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A Night at the Door With Four Milwaukee Bouncers

January 31, 2022

Story: Jeanette Hurt

photo: Matt Haas

Places

A Night at the Door With Four Milwaukee Bouncers

January 31, 2022

Story: Jeanette Hurt

photo: Matt Haas

The eyes and ears of three very different bars tell us about their normal—and not so normal—nights on the job.

With more bars per capita than any other major city in the United States except New Orleans, Milwaukee is, unsurprisingly, an annual presence on the list of America’s drunkest cities. (It’s currently ranked No. 20, alongside 10 other Wisconsin cities, including No. 1 Green Bay.) And although Pabst and Schlitz no longer brew any beer here, the moniker Brew City still rings true thanks not only to Miller Brewing Co., which is headquartered in a neighborhood known as “Miller Valley,” but dozens of craft breweries that call this lakeside city home.

These homegrown beers are a point of local pride, served at every watering hole, from the diviest dive to the trendiest cocktail bar. The ubiquity of these Milwaukee-made beers is matched only by that of the Wisconsin Old-Fashioned, whose particular brandy-based, fruit-laden construction is often topped with soda—the exact type varies depending on whether the drink is ordered “sweet,” “sour” or “press,” the latter typically denoting a combination of 7Up and soda water.

Here, too, the Bloody Mary is not relegated to brunch. Most bars will offer a behemoth Bloody any day or night of the week, served with enough garnishes to make a meal; it’s not uncommon to see a hamburger or fried chicken towering over the rim of the glass. Despite their size, these Bloody Marys will come with a beer chaser, and yes, the chaser is always free.

For this installment of Punch’s “A Night at the Door,” we checked in with the gatekeepers of Milwaukee’s nightlife, starting at Lost Whale, a hip yet unpretentious cocktail bar in the city’s Bay View neighborhood. Here, the multihyphenate owners-barbacks-bouncers Daniel Beres and Tripper Duvall hold court. Then we head down a dark alley, off a downtown street, to squeeze into a vestibule where Mr. Moneypenny, aka Noah Silverstein, asks us if we know the password to enter into SafeHouse, an espionage-themed bar that dates back to the Cold War. We finish off our night at an unassuming corner bar, just off the freeway in an equally unassuming South Side neighborhood, where Michael Morton welcomes guests into the historic Bryant’s, Wisconsin’s oldest cocktail lounge; it’s a step back in time to a perfectly preserved 1960s bar.

Daniel Beres and Tripper Duvall

Ages: 38 and 35
Workplace: Lost Whale

Milwaukee Bouncers Lost Whale

What is your role?
Daniel Beres: We are owners, bartenders, barbacks and bouncers.

How long have you worked here?
Tripper Duvall: Three and a half years.

How did you get into the hospitality industry?
Beres: After failing as a musician, I needed another stage, and I became a bartender through friends.

Duvall: I was going to go back to school, and I wanted a job that wouldn’t interfere with my school, and it totally interfered. Within a couple of months, I was hooked. Two years later, I decided to drop out of school and see where this takes me.

How did you end up in Milwaukee?
Beres: I’m from here. I did move for a bit, to California when I was a musician. I came back because I wanted to be here.

Duvall: Same. I’m from Wisconsin. I spent two to three years traveling, doing pop-up bars. I thought Milwaukee wasn’t going to have what I wanted. Traveling made me want Milwaukee more. It’s just a beautiful city.

How would you describe Lost Whale?
Duvall: Man, we’re a cocktail bar, rooted in fun.

Beres: A laid-back, neighborly cocktail bar.

Why are you good at your job?
Beres: Constant bouts of anxiety and fear of failure. I don’t think I’m good at what I do. I constantly think others think I’m horrible at what I do.

Duvall: You just have to have a passion for people, and the best nights at the bar are about the people. You genuinely, passionately have to want to know about others.

Beres: You have to care about people.

Do you ever have to kick people out?
Beres: We have a one-star review on Yelp. They were visibly intoxicated when they got here, they tried to bring in open cans of beer. Part of their group was kicked out, and part was on the patio. The last straw was when they tried to break the lock on our gate to let the rest of their group on our patio. The audacity never ceases to amaze me.

What’s the craziest thing that’s ever happened?
Duvall: Back when we first opened, we had live plants up on the table in the front, and one day, we noticed a big plant was missing. So we go back and run the security tape, and we see this girl take it. She was really blatant about it, and she had her friend distract the bartender.

Beres: She did it super sly, and she put it in her bag, like The Thomas Crown Affair.

Duvall: I show the screenshot to our bartenders, and they say, they knew that girl. The next time she came in the bar, I told her, “You can’t drink here until you bring back our plant.” She said she was sorry, that she was drunk. She brought the plant back, and she’s now one of our regulars. We don’t hold grudges, but don’t lie to us, and don’t steal our stuff.

What is your after-work drink?
Duvall: Well, that night I was drinking straight rye whiskey. But usually, it’s a highball or beer.

Beres: A dark beer, and a couple dashes of Bittercube Cherry Bark Vanilla bitters. It goes well with beers like Dragon’s Milk stout.

What do you eat or do after your shift?
Beres: Frozen pizza. Or I go to another bar and meet up with friends and grab a drink and talk about all the ridiculousness of some people that night. And usually it’s the same people who were in their bar.

Duvall: I try not to eat because nothing good can come of it. I usually sit on the couch and catch up on an episode of something or YouTube for about 20 minutes. Then I go to bed, because my kids will get me up in the morning.

Noah Silverstein

Age: 38
Workplace: SafeHouse

Milwaukee Bouncers Safe HOuse

What is your role?
Mr. Moneypenny, but technically, I’m a doorman. My job in general is explaining things, and mostly, people want human contact.

How long have you worked here?
Since 2017.

How did you get into the hospitality industry?
I was originally a cook here, but the kitchen is really small, and I’m a big guy, and I didn’t really fit. I was ready to quit, but my manager said I could do whatever I want, so I said I’ll try this. But I have a background in entertainment, and I have my BFA. I opened theaters in L.A.

How did you end up in Milwaukee?
I’m originally from Milwaukee.

How would you describe SafeHouse?
The easiest way to describe it is that it’s a themed bar and restaurant. But we’re a club, and we’re the oldest, most secretive club in the world.

What is the crowd like?
It’s more of a Disneyland crowd. At least once a week, we get someone like Tom from Texas who is up here for the Northwestern Mutual conference, or the guy from Switzerland who comes once a year. It’s on the list of things to do in Milwaukee.

What makes you good at your job?
You’re the first impression for customers. If the customer doesn’t have a good moment with you, their night might be off. You set the tone.

My job is ridiculous, but I’ve always been an artist, and what I get, frankly, is direct, intimate contact with an audience. If we’re busy, it’s more than 100 people a night, and I put on a show. You learn what works and what doesn’t. I get to live a very pure, artistic lifestyle, and I was surprised at how pure this is as an art. This helps me be a better person, constantly.

Describe the process of entering SafeHouse.
The idea is that you open the door, and there’s this other world. If you know the password, you get to go straight through the secret passage and go inside. If you don’t know the password, you have to pass a quick test to get into our club. You have to be able to read people to see if they can handle being vulnerable. We’ve figured out how to ask people to do crazy things, but they’re not really crazy. I’ve had a choir sing a song, and if someone works out at a gym, you can make them do a handstand. The whole thing is performance art (it’s on video for everyone at the bar to see), but more and more I’ve learned to listen to people.

Do you ever have to kick people out?
Yes, and it’s always awkward, and you never want to do it. Less is more, and you just have to be calm and clear. My job, in general, is explaining things, and there’s no artistry to it. Sometimes someone is too drunk, and often it’s late at night. Once time, I had a woman come in here, smoking a cigarette, and that’s a red flag. Sometimes, people have come in, looking for a fight, but it always fizzles out.

What do you do or eat after a shift?
I like fun things, and I’m a big fan of board games. I’ll make a trail mix, and we’ll play a game after work. We have a game room above us, and I’m definitely into chess. I sometimes play chess with the manager. We make a great Moscow Mule here, and I’ll also take a Mojito. We have the prettiest bar in Milwaukee here, and I don’t want to go anywhere else.

Michael Morton

Age: 48
Workplace: Bryant’s, sometimes At Random

Milwaukee Bouncers Bryants

What is your role?
I am the director of operations, which means I do several different jobs, including host at Bryant’s, which I do several hours every week.

How long have you worked here?
13, 14 years, at Bryant’s, but we acquired At Random just a few years ago.

How did you get into the hospitality industry?
I used to be a chef, and when I left my last job, I started doing some help around the bar. Nepotism is the shortest answer. John [Dye] is my closest friend, and he talked me into it. I think that’s how everyone starts at bars.

How did you end up in Milwaukee?
I grew up in Montana, and then I was in Seattle for about a decade. I came here on vacation and fell in love with the place. It has all the things a larger city offers without a lot of congestion, it’s easy to find apartments, and the people are very friendly here.

How would you describe Bryant’s?
Bryant’s is historic. We’ve been here over 80 years and the mission is to preserve it from the walls to the recipes. It is an atmosphere that can’t be recreated, and we try to maintain the history of the place and the hospitality of the place.

What makes you good at your job?
That’s a tough question. I care about the place I work for. I understand the importance, the history of it, and I find that appealing.

Do you ever have to kick people out?
Very rarely.

How do you handle that?
I’ve learned this from an old door guy here. You have to be their friend. The more confrontational you are, the more confrontational they are. It requires a lot of patience. You don’t want them to feel like they’re being kicked out. You want them to feel like, “Thanks for coming, have a great night, hope to see you again,” even if you don’t.

What is the most important thing about working the door?
You are the first person they see. You make the first impression and the last impression when you’re at the door, and it can really influence how much people enjoy their night. I want them to feel positive, that I’m going to do everything I can to help them get a seat, but I also don’t want to mislead people.

People are now at the limit of their patience, and they go from zero to “I’ve never been so disappointed in my life” really fast, which I understand because it’s like, everywhere they go, places are understaffed, not operating normal hours, and it takes a lot of special care to try to avoid that.

No business wants to turn you away. We’re not trying to be mean. Things are as they are, and if there’s no room, it’s not personal. Some people get upset that they can’t get in for whatever reason, and they take it as a slight, and it’s not. We’re a special trip for some people. It’s, “I’ve been coming here for 30 years,” or, “My parents got engaged here,” or, “I just got off the plane from Austin, and this is our first stop,” so the disappointment can be really strong.

What’s your favorite thing to do when you get off work?
Eat. That’s the only thing that’s ever on my mind. The day is long.

What’s your favorite after-work drink or snack?
I have a really bad habit of eating frozen pizzas on the weekend. I crave them. I don’t drink, so if I’m going to have anything special I’ll have a Hop Refresher or an Italian bitter soda that I like a lot.

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Jeanette Hurt is the best-selling author of Wisconsin Cocktails, as well as Drink Like a Woman, The Joy of Cider: All You Ever Wanted To Know About Drinking and Making Hard Cider and 11 other books on food and drink. She did the TedxOshkosh Talk: The Real Truth About the Wisconsin Brandy Old Fashioned. She is currently writing The Whiskey Sour for the University of Kentucky Press, and she regularly contributes to Forbes, Alcoholprofessor and Glug, among other publications. She lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.