Fresh off the Main Street Now Conference in Milwaukee, I was thinking about what my takeaways would be for this year. I wouldn't say that I left with any killer ideas that are going to change my downtown forever. But I did gather quite a few "sparks" that will definitely make an impact on how we do things, and what we do downtown. But if I had to pick one defining or a-ha moment, it would have to be Kopp's Frozen Custard. Yes, the food was awesome, but it's not about that.
So I arrived in Milwaukee with my intrepid crew on Sunday afternoon. Typically, we would find a nice white tablecloth local restaurant to treat ourselves before the conference hustle and bustle began. In doing my research for our visit, one name kept coming up search after search - Kopp's. Founded by Elsa Kopp in 1950, this local joint specializes in burgers and frozen custard. The reviews were off-the-charts positive so I decided that we would zig instead of zag and check out what all the fuss was about.
We arrived about 7 pm on Sunday night, and we were floored. The place was packed. And I don't mean a little bit busy, I mean "OMG, where in the world are we going to park" kind of packed. After the initial shock of the parking lot, we ventured into the building, and the shock and awe continued. The building was wall-to-wall people, with several lines snaking around the building, each line with a specific purpose. And you did not want to get in the wrong line, because they would make you go to the back of the correct line (this happened to one of my people and it was not pretty). So we got through the line, ordered our countless numbers of burgers and deep fried delights and then we were on our way to play the ever popular game, the waiting game.
We were number 699. So as you might imagine, we were slightly concerned, borderline vexed, when they started calling numbers like 725 and 6. It became clear that the registers all produced their own numbers, so that's super fun. Now that we are all ordered and waiting, it begins to occur to all of us that there are absolutely no tables or chairs in this restaurant. I don't mean that they were all full and unavailable, there were literally NO places to sit inside the restaurant. When our number was finally called, we made our way outside and followed everyone else's lead and took up residence on the concrete steps in the parking lot.
Here it was, the moment of truth, first bite of the legendary Kopp's Burger...and it did not disappoint. Even though the first segment of our visit was confusing and chaotic, that turned into all of us hanging out, sharing food and stories and each other's company. We even made the bold decision to go back in and do it all over again in the custard lines. We ended up spending well over two hours at Kopp's just enjoying the experience. On the surface, it would seem that a business model like this could ever possibly work. But after experiencing it, I couldn't imagine it any other way. Okay, now here's the part where I connect it back to downtowns.
When I arrived downtown this morning famished, I walked over to the bakery to get my favorite sweet. On my way, I picked up some trash off the street and noticed a flag of sidewalk that needed to be replaced, and I also enjoyed the sweet scent of lilac in the air, and the smile on my face when I was greeted by name when I opened the bakery door. I think all too often, we get caught up in making sure that our downtown is pristine and perfect, and miss that sometimes it is the imperfections and quirks that make us who we are, and create those memorable experiences that our visitors carry with them. I will never forget my experience at Kopp's. And more importantly, I will try to apply that lens when I looking at our downtown to make sure that we are always balancing the capital improvements and economic development with ice cream socials and pet pageants.
The Downtown Geek