Owner of Karl Ratzsch restaurant reflects on end of an era

Posted at 6:49 PM, Apr 05, 2017
and last updated 2017-04-05 20:14:48-04

It was one year ago this month an excited and energized Chef Thomas Hauck was giving tours of his newly refreshed Karl Ratzsch restaurant.

The giant German beer hall had a crisp coat of paint and less clutter on the walls, but retained most of the menu and the soul of a 113-year-old Milwaukee staple.

As the months passed, Hauck said the crowds of old never materialized.

Ratzsch's, as almost everyone called it, was losing money fast.

"It didn't really start to get any better," Hauck said during a break from prep work Wednesday morning at his other Milwaukee restaurant, Circa 1880.

"We had hoped for February and Valentine's Day. February didn't get better. Here comes March, and it's like okay. You can only go down so far before you start to signal for help."

Hauck saw great interest in Ratzsch's last spring, after it closed briefly for the restaurant equivalent of what he calls "a new suit and a haircut."

Dusty old Christmas decorations came down from the walls and some of the heavy German fare was lightened up for modern palates.

Change, though, alienated some loyal customers. Hauck saw people walk in, simply look around, and then walk out.

"With the older clientele, it was dicey. 55 and up it was a little chaotic. 75 and up, it was like whoa. But 45 and down, we were good because it was something new to them or something they hadn't seen in 25-30 years," he said.

That younger crowd never came in the numbers to keep the giant, two-story restaurant in business.

Some nights saw only six diners walk through the doors. A good month still meant losing thousands of dollars.

Hauck hoped to give Ratzsch's the send-off a 113-year-old legend deserves, but that was not in the cards.

A thank you note posted on social media over the weekend was a hasty farewell for a restaurant that could not find a following.

Hauck chalks that up, in part, to Milwaukee's apprehension to change.

"There was no longer a tablecloth with paper on top of it. There wasn't Christmas year round. The same server wasn't there for the last 35 years. Just change in general. Change can be a tough thing," he said.

While the next couple months could be rocky for Hauck as the finances are settled, he does not regret trying to breathe new life into Karl Ratzsch. Trying to preserve the restaurant was important.

"I'm not afraid of failure," he said.

With his plate full with Circa 1880, his wife and two young sons, Hauck has no time to kick himself over what could have been.

On Wednesday morning, he was in the kitchen early.

There were onions to chop and soup to make.

"We got this place, and my kids gave me a hug on Sunday morning like there was no difference in the world," he said.  "So that's okay."

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