INSIGHT ON: Economic Development – Classic clubs

Posted on Dec 3, 2014 :: Economic Development , Insight On
Sean P. Johnson
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer


An old fashioned idea is breathing new life into Calumet County.

There are few institutions more iconic in Wisconsin than the supper club, and Calumet County is home to more than 30 of them — many with strong ties to the church steeples that dot the pastoral landscape.

With traveler tastes shifting from the universality of chain restaurants to a desire for authentic and local cuisine, Calumet County tourism officials realized they had an opportunity to promote an important part of the area’s heritage.

“I think people are looking for good food in a much more relaxed environment,” says John Roepke, who with his wife Barbara owns Roepke’s Village Inn in Chilton. “Supper clubs tend to provide a more social environment where folks can talk and enjoy themselves.”

Calumet County tourism officials are banking on that sentiment.

The effort to promote the area’s supper clubs began in earnest in 2013 when Calumet and Fond du Lac counties partnered to publish “Breaking Bread in the Holyland.”

Filled with historical images, the book tells the story of the Catholic parishes that gave the region along the east coast of Lake Winnebago its name, and describes how the corresponding supper clubs often provided those communities with a needed gathering space.

In 2014, the county launched a second effort with a printed and downloadable supper club map bearing the new moniker of Calumet County: Supper Club Capital of the Midwest. Click here to view the map.

“It’s something that really sets us apart from other areas,” says Dena Mooney, a planner with Calumet County.

The county will promote the supper club map, also prepared jointly with Fond du Lac County, with an upcoming social media campaign, Mooney says.

While it’s still early in the process to label the supper club promotion as a success, the indicators so far are positive.

Tourism spending for 2013, the year the “Breaking Bread” book was launched, was up nearly 10 percent from the year before, according to data compiled by the Wisconsin Department of Tourism. Direct visitor spending grew to $27.7 million in 2013 from $25.3 million in 2012. Labor income grew to nearly $13.1 million, up 8.6 percent, while state and local tax revenue grew to $3.7 million, an increase of 8 percent. Figures for 2014 are not yet available.

Wisconsin icons are good business.

As good as the tourism revenues look, Mooney says it’s not yet clear how much of those increases can be directly tied to the promotion of the region’s supper clubs. However, there are signs of growing interest.

“Our annual postal budget has been completely blown by sending these (books) out,” she says. “Typically, we’d spend about $300 per year. We are now over $3,000.”

So what is it that makes supper clubs so unique? That’s not always an easy question to answer, since the definition of what constitutes a supper club is a bit hazy. Easily recognized by Wisconsin natives, explaining one to an outside visitor can be a challenge.

Most often, a supper club is defined as a traditional establishment that also functions, or has a history of functioning, as a social club, according to the map created by Calumet County. In the 1930s and ’40s these clubs were considered high class yet affordable. They allowed a couple or group of friends to go to the establishment for cocktails, dinner and entertainment.

Almost all of them are family operated, often for generations. Roepke’s, for example, has been in the family since 1968. Open only for dinner, the typical menu will feature relish trays, breads, soups, salads and a hearty meal.

Meticulously well-kept, many have changed little from the way they appeared generations ago, providing both a sense of comfort and nostalgia.

“The menu has changed a bit, though. We serve a lot more fish than we used to,” Roepke says.

Most will also have a busy bar, serving another Wisconsin classic, the Old Fashioned, complete with either olives or cherries.

Why Calumet County has retained so many of its supper clubs is a bit of an unknown, but there seem to be two prevailing theories: One suggests it’s because the region was settled by hard-working farm families that needed a “night out” at the end of the week. After the area industrialized, those workers still looked forward to socializing at the club at the end of the week.
A second points out that many of the supper clubs are in rural areas where they are the only business or one of few businesses. They give the community its character.

Ron Faiola is not one to discount the theories, but he thinks the longevity and resurgent popularity of supper clubs are tied directly to what they represent: a personal connection.

“They are family run and provide a different level of service and that is what makes them so attractive,” says Faiola, who explored the state’s supper club culture in his PBS documentary “Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old-Fashioned Experience.” He also authored a book by the same title and is working on a second.

“People aren’t rushed, it’s not wall-to-wall TVs and it’s just a better experience,” he says. “The word is getting out. In many parts of the state, supper clubs have become an important part of the tourism fabric.”

Calumet County’s Ariens branches out with new product lines

There is more to Ariens Co. than snow blowers.

True, at this time of year, that may be the one piece of power equipment homeowners are most grateful for, particularly with the record-setting snowfalls that have already struck some parts of the country. Plus, you have to love the commercials.

But this past year has also seen the company unveil some new products that might not immediately make you think of the Calumet County-based equipment manufacturer.

In 2014, the company partnered with Polaris to introduce the Gravely Atlas JVS, a job site vehicle compact enough to easily move around, yet with the power to tackle many of the towing, hauling and dumping jobs of a small truck.

Also new this year, the company introduced a line of work clothes specifically designed for those who work outdoors in Wisconsin’s tough winter conditions.

In partnership with Gempler’s, a manufacturer of commercial outdoor work wear, the company now offers its Ariens Ultimate Snow Apparel product line of outdoor gear including “parkas, coats, baselayers, winter boots and everything in-between.”