How one Milwaukee couple is helping transform the East Side into a destination
Two-ish years later, and it seems all that “The East Side is dying” rhetoric may have been a bit of an overreaction.
In 2016 and 2017, the supposed demise of the neighborhood was the talk of the town, sparked by events like the closing of G-Daddy’s BBC Bar & Grill and other neighborhood watering holes. Most local media outlets jumped on the purported death of the bar scene, speculating about its root cause. Heck, even I reported about what was then the hot topic du jour.
But it seems like we may have jumped the gun.
It’s not a stretch to say the neighborhood around the North Avenue entertainment district stands in stark contrast to its state a year ago. Once empty storefronts are now occupied by new businesses and eateries. Poke options are aplenty, Milwaukee’s first cat cafe is now open, a food hall is coming to the former Rosati’s space and, hey, Von Trier didn’t actually end up closing like it said it would.
Among the new and forthcoming businesses, a handful of them are architected by longtime stakeholders of the area. Milwaukee bar and restaurant owner Mike Vitucci—related to the family that owns neighborhood bar Vitucci’s—revamped his multi-tenant building on Murray Avenue, opening Izzy Hops Swig & Nosh and paving the way for Kawa Ramen. New Land Enterprises developer Tim Gokhman took the reins of the former Oriental Drugs space—which had been filled by a variety of tenants that just could’t make the space work—and decided to open a new carefully curated food hall called Crossroads Collective instead.
But there are also newcomers to the neighborhood. And there’s one couple in particular whose investment in the neighborhood is particularly notable for the type and reach of businesses they’ve brought to the area.
In less than the three years, David and Marla Poytinger will have gone from zero to three businesses in the neighborhood. They recently opened entertainment bars Nine Below and AXE MKE. And early next year, they will relocate Splash Studio to the former School Yard spot on Kenilworth Avenue. In essence, they’ve tripled down on the East Side, and have arguably played a critical role in the neighborhood’s recent resurgence.
When it comes to the bar industry—and the North Avenue area—their businesses stand out. At Nine Below, you can build your own mini-golf course out of blocks and other trinkets. At Splash Studio, you can paint while sipping on shots. And, for God’s sake, AXE MKE allows customers to hurl axes at targets, a pastime that’s been exceedingly popular with bachelor, bachelorette, and even divorce parties.
“It adds to the whole concept of the East Side being Milwaukee’s playground,” says Liz Brodek, executive director of the East Side Business Improvement District, about the Poytingers’ bars.
But for their high-profile and visible concepts, both David and Marla Poytinger don’t particularly relish the limelight or the attention that comes with them. They prefer to put their employees and their concepts center stage, orchestrating the operations of their businesses in a more behind-the-scenes fashion. When Milwaukee Record contacted them out for this story, they noted their desire to keep the East Side’s comeback the focus of the story—not them.
Marla and David, who are 36 and 38 respectively, attribute this tendency to shy away from the public eye to their self-perceived lack of hipness.
“Our bars are way cooler than we are, so we don’t want to be the face for them,” says Marla, laughing and (kind of) joking.
In fact, David claims one of the best compliments he’s ever received was from a younger customer who had commented, “This place is ‘lit'” to her friend while they were at the bar in Nine Below. David overheard the slang-rich remark, and it was a truly thrilling moment for him—for more than one reason.
“I never heard it used in the wild before,” he says about the term. “So I was really excited for that.”
The couple got their start in the bar business in 2012 as a sort of hobby, with the opening of the paint-n-sip bar Splash Studio in the Third Ward. When they weren’t working at their day jobs, they were at Splash, which they say was among the first of its kind in the Midwest.
The two eventually realized there was a healthy demand for interactive, activity-based programming geared toward adults, and they eventually made Splash their full-time gig.
“This is going to sound really cliche and hokey, but in this digital world that everybody is living in, I think people really still want a place where they can go and touch something and feel it,” says David.
“Yeah, millennials love to do stuff but, more than anything, people in general still love the idea of a physical interactive experience, and there are not a lot of places where they can do that,” he adds.
The immersive experiences of Disney World and Universal Studios are among the Poytingers’ central sources of inspiration when it comes to creating their activity-based bar concepts. When you step into one of the their businesses, one of their goals is to take you away and transport you to another place—as if you were entering a theme park.
“On a micro, micro level, that’s the same thing we’re doing here,” David notes.
A few years after Splash Studio took off, the couple came to a crossroads: They were either going to expand the Splash concept to more locations, or they were going to pivot and tap into the entertainment-focused bar market. They decided on the latter.
“We knew we had to do more, we knew Splash wasn’t going to be the end goal for us,” Marla says.
Expanding on the activity-based bar theme, they formulated the idea for Nine Below, a mini-golf bar that opened in the “cursed” space below Beans & Barley in fall 2016. As the East Side was purportedly withering up and gasping its last breaths from all the business closures, the Poytingers were placing a bet on the neighborhood.
And it paid off.
It turns out, about a year or two ago, the East Side wasn’t on its deathbed, but it was going through a kind of cleansing, brought on by evolving consumer preferences. Student bars and taverns that focused on quantity drinking were being purged by the reality of a changing customer and residential base. The influx of hundreds of new apartment units was bringing a new demographic into the neighborhood—and they didn’t want those types of bars.
“With the advent of Uber and easy transportation, you can’t run your bar like that anymore,” David says. “The idea that there is this student district where all these students are going to come is totally antiquated.”
And once those bars closed, intense involvement by local residents helped to shape the neighborhood’s future composition, Marla notes.
“Alderman (Nik) Kovac and neighborhood residents were very tough and adamant in ensuring that the East Side would not be a binge-drinking neighborhood,” Marla says. “Through their activism—and through their work in carefully vetting the places that they allowed to have liquor licenses—they have made a huge change to what the East Side is now. It was hard for a lot of people to see that at the time.”
This past summer, the Poytingers opened AXE MKE, and as the count of new businesses in the neighborhood racks up, David and Marla are bullish on the area’s future. The two, who live with their children in the nearby Beerline community, have been heartened by the local reaction to their bars, and the wave of new business opening announcements that have enveloped the neighborhood.
“For all the rhetoric of the East Side being dead, a year and a half later it’s on fire,” David says.
Within the next six months, the two are optimistic that there won’t be any vacancies on the East Side, and that, says Marla, “is not a sign of a dying neighborhood.”