than a local watering hole.
The 52-year old Wauwatosa native began working at his next-door neighbor’s family-owned bar when he was just 18 years old. By the time he was 21, he and his older brother Benno were running a tavern of their own.
In just a few years, people around Milwaukee knew the bar by name. Their popularity grew so much that Marty decided to keep the name when he took sole ownership of the Benno’s in1989 and moved to its current location at 7413 W. Greenfield Ave.
What began with 12 beers on tap soon grew to 20 as the Weigel brothers began to recognize the importance of a quality product. Today Benno’s boasts 30 different draught beers, which change frequently and range from Wisconsin favorites like New Glarus’ Spotted Cow to Founders products out of Michigan and North Coast brews from California’s Mendocino coast.
Weigel believes bars have always had the things people don’t have at home – in that past that meant amenities like stereos and color TVs. Though obviously not the case today, he reminds his customers that “you can’t do 30 taps at home.”
“Were the most established beer bar on the West Side,” Weigel claims.
Kacey Bredeson, a West Allis native and Benno’s regular, agrees. A lover of a good IPA, Bredeson comes to Benno’s for the variety, but that’s not what keeps her coming back.
“I go other places besides here for beer, but I come back here for the social aspect,” she said. “It’s the reason I go out.”
Weigel definitely considers Benno’s a “beer” bar. With no overbearing music, pool tables or gambling, it is the beer that brings in the dough — that and the highly popular Friday Night Fish Fry, which has been attracting West Allis families for years.
“There’s no gimmicks here,” Weigel said. ”People come here to have a beer.”
Benno’s provides customers with a special simplicity often forgotten at other establishments. It’s a place where people can come to gather and just enjoy lively conversation over a cold one. Benno’s server Tracy Jones believes the bar’s laid-back atmosphere is the key to its appeal.
“People come in and know what to expect,” she says.
Besides finding business success in West Allis, Weigel also found his wife, Suzanne. Their four children range in age from 14 to 19, and unlike most kids their age they have a game room, a deep fryer and an unlimited supply of fountain soda in their home. Why? Because their bedrooms are just one floor up from their dad’s bar.
“They’re all at ages where they realize they have different lifestyles than most kids,” said a chuckling Weigel. He remembers a time when they thought everyone their age could run downstairs for a Coke at any time of day.
While some may raise an eyebrow to this kind of upbringing, the Weigel kids excel among their peers. Of the twin seventeen-year-old daughters, one is a star athlete and the other the valedictorian of her class.
Providing for his family as well as he can is just one of Weigel’s many responsibilities. The others mostly fall into the realm of providing for his community.
As a resident of West Allis for over three decades, it’s safe to say this bar owner has seen a thing or two. He has seen what he believes to be a wonderful place to live and raise children slowly evolve into a place chock-full of supercenters and chain restaurants where the idea of community seems to be disappearing. It would be a lie, however, to say Weigel doesn’t love where he lives. Frantically waving his arms in all directions, he rattles off the hot spots surrounding his home and workplace.
“There’s a great pizza place over there, a Mexican joint that way and Chinese take-out right down the street,” he said. “City Hall is within walking distance and so is the bank, and down that way is my kids’ grade school.”
Weigel has made it a personal goal to keep the spirit of a tight-knit community alive and well. Outside of making Benno’s a place for people to relax, Weigel has served as a district alderman since 2003, is an active member of the local Parent Teacher Association and helped create Metro Mountain Bikers, the Milwaukee chapter of the Wisconsin Off-Road Bicycling Association.
Though he has always enjoyed mountain biking, Weigel’s interest in being a grassroots organizer for bicyclists didn’t begin until about 15 years ago. At the time there were no legal bike trails in the Milwaukee area, Weigel said, so he and a group of buddies would go out seeking trails of their own.
“We called it ‘bootleg riding,’” Weigel recalled. “It was fun, but definitely not legal.”
Before he knew it, his weekend gang of friends had turned into about 30 individuals looking for places to ride. “We realized we could be a force for change,” Weigel said.
Weigel formed his idea into a legitimate bicycling club, which today consists of over 500 members. The club teaches sustainable, environmentally responsible trail design and plans weekend outings to various parts of Milwaukee County to build or repair bike trails for the public to use for free.
While biking is a weekend hobby for Weigel, his position as District Two Alderman is a part-time job – though perhaps not the kind of suit-and-tie job some would imagine. He has no office, no secretary and uses a scooter for work purposes.
So how do his constituents get in touch with him? The West Allis city government web page lists his home address and phone number. And how does he address their concerns without an office to work from? He zooms straight to the source of the problem on his 100-mile-per-gallon scooter.
Though his style is unconventional, his tenure and ability to foster positive change prove the wheels are turning in the right direction. His latest project, which complements his passion for bicycling, is the Community Health Improvement Plan. As a former volunteer school nurse, Weigel has seen how laziness and dependency on the automobile can plague a community. He believes that getting people to walk or bike more can help the area flourish.
“I used to walk to school every day,” he said. “People drive everywhere, and I don’t get it.”
At the end of his day and amidst all the chaos that encompasses it, Weigel’s greatest commitment is to his family and the business that supports it. He also realizes that the success of Benno’s depends on the success of his community and the people who live there.
He may refer to his clientele as ranging from “eight to eighty, blind, crippled and crazy,” but Weigel has truly invested his time and passion in West Allis and has come to be known as a friend to all who live there.