Shelby Keefe’s Farewell Celebration

The Pfister bids Shelby Keefe adieu and celebrates achievements of Keefe, Ferris and Williams

The Pfister held a farewell reception Tuesday, March 27th in honor of our 2011 Artist in Residence, Shelby Keefe.

The event had both Pfister elegance and Shelby flare. Shelby’s additions included: an interactive art piece allowing guests to paint on a shared canvas and the melodies of a barefoot guitarist. The Pfister provided the hors d’oeuvres, ceremony and free tastings of the new Mason Street Grill Private Label Cabernet.

The Cabernet unveiled that evening is Mason Street Grill’s private label Cabernet wine by Stone Throw Winery, which features Keefe’s artwork on the label. A portion of the wine’s proceeds will benefit Creative Alliance Milwaukee, a local organization whose mission is to strengthen, advance and represent the creative industries as an essential asset for growing a vibrant, attractive region.

Two Pfister narrator alumni, Julie Ferris and Stacie Williams, were also recognized and gave delightful live readings from their Pfister Narrator books. Our current Pfister Narrator, Ed Makowski, gave a live poetry reading as well. All three performances had the audience smiling, laughing or nodding in thoughtful contemplation.

For a better glimpse into the nights events watch the video.

Or check out the photo slideshow.


Shelby Keefe’s Final Farewell

Unfortunately for us, our Artist in Residence, Shelby Keefe, has reached the end of her fellowship with the Pfister Hotel. We have been honored to have her diligently working in the gallery all year and want to celebrate her achievements and recognize the impact she has made on all of us here at the Pfister.

Join us as we bid farewell to our Resident Artist, Shelby Keefe, with a celebration in the Rouge Ballroom.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012 – 6pm

Shelby will leave behind her legacy piece which will remain in the Pfister until the end of time.   Shelby’s urban landscape painting of Wisconsin Avenue at dusk is sure to impress.  Hear Shelby describe the inspiration behind the piece and her reminiscing on her time at the Pfister.

Also noteworthy is the release of the private label Mason Street Grill Cabernet which features Shelby’s artwork.  Part of the proceeds of each bottle sold throughout the year will benefit the Creative Alliance.

Here is a preview of the label featuring Shelby’s artwork.

We will also pay homage to the past Pfister Narrators, Julie Ferris and Stacie Williams, with the release of their Narrator books.  Julie and Stacie will be on hand to chat with guests and sign their respective volumes.  Who knows, they just might guest blog about the evening!

The festivities begin at 6pm on Tuesday, March 27, 2012 with a brief presentation followed by complimentary snacks and a cash bar, live music, and a live poetry reading.
RSVPs to Amy Hansen ( are appreciated.

Our Quaint Spirits

A 1yr-old tiger cub is racing around the lobby.  He bounds and leaps down the main hallway, creeps by the lobby tables and pounces on the stair steps.  With his muted “Rawwwwrrr,” he terrorizes the guests – terrorizes them with his cuteness.

It’s Halloween and this adorable nipper is certainly getting in the spirit of the holiday.  While ghouls, witches, and zombies prowl the streets outside, the Pfister remains ghost-free.

Or does it?

Of the millions of people who pass beneath the red canopy and through the revolving doors on Jefferson Street, a few are bound to haunt its halls.  A fair number indeed haunt my Narrator notebooks, beyond the ones about which I’ve already written.

Here are a few of these quaint spirits:

~Frieda, a tiny woman with fiery energy who walks everywhere, chirping her musical “HiiIIiIii”s, when she stops in for weekly coffees.

~Steve, from Moore, Oklahoma where, in a 40-mile radius, Conway Twitty, Toby Keith and Dolly Parton were all born and raised – transplanted to Visalia, California.  His time in Milwaukee seemed to be highlighted by the one-a-day Pfister pizzas: “the best I ever had – it had bacon on it!  My in-laws have a pizza place and there’s isn’t that good.”

~Roc’s and Peter’s endless, entrancing and charming tales of everything they’ve seen and heard over their cumulative 30+ years as concierges.

~The fast-talking tax attorney from New Jersey who’s come here for 42 years, beginning in 1969 when he prosecuted a case at the Federal Building, which he found to be beautiful like one in D.C. that was once an old post office.  The Pfister is one of his favorite hotels, up there with the Boston Marriott and the Palace in San Francisco.

~The teen girls in mussed, braided hair with matching jerseys, high-socks flecked with mud from a soccer match.

~A trio who went for a horse-drawn carriage ride, after which one friend said to the others “I was expecting that to be pleasant, but that was splendid!”  He went on to tell the story of the only pony ride in his life, which occurred in his hometown of St. Louis when he was 7 years old, consisting of three sad ponies walking in a circle in a grocery store parking lot: “In retrospect it was awful!”  This ride, with Kevin, the young, top-hatted driver, redeemed the memory.

~Tony, the banquet server who’s been here 25 years and is also cook who makes his dishes using vegetables and herbs grown in his daughter’s garden.  A painter with two Boston Terriers (Sam and Frodo), he will never forget having met Desmond Tutu: “he was the kindest person to me.”

~The guest who spontaneously broke into a bar-side recitation of the A.E. Housman poem, “When I was one-and-twenty…” from A Shropshire Lad.

~The multicultural phenomenon that was a Scottish clan reunion convening over Irish fest weekend; dinner reservations at a German restaurant.

~The slightly stooped, goateed, tweed-coat-wearing man here for his 65th high school reunion, up in Manitowoc, who introduced me to his pony-tailed son, saying “this girl’s just as nice as the one we met in Chicago!”

~The head of a local independent radio station who occasionally lunches in the lobby.

~Sandy, a 15yr resident of Florida originally from Milwaukee, in her black drape dress that perfectly showcased a gorgeous necklace of painted, ceramic flowers and blue stones.  An English teacher for 40 years at the junior high and high school levels, she has two kids, 19 grandkids, and six great-grandkids with three more on the way.  She was opinionated and feisty, with an open heart and great wisdom.

~Lunch with Marquette theater professor, and playwright, Phylis Ravel where, over oriental salad lettuce cups and soup, she says she always imagined hotel management to be no different than the theater: “All the characters, drama and theatrics, but with better pay.”

~The gray-haired, spectacularly mustachioed groom who, while posing for photos with his wedding party (average age 45-50), dropped to one knee and perched his bride on the other.  A bystander quipping, “Careful! He’s old and probably can’t hold that position for long!” followed by laughter from all; the joy and love emanating from the group eclipsed that of all the other weddings.

~Every single employee who has welcomed me with a smile and an open hand.

The ghosts here are presidents, mothers, bankers, and cooks.  They are guests from foreign lands, enthusiastic employees, and everyday neighborhood regulars.  These spectres are an accumulation of 128 years of people passing through doors, living under the roof, and working the halls.  Every moment – extraordinary or ordinary – leaves a footprint on the brocaded carpet, for others to weigh on.

As I bind off these ink-stained pages, I step back into the shadows, as haunted by this hallowed place as it will haunt me.  To leave a mark, or be marked, but possessed now to be ever present until it will no longer have me as one of its numerous spirits of hospitality.

The Fuel of Magnificence

Artist at work

“When I first decided to be a professional artist, I wanted that fishbowl experience, so I got a storefront studio,” Reggie says.

“It’s not intimidating to discover an artist in public space,” adds Caitlin.

A group of us are seated in the Lobby Lounge, discussing the two residency programs the Pfister has developed for art and writing.  As the current artist-in-residence, Shelby Keefe, is out of town, the inaugural AIR, Reginald Baylor, joins us instead – along with his business partner Heidi Witz.  One of the managers, Jessica, is also taking part in the conversation, at the head of which is Caitlin Strokosch, Executive Director of the Alliance of Artists Communities.  The goal of the Alliance is a clearinghouse of information for artists seeking residencies (places to cultivate their particular art) and for residency providers.  While these residencies are certainly there to help an artist create original works and become better at what they do, there is an important public component to them.  90% of the more than 1,000 programs worldwide have an engagement with their local communities.

This public engagement is hugely important.  A 2003 study by the Urban Institute found that while 96% of Americans valued the arts, a mere 27% valued the artists.   The study concluded that “Making a real difference in the creative life of artists will entail developing a new understanding and appreciation for who artists are and what they do, as well as financial resources from a variety of stakeholders. Achieving these changes involves a long-term commitment from artists themselves, as well as arts administrators, funders, governments at various levels, community developers and real estate moguls, not to mention the business and civic sectors.”

There’s a clear disconnect between the art we see and experience, and those creating it.  Caitlin explained, “a lot of residencies struggle with that aloneness of creating art, wondering how to you let the public into that process.”

The assistant front desk manager, Jessica, originally thought the artist-in-residence program at the Pfister was primarily for enriching the guest’s experience.  “What I noticed was a lot of people would come here – not just stay here – and consider the Pfister a part of that Milwaukee experience.  The community and city has gotten involved.  It was such a pleasant surprise.”

Seeing artists as “regular Joes” by seeing the backs of their paintings as opposed to the fronts that create a sense of idolization, that separation of the artist from the art viewer that results in the divergent numbers of people who appreciate art, but not art makers.

For-profit companies are one path to bringing the public into the artist’s process, bridging that gulf between art and artist in the eye of the public.  Businesses that see creativity as an asset, that invest in the new creative economy, find themselves nurturing a different craft or conversation product, one that’s not much different than the culinary arts of Mason Street Bar & Grill, the fashion arts of Roger Stevens or Boutique B’Lou, the music artistry from pianists in the lounge or in Blu, or the healing arts of WELL Spa.  Customers and guests then see each of their experiences has having artistic merit, which bolsters value of other arts.

The struggle between artists creating “to create” and artists creating for production and money is a historically constant one.  “It’s a conundrum,” Reggie says, “Professionals won’t do their work if they’re not getting paid.  Why should artists have to be any different?”  With the rise of local art shows like Made in Milwaukee, and online marketplaces like Etsy, artists are finding ways to create art, but also make, or supplement, a living with those creative gifts.

The Pfister’s unique approach to this investment into the creative economy has now stood for a few years as a shining example of how art and business and co-exist in a mutually beneficial partnership.

MPT production/gallery space

Just down Wisconsin Avenue, at the hollowed-out Grand Avenue Mall, a similar partnership has begun.  The new owners had an open house in June that featured a local design firm and Creative Alliance Milwaukee, showcasing how the mall plans to open up to more nonretail use.  Already, two arts organizations, ArtMilwaukee and Milwaukee Public Theatre, have moved into empty storefronts there, joining the same wing as the offices of online magazine ThirdCoastDigest.

Milwaukee’s creative economy is growing fast, and being a part of this sort of new, engaged partnership between business, art, and the public has certainly lit a fire under me to continue to remain engaged and supportive of these endeavors.  And, I see the next Pfister Narrator, Ed Makowski (stepping up to the proverbial desk on November 1st), taking this program to even greater heights within that growing community.

Stories to tell by the Pfister Narrator

It’s that time again. The transition that has been coined the Passing of the Pen. As our current Pfister Narrator prepares to step down from her title, she has some words of wisdom and some insight for our next Pfister Narrator.

Stories to tell by the Pfister Narrator from PfisterHotel on Vimeo.

The Pfister Hotel Selects Ed Makowski as Next In-House Storyteller

The historic Pfister Hotel in downtown Milwaukee has named Ed Makowski as its third ‘Pfister Narrator.’ In the role, he will spend time in the hotel’s lobby, interviewing visitors and guests and sharing their stories on the Pfister’s blog ( As narrator, he will be posting blog entries at least twice-per-week over a six-month period.

“I’m excited to try my hand as Pfister Narrator,” says Makowski. “For years I’ve written and recorded poems and stories that recreate the unique interactions I’ve picked up along the way. Having a position where I’m not only invited, but employed to collect stories… I don’t think I could dream a job I’d rather have. I’m excited to get to know the rhythm and spirit of the Pfister Hotel, it’s guests and employees.”

Makowski is a poet, writer, and dabbler in visual arts. While publishing as Eddie Kilowatt, he released the poetry collections Manifest Density (Full Contact, 2006) and Carrying a Knife in to the Gunfight (Full Contact, 2007). Density was included in Best New Poetry of 2006 and Carrying won the Carma Writer’s Award. His poems have been published in many print and Internet journals. Makowski contributes interviews to Milwaukee’s NPR station 89.7 WUWM, where he also curates the Lunch Counter storytelling series. He looks forward to bringing that series to The Pfister, where he will be recording regular segments.

Makowski was chosen to serve as narrator based on his writing style, experience and personality, from a significant pool of qualified applicants by a review panel, which included publisher of The Business Journal Serving Greater Milwaukee, Mark Sabljak; Tom Strini of ThirdCoast Digest: Bobby Tanzilo of; Judith Moriarty, a longtime local writer; and representatives from the hotel, including The Pfister’s first-ever narrator Julie Ferris, and Stacie Williams, the outgoing narrator.

“We had another great pool of applicants to choose from for this round of our narrator program,” says Joe Kurth, general manager of The Pfister Hotel. “We’re looking forward to adding Ed to our hotel staff and seeing what new stories will be told. Our guests have a special connection to The Pfister and interesting stories to tell—it has been wonderful sharing their unique experiences and backgrounds with the rest of Milwaukee and beyond.”

Makowski will begin his residency as narrator on Nov. 1, 2011. More information about the Pfister Narrator program can be found at

Words in Blu

An artist, a summer camp director, a theatre operations manager, a board member, and two poets walk into a bar.  There is no punchline, this is something that happened a few weeks ago.

“Hello sir,” the bartender greets them as they arrive, setting a napkin on the bar, “what can I get you to drink?  Do you need to see a menu?”

The menu is taken by all, perused slowly – considering all the flavorful options.  The bartender offers to “whip something up on the spot, we’ll just charge you by the ounce.”  Tonight, charging by the ounce would go a long way.  It’s just after 5:30 in the evening and happy hour is luring this mismatched group to Blu with the added incentive that every drink made drops a donation into the coffers of a local nonprofit.  A semi-regular occurrence on the 32rd floor of the Pfister, one haphazard temporary bartender (sometimes two) takes up the shaker and taps behind the bar, with the over-the-shoulder support of manager Adam Jones, with a portion of each drink and all tips benefiting a nonprofit or charity.  This, ladies and gentlemen, is Celebrity Blutending.

The night’s organization benefiting from each cocktail and pint of beer is Woodland Pattern Book Center.  Tonight’s guest bartender?  Yours truly, the Pfister Narrator.

I admit to being nervous about my one hour “bartending,” though I always fancied myself a natural since multi-tasking and being good with people are two of my strengths.  Once I finally stood surveying the bottles and glasses, while Adam gestured and pointed out the basics, I realized I had no idea what I was doing.  Lucky for me, the first drink, a gin & tonic, is easy, followed by a couple of draft beers (trickier than expected), requiring more finesse.  Eventually, a board member requests a Celia’s Rosedrop Martini.

“My favorite!” I gush to her, while I try to figure out what in the world “rose essence” looks like and where it would be stored.  It’s a good thing Adam is there to pass me the opaque ketchup-mustard-bottle filled with a pale pink liquid.  Measuring the ingredients, shaking the tiny metallic cylinder, pouring it to the brim – it’s all much smoother than I expect.  Adam had told me earlier the key was to slow down, and I found it to be perfect advice.  I could chat, hesitate and even make a mistake (“you only get one do-over!” Adam jokes) without worrying too much.

Right after I convince two gentlemen it’s okay (“kind of awesome”) to wear matching hats and order the same drink (two Hendricks gin & tonics), I meet the person I’m most excited to see at this event: Jenny Henry, Woodland Pattern’s education coordinator.  She moved to Milwaukee for this job just over a year ago from Boulder, CO, excited to expand on the book center’s mission to promote reading and writing, and offer a community resource for writers and artists in the Riverwest neighborhood.

We talk about the work she does particularly with a program titled The Urban Youth Literary Arts Program, which focuses on enriching the reading and writing lives of kids in neighborhoods near the Riverwest one where Woodland Pattern is located.  They offer poetry camps, creative writing excursions, and tutoring for students, with the goal of not only improving basic skills, but also encouraging kids to think outside the box, express themselves clearly and creatively, and perhaps find a new love of reading.

“It always challenges my thinking, how to frame things in ways they’ll understand, and then I get to rearrange my own ways of working with words,” Jenny says about directing the program.  She fills me in on some of their upcoming programming which includes a workshop on inter-generational writing, poetry, comic books and claymation and nature.

The results are telling: Students involved in the most recent academic year of the program improved their communication skills (written and verbal) and critical thinking skills by 86-92%, with similar numbers gaining confidence in public speaking, learning how to respect others’ ideas with an open mind, and finding positive role models through the program.

A recent documentary, Louder than a Bomb, follows several groups of students from the Chicago Public Schools as they write, perform, and compete in poetry slam events.  It clearly illustrated the incredibly positive impact this sort of work has on kids, especially those who might be leading difficult lives, and was the inspiration for my choosing Woodland Pattern’s program as a recipient for the evening’s funds raised.

“How was your drink?” I ask a guest who had a VO & 7, “can I get you another?”

“It was great,” he replies, “but I’ll just have a beer.”

I manage to manipulate the tap without making too much of a mess.  He pays Adam, and throws the change into the large decorative tip can.  The sound of bills swishing and coins jangling as they land, is a reminder that each drop fills the glasses of kids who are eager to find ways to write about their own experiences in the world.  Who knows, maybe one of them is a future poet, artist, camp director, or Pfister Narrator?

Letter to a New Narrator

As the proverbial pen is about to passed to the next Pfister Narrator, recently chosen through hours and hours of deliberation by a committee of writers, editors, marketers and businessfolk, and soon to be announced, I wanted to pass the pen not only to my successor, but also extend it to those who didn’t get selected or who have yet to apply.

Dear New Narrator,

So it begins: your quest to write about the people, events, and moments that occur within the historic Pfister Hotel.  Where else can you walk the same floors tread by every U.S. President since McKinley and also play a round of Jenga with visiting businessmen?  The vibrant scenes and people of today meld with the ever-present ghosts of the past in a way unmatched by most other places.  It’s all the creative juice any writer could possibly need or want!

However, the excitement and anticipation can be overwhelming, or perhaps there is an underlying uncertainty about how to approach this novel opportunity.  I would, therefore, like to offer you some thoughts about the position, as I near the end of my own six month tenure watching, listening, talking, laughing and writing.  “So I’ve devised a sort of Ten Commandments that are the result of some of my own struggles with this blessed occupation,”*

1.  Be prepared.  You saw the call for Narrator applications.  You read the description of this grand hotel’s search for someone to hang out at the hotel, talk to people, and write about it all.  It sounded exciting!  You talk to people all the time!  You write and you’re good at it!  Before you do apply, here are a few suggestions:

  • Read the blog posts, comment, engage in the discussion with the current narrator and other commenters.  You will find yourself getting to know the hotel and its guests so that when you do put your foot on those marble steps, you’ll already feel as if you belong.
  • Drop in.  Pass through.  Comfort and familiarity breeds confidence.  Experience leads to clarity and a unique view.
  • Tailor your writing samples.  If you’ve been reading the posts, you’ll get a feel for what the position requires, even if your own voice and approach differs from the current narrator.  This allows you to cultivate a writing sample that stands as not only your best work, but which is then representative of the work you intend to do.
  • Reapply.  If you didn’t get selected, and you really want it, try and try again.  The next narrator applied three times!

2.  Eavesdrop.  That couple over there that’s arguing with great animation?  It could be they’re engaging in a philosophical discussion, or it’s something personal and human that can remind you of the greater connectivity we have beneath surface appearances.

3.  Don’t interrupt.  Listen carefully, take notes, write down everything.  Don’t engage a guest who’s getting tips from the concierge.  Let the bartender make his or her expert recommendation.

4.  Interrupt.  Ask questions!  Leap into the fray, crack a joke with the group of laughing guests at your elbow.  Offer a recommendation!

5.  Know when to do both.

6.  Befriend the staff.  They are the Pfister’s lifeblood.  They will give you the best connections, insight and -yes- gossip.  They will help you feel at home.  They will welcome you with open arms, make suggestions and refer you to the intriguing characters they have also recently met.  They know the hotel, the guests, the city and their knowledge will enrich everything you write.

7.  Read and re-read.  Go back and read what the previous narrators wrote about: you may find you don’t want to repeat something, or you’ll find a different angle, take or perspective that only adds to the nuance of a topic.  Read your own posts out loud to yourself before publishing them.  Re-read them.  Edit with consideration and care, but don’t be anxious.  You want the posts to reflect a real person’s voice, view, and experience.  Read the comments.  Reply right away.

8.  Take lots of pictures.  They may inspire your imagination, or remind you of something, when you most need it.

9.  Be honest, but be discreet.  Don’t direct the conversations you engage in – with the staff or the guests.  Let the conversations happen.  But inquire, probe and reach; connect with your own stories and experiences in a way that will lead them to open up further, deeper.  Respect the “off the record” statements, but don’t rule them out.  Understand that there will be things you see and hear that you cannot write, but which will give you a fuller character, a better sense of the truth beneath what you will write.

10.  “As for the rest, let life happen to you.  Believe me: life is always right.”**


With thanks to *Richard Bausch’s Letter to a Young Writer and **Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet .

Not Everyone has a Story

And sometimes not having a story is the story.

Let me give you an example.

Today was a day so busy – everyone moving to or from something, and even the gathered groups in waiting are in stasis, with any outsider’s approach treated as an interruption – that the person most eager to chat is on his way into the men’s room, pausing briefly as he views me scribbling with a pen, to ask, laughing, “You taking a survey?”

Among all the sparkling movement of scarves and high heels, suits and even a kilt, there was one spot of stillness.  Sitting at a marble table in the lobby, a man sat with a drink for upwards of an hour.  He watched.  He sipped.  He sat back in his chair, casually observing the chaos around him.  I approached, asking if I could sit in the empty chair adjacent.

We moved easily into stranger conversation.  I don’t mean “stranger” as in “more bizarre” or “unusual,” but the conversation that arises between strangers: talk of weather and casual observation of immediate actions.

“I haven’t been down here for thirty years,” Tim tells me.  “I went to Marquette, but I’ve been in Green Bay ever since.  It’s changed so much, but I forgot what a great city it is.  I’ll have to come back down here soon.”  We chatted about Green Bay – one of his kids goes to a school that is in such close proximity to the stadium that whenever a Packers game is played on a Monday or a Thursday, the kids get out early because of traffic.  The players also regularly visit the schools.  “It’s still very much a small town, though,” Tim adds, “nothing ever happens – and that’s okay.”

Conversation meandered over to technology, his concern about being born “about 10 years too late” borne out as he explains his restriction of smartphones or laptops for his kids until they’re heading off to college (as one daughter will be doing so next year, maybe to Tim’s alma mater, maybe also to MSOE).  We talked about books, how much he enjoys people-watching, the importance of communities, and his plans to travel the U.S. in an R.V. when he retires – “I’m never going to touch another flake of snow!” – and more.

A couple appeared abruptly from behind a crowd, and Tim greeted them with enthusiasm, “Hey! I know these people!”

“These people” being Todd and Lori.  He is a special education teacher and she is an E.R. nurse.  The three of them bantered about the wedding they attended earlier – the bride is someone Tim and Lori worked with – and about how the groom wasn’t quite what they imagined, but in a good way.

Tim teases Lori for having left his workplace for other pastures, saying “I’ve never gotten over it.”  She ribs him right back, “you didn’t call looking for me, either!”  It turns out that she sought work that offered hours allowing for her autistic teenage son to have someone home nearly all the time.  Although his verbal development may be in toddler years, he is quite adept at going online to find Disney videos and other musical shows and movies that make him happy.  Todd explains why, “the melodies,” his hand punctuates the up-down pattern of most catchy Disney tunes, “da-da, da-da, da-da. Their predictability is soothing.”

After ten years in the U.S. Navy, Todd used his medical background to find work in the special education field.  Having worked with all ages, he’s currently helping 18-21 year-olds in independent living: “they live as a group in an apartment setting, go off to their jobs in the morning, come home for lunch – sometimes we go out – it’s wonderful.  I’m lucky.  From the first day of work, I said ‘this is it. This is what I’m meant to do.’ ”

As the crowd dissolved, the threesome noted they should probably head up to the reception.  We say goodbye.

The word “story” comes to us through Middle English and Anglo-French, from the Latin origin historia.  Merriam-Webster defines “story” in several ways, including “history, an account of incidents or events, an amusing anecdote, a fictional narrative shorter than a novel; a widely circulated rumor; a lie; a legend, or romance; a news article or broadcast.”

This clearly wasn’t a “story” in a strict definition.  But, the connection of humanity in moments without story, can shine brighter than any memorable “account of incidents” or “amusing anecdote.”  It is in these moments where we find our best selves.  It only becomes a story, when someone else, like me, tells it.

A Knock at the Door

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?