Supper clubs: Tradition, family and food
By Heather Graves
BROWN COUNTY – The area has seen its fair share of supper club closures over the decades.
Town and Country Supper Club, Stratosphere Supper Club, Zuider Zee Supper Club, The Mariner Supper Club, Eve’s Supper Club – and the recent announcement of the closure of Wally’s Spot at the end of July.
While these closures represent the end of an era, those in the business say it has more to do with owners retiring than the appeal of supper clubs diminishing.
“Owners retire and their children don’t necessarily want to live that lifestyle,” Galley 57 Owner Andy Mueller said. “We work nights and weekends. Days can be long. We do it because of passion. And just because a parent has that passion, doesn’t mean their children will. And if you don’t have the passion, you will run as far as you can in the other direction.”
Area supper clubs that remain cling to the niche’s legacy, as they continue to offer the laid-back dining experience chock full of nostalgia many have grown to love.
What makes a supper club, a supper club?
Well, that depends on who you ask.
“That’s the million-dollar question with a million different answers,” Mueller said.
Each establishment offers its own unique flair: Muddled old fashioneds, white tablecloths, a plentiful salad bar, homemade food – pies, soups, dressings – or a bar manned by the same bartender for the past two decades.
De Pere’s Union Hotel Owner/Operator McKim Boyd said a supper club is a traditional dining establishment with a social atmosphere – usually off the beaten path.
“You don’t go to a supper club for a quick bite to eat,” Boyd said. “It is a full experience. The idea was you made a night of it.”
Mueller said supper clubs’ all-inclusive meals also set them apart.
“We have all-inclusive pricing,” he said. “Other places are more a la carte – the soup, salad, sides, meals – at supper clubs you get it all in one price.”
It’s the full-service, one-stop-shop mentality that did, and continues to, put supper clubs on the map.
Jenny and Joey Delcorps, owners of Kropps Supper Club, located at 4570 Shawano Ave., are new to the supper club business.
They purchased Kropps this past March.
But the two are aware of the shoes they fill.
“When visiting a supper club, the whole experience often tends to be the customer’s dinner and entertainment for the night,” Jenny Delcorps said. “It starts with drinks and friendly conversation at the bar, followed by a candle-lit dinner at a table and then concludes with after-dinner drinks and more conversation back at the bar. It is not a rushed experience, but rather a more laid back, social event.”
Delcorps said Kropps is unique because of the history within its walls.
“It was originally started as a tavern and inn in 1904,” she said. “It became the Danceland Ballroom after that, and then in 1946 it officially became Kropps Supper Club.”
Since its beginning, Delcorps said Kropps has been well known for its battered fish, chicken and shrimp, as well as steaks.
“Old fashioneds and friendly staff are a part of the tradition at Kropps, too,” she said.
Boyd said oftentimes, people try to pigeonhole the description of a supper club.
“There are all ends of supper clubs,” Boyd said. “There are higher-end supper clubs and then there are much more casual supper clubs.”
The independently-owned establishments often have a family at the core.
“When I first started in the ‘70s, friends would come in and say ‘Gee, you have an older crowd,” Boys said. “You are going to have to do something different for younger people to come in.’ I told them, ‘I’ll let you in on a little secret – this is the second generation of the older crowd that has come through here.’”
Boyd said there is often the perception that supper clubs are for older generations.
“We do get new people,” he said. “Yes, we do see new faces – and it’s not to say that we don’t have older people – but there are plenty of younger people that come in. We wouldn’t be able to survive if all we did was cater to older people because they move on.”
Boyd said it goes back to family – and not just the owner’s family, but also the customers’ families.
“Their family becomes our family,” he said. “The history, the tradition, those are all part of that.”
Owners are also visible within the club.
Most nights, owners can be seen greeting, seating customers and chatting with customers.
This is an aspect Jenny Delcorps said sets supper clubs apart from other restaurants.
“We work at the supper club, and help with a variety of duties, including waiting on customers and helping in the kitchen,” she said.
Times have changed
Boyd said nowadays, there are more dining options for people to choose from.
“Back when I would have first started in this business – just about 50 years ago – the supper club dominated,” Boyd said. “I used to tell my dad that you had the supper clubs up here and then you had diners, fast food and bars down here, and there wasn’t really much in between. But as time has gone on, that gap has been filled with a whole variety of casual concepts. That kind of bridged a gap between the little dinettes and diners and the supper clubs. And as a result, competition kind of changed and impacted some places.”
Some cite an overall change in lifestyles as a source of change.
“With the world in such a hurry, fast-food chains and restaurants with quick customer turnover seem to be the more popular choice,” Delcorps said.
Cheri Krabbe, owner of Krabbe’s Kountry Klub in Seymour, said the fast-paced mentality of today’s diners is the biggest change she’s seen over the years.
“Most people… really don’t know how to relax and enjoy each other’s company – they are on their phones and in a hurry,” Krabbe said. “Supper clubs are slowly fading away. We have to get our younger generation to take a break from the sports bars and chain restaurants and truly enjoy the supper club.”
Stick to the basics
Boyd said for supper clubs to continue to plug along in today’s option-saturated industry, they need to stick to the basics.
“Don’t try to be something you’re not,” he said. “We are what we are, and even though trends change and things come and go, you have to be careful to not necessarily try to embrace all the changes that are coming your way. You know, stick with what you do and what you know. And do that well.”
Mueller said supper clubs are a tradition he hopes never fades.
“I tell every employee – ‘If we focus on every person, on every plate, then the big picture will paint itself,’” he said. “We mainly have word-of-mouth advertising. We develop relationships one by one. And if we are doing our job well, then that person is going to tell someone else about it. And that person will stop in. Our reputation is our currency.”
Jenny Delcorps said she couldn’t have said it better.
“There are still plenty of people that thoroughly enjoy the slower-paced dinner experience, which is exactly why it’s important for supper clubs to stick around for all the years to come,” she said. “Although we’ve only owned Kropps for a short time, we have thoroughly enjoyed getting to know all of the customers, and hearing all of the wonderful stories from the many generations that Kropps has been serving the community. We are so excited to see what the future holds for us at Kropps, while we work diligently to keep the name and history alive.”
Owner Steve VandenLangenberg describes River’s Bend in Howard as an upscale supper club with an ambiance second to none in the area.
“It is so close to everything – you are two, three blocks off from the main freeway, but it seems like you are out in the woods somewhere,” VandenLangenberg said. “It is a special location, which is what makes River’s Bend what it is.”
VandenLangenberg said after purchasing River’s Bend five years ago, he did some remodeling but kept the supper club charm.
“Classy, but still comfortable,” he said. “People are drawn into the family atmosphere – the servers, bartenders – they have all been here for many years… You are going to see fellow members of the community that you know. It is just a great gathering spot.”
VandenLangenberg said supper clubs create and celebrate memories.
“I think what I see here is celebrations of life – birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, graduations – any special event in life where people go, they want it to be special,” he said. “And we offer that. And everyone has memories of River’s Bend – almost 46 years in Green Bay.”
Boyd said it’s important to remember there are many supper clubs still out there ready to serve Northeast Wisconsin.
“People have been and should continue to seek them out because they are a unique experience,” he said. “You truly become part of the community, in a sense, when you hit those places. Because that is where all the locals go. Continue to seek them out – they are out there – and continue to support them.”