Dave Sobelman didn’t set out to create the premier locale for Bloody Marys and gourmet hamburgers in his hometown of Milwaukee. In fact, he never wanted to run a restaurant at all. However, as fate would have it, he did just that, and now his 16-year-old business is launching a new endeavor he never dreamed of-growing his concept across the U.S.
Sobelman first met his wife, Melanie, when she was waitressing at Michael’s Family Restaurant. When the owner was ready to retire, he approached the Sobelmans to assume ownership of his other restaurant, Margie’s Bar & Grill, in a historic building originally constructed by the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company.
Coming from a background in the carpet cleaning business, Sobelman was new to the restaurant industry, so he focused his efforts on what he thought would bring people through the door—cooking up high-quality burgers. It began with fresh-baked buns from a local bakery and snowballed from there, each dish a chance to prove that top-notch ingredients and the right skills behind the grill could lift a simple hamburger from good to phenomenal. In short, Sobelman was creating the better-burger segment from scratch, long before such a thing was mainstream. Soon enough, Sobelman’s quest to be the best spilled over into his cocktails as well, particularly the restaurant’s bloody marys.
To build buzz for his restaurant, he wanted to get his name on the Brew City restaurant map, so he called the local newspaper to let the burgers speak for themselves.
“They put me in touch with one of the editors there and I challenged him to come down and try one of my burgers,” Sobelman says. “He came two days later and published a story the following week about Sobelmans Pub-n-Grill. All he talked about was how great the food was.”
This proved to be a turning point for Sobelman and his restaurant. He knew he had something special, and he worked day and night to make sure every order was going to knock customers’ socks off. Soon, he saw his clientele begin to change. It was no longer just blue-collar regulars sitting at the bar, it was people from all over
“It speaks to people in the Midwest,” Sobelman explains. “It is unpretentious and like me—a little rough around the edges. We’re not trying to be the best at everything for everyone. We serve the best burgers and Bloody Marys you’re going to find anywhere, and we do it with a one-of-a-kind atmosphere people keep coming back for. We’re not just a place that serves drinks and food—we’re in the business of making people happy and you can see it on the faces of our patrons at every location.”
It’s that atmosphere, coupled with Sobelman’s dedication to the highest quality food and drink that has people from California to New York clamoring for a chance to return to Milwaukee. It’s also why more and more people began pressing Sobelman about when he was going to open up a location closer to them.
“I started thinking about franchising about a year ago,” Sobelman says. “People want us to expand, and Melanie and I would love to, but we can’t run every restaurant ourselves and expect it to carry that same Sobelmans atmosphere. And with all these people asking us when we’re going to open up more locations, franchising was the perfect fit. We want to find partners that are just as passionate as we are about making people happy, because at the end of the day, that’s what we’re about.”
Sobelman knows it’s vital to keep the special magic of his Milwaukee locations alive wherever the brand travels.
“You won’t find a Sobelmans outside some shopping mall like other franchises,” he says. “The plan is to find older buildings, places with some history, to open up in. The building should tell a story; we’re all about character here and you’re not going to find that in some strip mall.”
The brand is looking for franchisees who feel the same way, men and women who want to open up a restaurant that doesn’t fit the cookie-cutter corporate mold.
Sobelmans reaches out to local suppliers for everything from dessert cookies to condiments, and is always ready to lend a helping hand to worthy causes and local community members in need.
“No matter where we open, we want to be the local brand,” Sobelman s “We care about our community—we know it’s the community that helps us succeed.”
Right now, the brand’s expansion opportunities are wide open. The plan is to start out with new locations in Wisconsin and Illinois, but Sobelman says he’s received interest in places as far flung as Florida and Seattle.