News/PRWis. County Relishes Its Classic Supper Clubs
January 23, 2014
APPLETON, Wis. (AP) - Calumet County is tapping into an old-fashioned vibe to draw visitors.
If you think of supper clubs as relics of the past, think again. Supper clubs continue to dot the landscape across Wisconsin, as familiar as a plate of prime rib, a brandy old-fashioned sweet and a relish tray on a cold Saturday night.
Calumet County, which spills into the southeast corner of Appleton and wraps around the east side of Lake Winnebago, is a beautiful stretch of mostly rural countryside that is home to more than 30 supper clubs, give or take a few depending on your definition of a supper club.
It’s part of what defines the region, and the folks who run the tourism efforts in the county decided to do something about it.
Well, Julie Schmelzer, director of the county’s Resource Management Department, did something about it. She set out last year to dub Calumet County the “Supper Club Capital of the Midwest.”
No vote necessary. She simply filed a trademark request for the title with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
“Our attorney worked with a copyright attorney to make sure no one else had laid claim to the name,” Schmelzer said.
She got the all-clear and the trademark was granted in October. Schmelzer immediately went to work creating maps and other tourism information to tell the world that the lights are on at supper clubs all over Calumet County.
The first batch of maps arrived earlier this month.
“We’ll pursue an outright promotional campaign to spread the word, sending our info to travel writers, culinary writers and enthusiasts and tourism venues,” Schmelzer told Post-Crescent Media (http://post.cr/1duxzBM).
Supper clubs are on the short list of cultural icons that make Wisconsin what it is.
The definition of what constitutes a supper club gets a little fuzzy. Most are family operated, often in the same family for generations, are only open for dinner, feature a bar doing serious business in brandy old-fashioneds and are often located in the middle of nowhere.
You would think they might have faded in a modern world populated by restaurant chains, social media snark and quickly passing food trends. But not so. Books have been written in recent years on the lasting appeal of supper clubs in the Midwest, Wisconsin in particular. Ron Faiola explored the world of supper clubs in a 2011 PBS documentary, “Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old-Fashioned Experience,” and later released a book of the same name. Dave Hoekstra authored “The Supper Club Book: A Celebration of a Midwest Tradition.”
There’s interest there, Schmelzer said, and Calumet County fully intends to let the world know about places that range from Gobbler’s Knob Supper Club in Stockbridge to Schwarz’s Supper Club in New Holstein to the Darboy Club in Darboy.
“Supper clubs, especially in the outlying area, are critical to tourism,” Schmelzer said. “In those areas, there aren’t any businesses , and it is often the supper club that gives that community its character. . In some of those areas there isn’t much more than the supper club, perhaps a gas station, church and maybe a bar.”
Look no further than Gobbler’s Knob in Stockbridge. It’s been in the Levknecht family for 40 years. Brothers Brian and Dave took over the supper club 15 years ago from their parents , Lyle and Marilyn.
“We’re just trying to make a go of it like everyone else,” Brian Levknecht said of business at the restaurant that seats 50 in the dining room and features all of the amenities you’d expect in a classic supper club, fish fry and relish tray included. They’re open for dinner Wednesday through Sunday.
“This really is a Wisconsin thing,” he said. “When we’re out of state, people don’t even know what we’re talking about when we say supper club. They just stare at us. We finally say, ‘Well, we own a restaurant,’ and then they get it.”
The message Schmelzer wants to spread is that these supper clubs are a cherished part of our Wisconsin culture and they aren’t going anywhere. Why not celebrate that?
“I don’t have numbers on what clubs existed years ago, but I can report this - I am not aware of any former supper club buildings that are no longer being used as a supper club,” she said of Calumet County. “Our older supper clubs are classics and therefore still in business. We have had new ones open up in the past decade, so I would feel safe in saying we have more now than we did in the past.”
And that is good enough to be deemed the “Supper Club Capital of the Midwest.”
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