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March Madness brings relief for Milwaukee bars and restaurants after two unprecedented years

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Posted at 5:14 PM, Mar 18, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-18 19:39:16-04

MILWAUKEE — March Madness is bringing a much needed boost to the local economy, especially for businesses in the hospitality industry that were hit the hardest during the pandemic.

Visit Milwaukee estimates the tournament will bring about $6.5 million to the city. Several bars and restaurants near Fiserv Forum say they expect a 150 percent increase in sales compared to a typical weekend.

Inside Oak Barrel Public House, many Yale fans are getting their first taste of Milwaukee, including Pamela Teitelman of Connecticut.

“It was just fun walking here and seeing all the different bars and restaurants around this area,” she said.

College basketball fans from across the country traveled to Brew City to cheer on eight different teams.

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“I rank this sort of like, I went DNC/RNC, then it goes the NBA Finals and March Madness, so we’re all-hands-on-deck,” said Oak Barrel owner Bobby Wiltgen.

Wiltgen says hosting more than 300 fans at a time means putting former employees and strangers to work.

“These big events are great, but those create staffing issues because this isn’t a typical Friday,” he said. “We had to adjust with our staff, bring in veterans that have left the industry out of retirement and have them come join us.”

March Madness always brings big money to host cities. In 2014, Milwaukee brought in $4.6 million followed by $6.6 million in 2017 which exceeded expectations by $600,000.

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This year brings the first March Madness to Fiserv Forum and a filled out Deer District.

“We’re one of the businesses as well and as you look around right now behind us, there’s bars that are filled with people, excitement, everyone walking around the streets, hotel rooms, to be a part of that, to be a steward of the community has been great,” said Fiserv Forum General Manager Dennis Williams.

The pandemic brought unprecedented challenges to bars and restaurants in Wisconsin. The state estimates 39.1 percent of workers in the food and beverage industry filed for unemployment shortly after coronavirus entered the state.

“At our lowest point, we went from a company of maybe 180 to about 60 full-time employees, so it was hard getting through that,” said Third Street Tavern General Manager Jack Roman. “I hope we never see those sorts of days again.”

Roman says they haven’t fully recovered, but weekends like this help make up for lost time.

“It’s weird. Some people say zero to 60. We really went zero and then 60,” he said. “It was like we were closed, you can’t do anything, you had to wear masks and then one day it was like, ‘Okay, back to normal’. Hiring and employment on the other hand is not there and I know it’s a nationwide problem.”

While the worst of Covid is likely behind us, federal employment data shows the food service industry is down about 20,000 workers statewide compared to just two years ago.

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