New Turner Hall restaurant aims to ‘take the risk out’ of entrepreneurship by teaching cooking

Emerald Mills, CEO of Turning Tables Tavern & Eatery and founder of Diverse Dining. Credit: Stacy Kaat Photography

Last update March 3, 2022 at 9:32 p.m.

A new bar and restaurant will open in historic downtown Milwaukee Turner Hall this summer, with a business model focused on strengthening the local culinary career pipeline.

Turntables Tavern and restaurant is a full-service catering establishment that provides hands-on training to up-and-coming chefs and food entrepreneurs as an “educational restaurant”.

The idea is to provide a crucial, but largely missing, step between basic culinary training and launching a restaurant business or a long-term culinary career, said Emerald Mills, founder and CEO of Turning. Tables.

“There are so many things that could be huge hurdles for someone just starting out, so it can be very daunting and impossible,” Mills said in an interview with BizTimes. “We give people the opportunity to do, learn and work with less risk, so that when the time comes, they have the support and resources they need and it’s not as big of a risk. “

The hurdles tend to be higher for minority-owned restaurant owners, especially when it comes to securing the initial funding to start a business, she said, adding that the restaurant industry catering is one of the largest employers of minority groups in the United States. Even with sufficient start-up funding. , there are ongoing staff and supply chain shortages, among other pandemic-related challenges that have rocked the entire industry over the past two years.

“The timing couldn’t be better – unfortunately because of everything that’s going on, but it’s definitely a solution we need now,” said Mills who, as founder of Milwaukee Diversified catering, saw firsthand the challenges faced by restaurateurs.

For three years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Diverse Dining hosted monthly dinners at local restaurants in the Milwaukee area to facilitate conversations and connections between people from different backgrounds. Mills later added corporate diversity and inclusion training to her business offerings and has since worked with organizations like Associated Bank, BizStarts, and the Urban Economic Development Association of Wisconsin.

When the pandemic hit and restaurants were forced to close, Mills partnered with local food business incubator UpStart Kitchen to launch Diverse Dining Boxes, a monthly subscription delivery of local food, conversation starters, crafts and other products made by local entrepreneurs. It was through this company that she met Emilio De Torre, executive director of Milwaukee Turnersthe non-profit group that owns Turner Hall and has operated various social, civic and welfare programs there since the 1880s.

De Torre had arranged to retrieve a Diverse Dining box his wife had ordered so he could meet Mills in person and learn more about his work. He told Mills that Milwaukee Turners planned to put out a request for proposal for its first-floor kitchen and restaurant, and Mills then applied. The space was previously managed by Caravan Hospitality Group as a bar and event space, called Tavern at Turner.

Now, in addition to the Turning Tables Restaurant & Eatery, the space will serve as the home base for Diverse Dining and its monthly dinners, corporate training events and other programs. The national historic site’s centralized location appears to align with Diverse Dining and Turning Tables’ shared mission of connectivity, Mills said.

“There aren’t many places in the city, at least that I know of, where different cultures can come together and enjoy different foods and build cross-cultural relationships, so being centrally located where people come in and out of the city…there are a lot of advantages,” she said.

When Turning Tables opens in June, its initial menu will feature a heavy emphasis on barbecue from Jervel Williams, co-owner of Mr. Bar-B-Que. Eventually, it will offer additional food entrepreneur dishes on a rotating basis.

Williams is the first restaurateur to complete the Turning Tables training kitchen program. He started selling hot dogs on North King Drive (formerly Old World Third Street) nearly 15 years ago and has since expanded to a mobile trailer and then a food truck, selling its popular barbecue at festivals and street events. Williams plans to continue to grow her business and customer base through the teaching kitchen at Turning Tables.

During the six- to 18-month program, participants will receive on-the-job training, personal and professional development opportunities, as well as in-house marketing and accounting support, while earning a living wage. Graduates will have access to on-site training and other resources upon completion of the program. But beyond that, they will walk away with potential business partnerships and ties to food operations run by Milwaukee entrepreneurs like Sherman Phoenix, Crossroads Collective, The Restaurants at Eleven25 and Third Street Market Hall.

Participants will also earn Diverse Dining accreditation, which would signify that their own restaurant or employer meets community standards for diverse and inclusive operating practices. The hope is to create some kind of network of restaurants that agree to such standards and are held accountable through an annual audit process, Mills said.

After its first year, the program will recruit two cohorts per year. Mills plans to forge partnerships with Milwaukee Area Technical College’s culinary arts program and other community training organizations like UpStart Kitchen to recruit aspiring restaurateurs interested in taking their skills to the next level.

Turning Tables is asking for donations to support the building of its training program and help cover restaurant start-up costs. Donations can be made here.

Turner Hall
Turner room


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