National Cafe owners, Amy Plennes and Angie Wierzbinski, share how they’ve remained positive and innovative in an industry that has gone a little stale during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Per usual, I visited the cafe on Saturday morning, but this time I wasn’t there for the mouthwatering food. I stood a safe distance from lifelong friends and cafe owners, Amy and Angie, to find out how they were dealing with the crisis.
The first thing I noticed, they were still smiling.
After a combined three decades of bussing tables, cooking, taking orders, and managing several restaurants, in April of 2019, Amy and Angie’s lifelong dream came true, together they purchased The National Cafe.
Fast forward one year, we are in a worldwide pandemic, and the state of Wisconsin (and the majority of the world) has been shut down for 50 days and counting.
On March 16, 2020, The National Cafe had to close its doors. Luckily, within two weeks, they were able to reopen offering curbside pickup.
“I wanted to make sure everyone was isolated and healthy for two weeks before we reopened. It gave us time to do a deep clean as well,” explains Angie.
Since reopening, the National has slimmed down to a skeleton crew of just four people, Angie, Amy, Oscar Corona, and Victor Hernandez. They refer to themselves as a “quaran-team.”
Amy smiles, “Needless to say, our second year in business is proving to be a challenging one. They always say your first year is the hardest, but this shows us if we can get through a pandemic, we can get through anything.”
Angie explains, “After being closed, everyone was so excited to come back. We are usually all working with different people every shift, but we’ve become a tight-knit family of four. It is relieving to know that the cafe is our safe space. We know it’s clean and have all worked together to keep it that way. We trust each other, and this experience has brought us even closer.”
Their staff is not the only element that has slimmed down; The National Cafe has had to limit what menu items they can offer and their hours of operation.
They are open for curbside pickup Saturdays and Sundays from 9am -1pm. They’ve selected a few of their best selling customer favorites and offer one menu item that alternates each week.
The National Cafe also experimented with “Ramen Wednesday” and was able to sell out within a few hours!
Amy tells me, “It’s definitely been a learning curve with ordering supplies. We have to be smart about what menu items to offer so we can order and utilize products without any waste. It’s become a game to see how many things we can make with the fewest items.”
Limiting waste has always been a high priority for the cafe, but COVID-19 has put it into a whole new perspective.
Midst our conversation, a woman pulled up in her car to pick up her curbside breakfast.
Amy promptly ran inside and returned with a to-go bag of food, two coffees, and a smile on her face. She thanked the customer for her patronage and came back to chat with me more.
“How many steps do you get in during your weekend shift?” I asked her, “I see you running back and forth and even sometimes way down the block! That’s a lot of steps!”
She said, “Yeah, I get at least 10,000 a day. I love being outside. I mean, the rain and windy days aren’t the greatest, but I’m happy we have customers.”
As a regular customer of the cafe, I, too, am happy to see they have customers. I am so glad they had the gumption to reopen their doors and are staying optimistic during this unprecedented time.
The National Cafe makes me so happy for many reasons. It’s where my husband Caleb and I went for breakfast when we first started dating, and we’ve continued that Saturday ritual going on six years.
We always snag the northwest window seat, and we always order the same entree; 1 Ultimate Breakfast Sandwich with Ham and Spinach, two coffees (one iced), and a seven-layer bar. We select the same hot sauces from the cart and eat our dessert bar while we wait for our food. We nod our heads in synchrony with the music playing softly amidst the murmurs of conversations from the other customers.
I am grateful I can order my weekend comfort food and recollect on those memories. Every time I drive to the cafe for curbside pickup, I instantly start smiling. We bought the hot sauces they have at the cafe so that our ritual remains the very same, despite not eating in our window seat. This cafe really does have a particularly special spot in my heart.
The National Cafe is a staple in my world. I excessively recommend it to friends and family and always insist they take a bite of my sandwich if they don’t order it themselves.
What is The Ultimate Breakfast Sandwich, you may be asking? The Ultimate Breakfast Sandwich is a symphony of good-morning-goodness; sliced toasted sourdough with a fried egg, gooey cheddar cheese, freshly sliced avocado, warm caramelized onions, olive tapenade, and spicy sriracha mayo with your choice of bacon, ham, or spinach.
Don’t just take my word for it! All members of the cafe’s “quaran-team” say it’s their favorite as well! Kitchen secret, they like to eat it with a side of hollandaise sauce. I’ll have to try that next time!
Other top menu items include the Huevos Rancheros, featuring a tasty sauce straight from Mexico City via Victor’s Mother’s recipe, and their inhouse specialty, The Hot Mess.
The National Cafe is living proof that Milwaukee businesses will prosper and prevail post-COVID-19, and the people who keep smiling and believing in positivity and perseverance will do the same.
I intend to be one of them, but until then, I will continue to place my online order every weekend, ordering my usual, the Ultimate Breakfast Sandwich with Ham and Spinach, a seven-layer bar (or whatever appetizing baked treats they have that day), and two coffees.
The National Cafe is currently open Saturdays and Sundays 9-1pm for curbside pick up and/or delivery through Grubhub. Check their website and Instagram for daily updates and specials. You can place orders over the phone or on their website.
The National Cafe | 839 W National Ave, Milwaukee, WI 53204 | (414) 431-6551
Future post-COVID-19 dreams for The National Cafe include expanding its menu and hosting evening pop-ups and small themed events.
I am really happy I was able to do my very first interview with the sweetest people! Thanks so much for reading! But! Before you go, Are we friends on Instagram? What about Facebook? I hope to connect with you soon and if you are a fan of The National Cafe in Milwaukee Wisconsin please share this article and help spread the word about their curbside offerings during this peculiar time.