HALES CORNER, Wis. — Even as restaurants continue to struggle in the pandemic, the supper club could be a bit of the exception. An author and historian says people have flocked back to supper clubs in Wisconsin.
“This is the custom Brandy Old Fashioned mix,” said Steve Cannistra, the owner of Clifford’s Supper Club in Hales Corner.
He makes his own mix for the staple drink of the supper club the Brandy Old Fashioned. Cannistra says each supper club has staples that people come to look for. For his restaurant, it is the Friday fish fry.
“The particular Iceland Cod fish fry is probably 95% of what we serve on a Friday,” said Cannistra.
But the deeply Wisconsin tradition of a supper club didn’t start in the state. It didn’t even start in the country. Author and Supper Club Historian Ron Faiola says it began in London, England. But Wisconsin has adopted it wholeheartedly.
“Fish fry on Friday, Saturday Prime Rib and Broasted Chicken and Ribs on Sunday. There is a regular menu people look for,” said Faiola. “Some people say if there is no relish tray it is not a supper club, but I think that is a little extreme.”
Faiola says currently there are 260 supper clubs operating in the state. Though he doesn’t track the number year after year, he says there have been approximately that amount for years because even as some close, new ones have opened. That has happened even during the pandemic.
But COVID has hit the whole restaurant industry hard. According to the National Restaurant Association, 17% of all restaurants in the country have permanently closed since the pandemic. However, Faiola says even with the challenges of COVID supper clubs continue to see people pack in.
“They’re coming for nostalgia, they are coming for a sense of community,” said Faiola.
But he says supper clubs continue to face major issues all restaurants face, including rising food prices and a lack of staff. The owner of Clifford’s says his wife and adult children are working in the restaurant despite having different jobs, just to keep serving all the customers they are seeing.
“Planning on being here for the long haul. It is a fight. It is the biggest fight of my life. I’m using every resource I have developed,” said Cannistra.
According to the National Restaurant Association, 50% of restaurant owners say it will be at least another year to year and a half before things return to normal.