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Hip Restaurant Group Mojofuco Eyes Key North Avenue Corner, But Needs City's Help

Hip, funky Mojofuco Restaurants would open its first suburban location, a second BelAir Cantina, at 68th and North with assistance of CDBG funds.

One of Milwaukee’s hottest, hippest restaurant groups wants to come to a key location on North Avenue, in what would be its first foray into any suburb — but it needs help from the city to make it work.

Mojofuco Restaurants, owners of the Hi-Hat Lounge, The Garage, Fuel Café, Balzac, Palomino and BelAir Cantina, would like to open a second BelAir on the southwest corner of West North Avenue and North 68th Street.

“We’re optimistic that we can put this project together,” said Kristian Sydow, vice president of Grubb & Ellis Apex Commercial in Brookfield, who is the commercial real estate broker for the group. “But that’s dependent on some public financing assistance.”

Mojofuco owners Kristin St. Dennis, Leslie Montemurro and Scott Johnson are asking for $150,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds, Sydow said. The group will present its case 8 a.m. Tuesday before the Wauwatosa Economic Development Commission.

CDGB funds are not locally tax-based. They are federal tax funds returned to local governments for beneficial projects.

Sydow said that he and Mojofuco are near to a closing on the building but need to know the outcome of their CDBG request to finalize the deal.

“We really need the WEDC to step up for us,” Sydow said. “They’ll have a feather in their cap. This is a $1.3 million redevelopment project.

“It’s all the things that Tosa wants, it’s all the things that (Mojofuco) wants: to fill a space on the sidewalk with a good, solid, attractive business that will bring jobs to North Avenue.”

“We hope to have this all together in August,” Sydow said. “This project has been wrought with a lot of extra steps. It’s been extremely complicated to put together.”

Mojofuco partner Johnson said, “We have intentions of opening a restaurant. We haven’t gotten any loans on it yet. That’s about all I can say at this point.”

Dividing up the CDBG pie

Complicating matters, though, is the fact that the BelAir request and two others add up to more than the total of CDBG funds Wauwatosa has to dole out.

“Depending on how (WEDC) divides up the funds, that could make the difference,” Sydow said.

A story reported Friday in WauwatosaNOW pointed out that BelAir’s $150,000 ask, a $130,000 request from restaurant, 6913 W. North Ave., and a $199,000 request from , 802 N. 109th St., come out to more than $130,000 over the $347,000 WEDC has to expend.

NOW’s report said the city is already invested in the BelAir project, with $100,000 already approved from the Wauwatosa Revolving Loan Fund.

Il Mito’s request said it would create up to eight new jobs and the Century Services would create three, the story said.

Sydow told Patch that the BelAir request would create an entire new restaurant staff that might total some 25 employees, although he said he was not sure how many full-time equivalencies that would be.

A key business at a key location

It’s impossible to say whether one business, more or less, can make or break a whole commercial district — but BelAir Cantina could be the game-changer that East Tosa has been waiting for.

The property, vacant for some time, was last occupied by the Aqua Terra tropical fish store. It is considered an anchor location, a large lot, dead-center in the district at the crossroads of its principal thoroughfares.

For some time, it’s been an anxious eyesore for many in the community — a drab, rundown, empty building right at the axis of the area. Detractors of East Tosa have for years pointed at that single property as the antithesis of progress: If you can’t keep your anchor locations filled with solid, successful businesses, how good can you be?

That would change dramatically in the hands of Mojofuco. The BelAir Cantina Tosa, if its predecessor at 1935 N. Water St. in Milwaukee is any model, will be bright, sleek and inviting. The motto is “Cali-Mexican done right,” with a lengthy menu of border classics.

The move is certainly a game-changer for Mojofuco, if not for East Tosa. In the nearly two decades since first opening Fuel Café in Riverwest, the eclectic owners have targeted every funky, bohemian haven in Milwaukee, never leaving the city and never once repeating a concept.

With the city’s east side hangouts and Bay View covered, they most recently moved toward a more nightclubby, downtown destination feel with BelAir Cantina on Water.

A nexus on North Avenue?

Replicating that concept on North Avenue signals that, as the suburbs go, Tosa could be the new place to be and be seen — and not just in the Village.

“I would just be thrilled if they can come to North Avenue,” said Meg Miller of the East Tosa Alliance. “I don’t know what else to say — I’d just be thrilled. It would be so good for the district.”

There is plenty of disposable income in the area to support it (and no other nearby Mexican restaurants to compete with it). A demographic and economic study commissioned for the North Avenue Redevelopment Plan found that $20 million a year in entertainment spending was leaving the district for lack of places to spend it.

The news should be particularly welcome for some area business owners, such as Lee Barczak, the new owner of the soon-to-reopen , next door to the long-empty storefront.

The immediate neighborhood has recently attracted new businesses including Rocket Baby Bakery, and Signature Sweets. It’s also home to established restaurants Il Mito, close by, and , up the avenue to the east, as well as the popular coffee-and-doughnut shop in the morning, pizza stop at night .

alt ideas needed July 24, 2012 at 12:49 AM
great article. I hope this happens for Tosa and foodies alike. Keep us updated.
Jim Price July 24, 2012 at 01:09 AM
Constantly. I am so big a fan of Mexican food, I can taste it already.
Pudge July 24, 2012 at 12:59 PM
It's really simple WEDC, if you don't have the money to spend, don't. You will have to refigure your amounts. Not sure what the impact Century Services would have on Tosa vs. restaurants. It sounds like this is all the $$ WEDC has to spend. What happens if something big comes along?
John T. Pokrandt July 24, 2012 at 01:50 PM
Good things are happening on North Avenue. I think this would be a great addition to the district.
jessica July 24, 2012 at 01:53 PM
150,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds? for a mexican restaurant? Do we have 'desperate' written all over our face? What if we need these funds for a business that pays a living wage? You know, high tech, mfg, etc? Tosans are so pathetic.
Random Blog Commenter July 24, 2012 at 02:34 PM
Mr. Price, I agree that this would be a great addition to North Avenue, I have spent considerable time at the Fuel and at Palomino, both fit their neighborhood very well; however, before we spend Other People's Money on Funds for Foodies, let's ask a few more questions: 1) What sort of public assistance did this group get with their other establishments, which are all highly successful? If none, why does it suddenly need it now? 2) CDBG funds were granted to Susie Brkich in 2011 for something at this location. http://www.wauwatosanow.com/news/132145763.html#!page=0&pageSize=10&sort=newestfirst What happened to that money, as well as the other CDBG funds from last cycle? What has been the track record for "investing" these funds? Is this a case of an investment group thinking that because the funds exist, we might as well try to get them type of thing? If the area truly can generate $20 million, then should not such a well-run, well-capitalized group make a go of it on it's own? This isn't a family mortgaging their house trying to start a business, this smacks more in the vein of corporate welfare, but of the type that certain people will over look because it hits their hip, trendy and cool button.
Jim Price July 24, 2012 at 08:00 PM
1) I spoke only late yesterday and for the first time with Mr. Sydow, the group's commercial real estate broker, and only about this project. Whether they ever received public economic development assistance in Milwaukee I do not know. Much remains to be learned and much remains to be written. 2) Ms. Brkich never received the CDGB money referenced in the article you linked – an in fact never got to the point of signing a grant agreement. She would not have received the money – which, as in the case of BelAir Cantina was to be used for property acquisition – until closing. The same will hold true for BelAir. They will use their signed grant agreement as proof of equity, and if their loans are then approved, they will receive a check to carry to closing. Last, this case is very much like a family mortagaging their home to start a business, only in this case they are mortgaging their other businesses – cross-collateralizing. That can be a risky practice. Having $150,000 in equity free and clear makes both the group and its lenders much more comfortable. Last fall, in the same round as Ms. Brkich's request, Alterra Coffee received a considerable sum in CDBG funds for another development very similar to this one. There was a long-vacant corner property in a neighborhood business district and this was a chance for the city to invest in redevelopment with a strong, proven business. It was a high-yield, low-risk decision, as BelAir is expected to be.
Random Blog Commenter July 24, 2012 at 08:17 PM
Thanks for the update on some of the 2011 CDBG recipients. I hope you look into it further. As are as your part of cross-collateralization and low-risk business, etc. I completely agree that use of the revolving loan fund to free up equity fits into that vision. However, handing out free grant money under the guise of jobs simply is a case of picking winners and losers, as well as helping the big get bigger. While not Starbucks or a chain restuarant, Alterra and and the BelAir group are industry leaders in the metro area who seem to be savvy enough to make it on their own. No reason to help them out against the mom-and-pops.
Jim Price July 26, 2012 at 05:21 AM
I suspect that if you went to every mom-and-pop business in the neighborhood who did it on their own and asked them whether they feared a new, public-assisted competitor coming into the district in the form of a destination restaurant, they would say, "Oh please, let it be tomorrow."
Here to Help July 28, 2012 at 05:12 PM
Fort those that are pushing back on using the funds for this Belair Cantina project, there are a couple of items you need to understand. First, the wages earned by the employees are very good. Why everyone thinks that you can't make a living as a server or bartender is obtuse? These folks make a solid living, plus they work minimal hours and have great flexibility in their schedules. Secondly, these funds are there to close a gap in financing. Without assistance, these projects wouldn't exist, and that's what the mission of WEDC is for, to provide support for new projects offering jobs. At the end of the day, the City provided $150,000 in grant money to the project, the other sum is a loan and will be paid back. Additionally, the City will be turning a property currently assessed at about $300,000 and ultimately it will be taxed around $1,000,000. Smart play by the City and the WEDC staff! Keep it going! Big Fan! K
Mary DeBattista August 07, 2012 at 09:39 PM
Great point, K, and an appreciated one. I am a career bartender and own my own home in Tosa (for nearly twenty years), two paid-for cars, and I have a job I have loved for three decades. The restaurant business can indeed be a stepping stone or a stop-gap, but if one wishes, it can be a fabulous career. There is no need to assume we are all poor mice who only do this because we can't get a "real" job. Nothing could be further from the truth or, frankly, more insulting.
Tall Mark January 18, 2013 at 04:07 PM
Jessica apparently you have never eaten at Bel Aire. Try it before you rip it.

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