Knocking once, Blake calmly sings out, “Rooooom ser-vice.”
Silence. Through the door, we can hear the sound of a television. Blake raises his hand slightly, the one that isn’t balancing a tray, considers knocking again when a voice comes from within, “Just a minute.”
The door opens. “Evening Ms. ——, how are you?”
One hand on the door handle, the other removing an earring, she replies, “tired, and very hungry. I’m so happy to see you,” moving aside to allow entrance.
A moment later, he reappears, backing up and closing the door behind him as he grants the guest a good stay. We step back onto the service elevator, the colorful halls and warm lighting giving way to the humming machines, humid corridors, back halls and fluorescent lights that make up the halls below ground.
We make our way past the tables draped in white cloth, hiding warmers underneath while prepped on top with small bud vases and tiny salt and pepper shakers. Blake removes his jacket, hanging it on a doorknob in order to keep it clean, and turns in his tip. Tips are split among all the servers working a particular shift. Deanna, parked on a stool in front of the phone and computer where orders come in, waves a slip of paper in the air, indicating another order has just come through. Blake immediately begins setting up a tray for the delivery, snatching miniature jars of ketchup and mustard from the small shelves where they reside next to other, equally miniature, jellies, jams and A-1 Sauce.
“I started out waiting tables at the Radisson,” he tells me as he arranges silverware, “I like this better than waiting tables, it streamlines the service work.” He picks up a dish from Freddy, the chef currently on duty. “I like to cook, so watching the chefs down here has been great. If you observe and study, you can catch on and learn. I’ve learned a lot about reduction sauces, how to use butter and wine for fish – stuff like that.”
You can’t pass through the halls of the Pfister’s lower levels without coming across Freddy. Born in Belize, he lived in Louisiana for two years at age 11, before his family moved on to Chicago. Through helping his family of nine siblings, and on to five years in the Navy, he always loved cooking for people. After signing up to work for the U.S. Post Office, a chance encounter in the halls of a community college made him drop everything and go to culinary school. “I followed a pretty girl in a culinary uniform who said to me, ‘What do you got to lose?’ and so I signed up right away.” He proudly shows off his red pepper coulis, chorizo and gives me a sample of creme brulee. “I have fun doing this,” he says, gesturing over his entire work area, his domain for the last 15 years.
We walk up a ramp and into a different elevator to make a stop on the historic side, delivering a meal to a businessman on his first visit from Charlotte, NC. As we walk, Blake explains the basic order of operations: first, a call comes in to the order taker. A time quote is offered, based on the order, though the average time is 30 minutes.
Next, the order goes to one of six chefs who work in the department. In addition to Freddy, there’s also Darin, a quiet chef who is doing mostly prep work during these third shift hours. And Zachary, a line cook for the last year and a half, who came over from Fratello’s. Originally he was hoping to learn pastry work, but the only opening was in room service dining. “My mom was a stay-at-home, I cooked for friends in college, eventually going to work at a friend’s restaurant. I worked at Bartolotta’s for awhile and loved learning how to make gnocchi pasta.” I ask for a hint. “If you mash the potatoes too much, it makes it glue-y.”
In between orders, the servers chat while cleaning and organizing supplies, pre-setting trays and carts. I meet Miguel who transferred from Lake Geneva, where he did “a little bit of everything – bakery, banquets, coffee service, everything.” Originally from Guanajuato, he loves Wisconsin, especially its seasons. Fall is his favorite, but he’s partial to the beauty of the snowy days and nights, and enjoyed helping decorate the resort every year for Christmas. Now in Milwaukee for two years, he’s found he likes doing room service for its consistent schedule and personal, face-to-face interactions with guests. He smiles big, his eyes crinkly a little around the edges, when he says, “I really love serving people.” I believe him.
So, what happens when they receive a strange or unexpected request? The information is noted by the order taker, who politely responds with something along the lines of, “XYZ department usually takes care of that, but I’ll be sure to pass it on for you.” This achieves a two-fold purpose — the guest now knows who to contact the next time that particular request needs to be made and service is also provided right away. It’s very rare for even the most unusual requests to go unfulfilled, as proven by Chef Concierge Peter Mortenson when he once had to track down a sugar maple sapling for a Russian ambassador.
Deanna, who has worked in restaurants since she was 16, spending 7 years at one family restaurant where she still works part-time, said her strangest request so far was the call she got where the guest said, frantically, “I don’t have a microwave in my room!” Deanna calmly replied, “I’m not sure why that is, but I’ll take care of it for you,” and within ten minutes, the guest had a microwave. And you thought all room service did was bring you food.
YOUR TURN: Do you order food to your room when you travel? What’s your favorite thing to have arrive at your door?
A foursome of guests was querying Roc, the concierge, about what to check out nearby the Pfister today. He shared with them a few restaurants and then suggested they check out a little festival in its third year, called “Made in Milwaukee.” Featuring local bands, local food and libations, as well as local arts and local businesses, Made in Milwaukee was taking place all day today in Cathedral Square Park, just a few blocks from the Pfister.
Meanwhile, in the lobby, I met someone from New York who was visiting Milwaukee for his first time and wanted to know what he and his wife should check out before they attend a wedding tomorrow afternoon. They’d already gone to the zoo earlier in the day and had the rehearsal dinner yet this evening, so they only had the morning. The suggestion that seemed to click for him was simply walking down Wisconsin Avenue to the lakefront and meandering northwards along the shore to Alterra at the Lake for coffee and baked treats or a fresh wrap.
Of course, if it’s a stormy day and you’re stuck inside the hotel because you forgot your umbrella, or you miss out on any one of the city’s numerous outdoor shindigs that go on all summer long that feature local wares, you don’t need to look much further than the halls, bars and cafe of the Pfister, for a sample of the city.
Beyond the history that is contained within the walls themselves, the employees are a bastion of Milwaukee knowledge, trivia and historical anecdote. Concierges Peter and Roc will be thrilled if you ask them to tell you about actress Sarah Bernhardt’s involvement on the Milwaukee stage or about The Basilica of St. Josaphat. They will happily take you on a story-fueled tour of the city, if you have a few minutes (or an hour) to engage their encyclopedic minds on the topic. Of course, there’s the work by local artists as displayed in, or on the walls outside, of the artist-in-residence’s studio.
As far as having a taste of Milwaukee, start in Mason Street Grill, where you can sample the Mason Street Amber, brewed specifically for the restaurant by Lakefront Brewery (home of the country’s best brewery tour). The lobby bar also features Lakefront’s most popular beer, Riverwest Stein, on tap. Both of these watering holes, plus Blu, offer Rehorst vodka and gin, made by the Great Lakes Distillery. Their vodka won a silver medal in the 2007 San Francisco World Spirits competition, so you know it must be good!
Want a little more? Step into the cafe and check out the items on display, just inside the entrance. In addition to small bottles of Rehorst spirits, you can pick up a six-pack of Lakefront Brewery’s Riverwest Stein, or their Organic E.S.B (Extra Special Bitter) – a refreshing ale styled after the British pours. Stock up on Sprecher: known for their Root Beer, Sprecher also makes the kid-friendly Cream Soda and Orange Dream, plus adults-only Special Amber and Black Bavarian (my favorite). Need a snack to go with all your beverages? Pick up chocolates from Indulgence Chocolatiers, or organic Vanilla caramels with dark chocolate and sea salt made by Becky’s Blissful Bakery.
Of course, you can always just stay in your room. First, tune your radio to local music stations WMSE (91.7) or 88Nine (88.9) for some great sounds (some by local bands, of course); then pick up the phone and dial room service to have a meal made by Milwaukee chefs, in Milwaukee’s historic hotel, delivered to your door by a Milwaukee employee.* It doesn’t get any more local than that.
*Don’t forget to tip!