Whether it’s keeping those “damn” fish tacos on the menu because your mother loves them too much or reaching out to a cousin in Nevada to join a business, there’s more to being a family-owned restaurant than just making sure all the owners are related.
It started over 15 years ago when Trent and Brittany Kraemer had just moved back from an extended holiday. “When we were there, we talked about how cool it would be to open a bar,” says Brittany. That vision was realized when they and Trent’s Uncle Mark created Vintage Spirits & Grill on University Avenue, but Trent and his cousin Bryan had bigger plans.
Scott Manning, Bryan’s brother, had been brewing for some large outfits on the West Coast. For his brother and cousin, he was the missing piece to the restaurant-biz puzzle. “Trent and [Bryan] always had talks after a few beers about how great it’d be to get Scott back here and we’d all run a place together,” says Brittany. When JT Whitney’s on Whitney Way went up for sale, brewing equipment and all, the plan to get Scott back to Wisconsin started to take shape.
Trent and Bryan took Scott to their newly acquired restaurant and asked, according to Scott, “Can it brew beer?” His response, “Hell yeah it can brew beer.” After that, Scott took the leap of faith to leave a comfortable life in Nevada and take a gamble with family. He’s been running the brewery since its inception, and always makes sure there are interesting brews on tap. Some of that beer, particularly his Hefeweizen, found its way into some popular dishes, like their Fish & Chips, beer-battered fried cod served with spicy coleslaw, tartar sauce, lemon, and choice of fries, tater tots, or pub chips.
To the boys, there’s a feeling of completion about getting into the bar restaurant game. “It’s really an extension of what the generation before was doing,” says Scott. “So [Trent’s] dad, Donny, owned a bar back in the day, and all of us kids used to go to Donny’s bar and throw the pool balls around and get our sodas and stuff.” Bringing your kids to the bar during off hours is a Wisconsin tradition that might be considered taboo in some other states, but this is the stuff worth holding on to.
The first bar Trent and Brittany purchased had a bunch of old signage and neon lights advertising Miller High Life and the like, so they just kinda rolled with it and named the place Vintage. The name fits beyond just the physical things this family kept. Reuniting with Scott and keeping the past alive, it’s familiar.
And the traditions extend beyond blood and wedlock. “This sounds really cheesy, but our staff is amazing. We have staff in downtown Vintage that have been there for 15 years, and we have staff here that have been here since we’ve opened…it really is a family.” Being with Vintage for 15 years is how Mike Bridges became an equal partner, or was “adopted” as Scott puts it, with the Mannings and Kraemers. That’s what a family-owned business is really all about—building lasting relationships.
Vintage works with another family-owned business, Knoche’s Old Fashion Butcher Shop, just up the road from the restaurant, to get their hands on some premium beef. Relationships like this have led to some locally inspired menu items, like the Home Grown Burger, consisting of a beef patty topped with aged white cheddar from Cedar Grove Cheese Factory, fresh apple, arugula, and Vintage Brewing Company black pepper aioli drizzled with an apple cider reduction and served on a brioche bun.
But the most reciprocal relationship Vintage has is with a local hog farm. Brewing beer has some byproducts, one being spent grain. This is grain that has gone through the mash process, where water is brought to specific temperatures to activate enzymes and break starches down into fermentable sugars. When the water, or wort, is removed, what’s left over is the spent grain, which is rather rich in fiber and protein. Vintage gives their spent grain to the hog farmer and in return receives their pork at a reduced price. One notable appetizer that uses the hog meat is the Asian Pork Bites, braised pork belly breaded then deep fried and tossed in sweet chili sauce all served with wasabi aioli.
Being true to themselves and having faith in one another has enabled Vintage to grow into much more than it was on University Avenue 15 years ago, but Trent, Scott, Brittany, Mark, Bryan, and Mike aren’t finished. There’s a new facility coming to Sauk City sometime in January if everything goes according to plan. “It’s huge,” says Brittany. “It’s three stories. The whole lower facility is a brewery. The main floor is a restaurant with a bar and then a patio overlooking the Wisconsin River. And then the third floor is a little bit more a restaurant and then a banquet facility that all overlooks the Wisconsin River.” Check out the plans and more at their website, vintagebrewingcompany.com.
All this growth is not only because of the risks the Vintage family are willing to take, but because of their customers, both new and loyal. The new come in and immediately notice the waiting area. Black button-tuft furniture next to some wooden antiques whose stain has been faded and streaked with time and attention. In a basket, an old beer publication discussing the history of some of the most beloved brands of a bygone era waits for yet another patron to turn its drying pages. It’s worth taking a few minutes just to sit down and forget that you came for some great food and beer.
As for the customers that come time and time again, they’ll head to their favorite table, complete with classic vinyl-upholstered chairs, or raised booth and enjoy service from some amazing staff members. Or maybe they’ll do what I do and go straight to the rectangular bar, with stools having the same black button-tuft look as the sofas in the waiting area, and try a flight of different beers while getting lost in conversation or just watching fish swim lax in a large aquarium as bartenders joke and jive with their patrons.
It’s new, and it’s old. It’s familiar, yet distinct. It’s Vintage.
Kyle Jacobson is a copy editor for Madison Essentials, and a writer and beer enthusiast (sometimes all at once) living in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.