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Friday, June 06, 2008

The Suicide Of Serb Hall

by capper

A few weeks after getting married in 1999, my wife, my father, my grandfather and I went out for a fish fry. We had had our reception at Clifford's Supper Club in Hales Corners, and the food was OK, and we had heard their fish fry was really good, so we decided to try it. When we got there, we realized it wasn't going to work, due to my grandfather's difficulty walking, and the layout of the tables. So we climbed back in the car in search of different fish fry.

We had heard that Serb Hall was good, and it was always in the polls as one of the top favorites, so we thought we'd try them. For the next nine years, we never went anywhere else. We would go at least once a month.

My grandfather, who grew up in Italy, and came back to America in time for the Great Depression, was highly appreciative of good food at a good price, and great service. He would always look forward to his fish fries. Without fail, about three weeks or so after the last time we went out for fish, we would come to visit him, and he would say, "You know, it's about time for a fish fry." That was all it took. We all loved him and enjoyed seeing him happy, and so we would immediately call my dad and tell him it's fish fry week, and we would all plan accordingly.

We became such regulars that we didn't even have to order. When the waitress saw us at her table, she started to fill our orders. It was like being with family.

Even after my grandfather died three years ago, we kept up the tradition. Not only did we get good food, and excellent service, it was a chance for my small family to stay bonded, talk of the week's events, and remember my mom and grandpa.

Sadly, those days ended tonight.

We had heard that Serb Hall had drastically changed things, and not for the better. They had been changing since a new manager took over a few months ago. He would cut a corner here, trim a corner there. We were getting increasingly concerned about the direction that the restaurant was headed.

Despite the fact that they had dropped the all you can eat, my wife and I decided to try it. My father chose not to go and see what it was like. It was worse than we imagined. On the door to the dining hall, they have a giant blow up of their menu, with all the prices raised. The real kicker was the explanation for the changes (reproduced as on their menu, errata intact):

Welcome To Serb Hall's New Fish Fry

In the last few months, we have all experienced record breaking price increases in petroleum, food, and other related products. In particular, the wholesale fish market has been very volatile and we currently find it impossible to continue to absorb price increases for many of our seafood offerings especially Icelandic Cod.

We know from your comments that our food quality is the most important element of our fish fry's success and accordingly we have not changed our legendary quality or reduced our portion sizes. We have also added additional fish offerings at lower price points where possible to give you more of a choice while still maintaining our highest quality standards.

It is my understanding that these changes came about from the new manager, John S. Cwiklik, Ph.D. I don't know what his doctorate is in, but it sure isn't restaurant management or customer relations.

When I asked him why the changes, he iterated the increasing costs. I asked why not just increase the price, he pointed out that he did for the buffet, and that was still all you can eat. I pointed out that it was higher because of all the other things, and we didn't want all the other things. He just shrugged and walked away. Nice job, John.

My wife wanted to see our favorite waitress one more time and I wanted to leave.

While we were being ushered to our table, we notice that there were only six other tables with people at them. One used to have to wait a half hour, minimum, to get a seat, when they had the full banquet hall. Now it was a fraction of the size, and that was barely populated.

We ordered the pollack. While we were waiting, we overheard a table with two couples telling one of the hosts that the food was terrible, the portions small, and that they weren't going to come back,. Already feeling perturbed, and knowing I wanted to write this, I went to talk to these people. They repeated their complaints. "The food wasn't warm." "The portions were much smaller." "The vegetables were terrible. And who serves vegetables with a fish fry, anyway?" They also repeated that they had been regular customers, but that they weren't coming back.

Then our food came. It was served with a cover that had an eerie, and rather nauseating yellow-colored lid, much akin to the kind they use in hospitals to keep the food warm while it comes up from the basement. We had to send the poor waitress back for more lemon wedges and more tartar sauce. Half the plate was taken up by mixed vegetables. The rest of the plate was taken up by a small pile of fries, five small pieces of fish, one tartar bucket, and a lemon end that was wrapped up like a wedding favor.

The other two couples had been correct. There was not enough fish or fries. In a feat of exceptional culinary ineptitude, they had managed to take what was obviously frozen vegetables, and overcook the green beans until they were soft and soggy, but undercook the carrot coins so that they were still hard and one was ice cold. They apparently never heard the phrase: Stir occasionally while cooking.

Meanwhile, unknownst to me, some of my coworkers had been on the buffet side. They saw us on the way out and told us that they were very disappointed with the quality of the food there. They have been there a handful of times before, and said that they could easily discern a distinct drop in the quality of the food. Unfortunately for Serb Hall, these people are also the ones that plan the Christmas party for work. They would traditionally have it at Serb Hall. They told me that this stops, as well.

While we were waiting for the bill, we heard two other tables of people complain to the host, and state that they weren't going to come back. One of the women told us that she drove down from Oshkosh, just for the fish, and said that she was not only going to ask for her money back, but ask for them to pay for the gas she wasted coming down. Another couple said that they had been coming to Serb Hall almost every week, for twenty years, and that this was their last time, unless they change the way they do business.

We even heard a waitress complain out loud to her boss, in the dining area, that she would only work banquets from now on. She said that she is tired of the complaints, and cannot afford to work when tips are so small.

In just one hour, I saw what was a crowded dining area shrunk down to a quarter of its former size, and only being a quarter full. I heard of 15 people, including ourselves, that won't be coming back unless they straighten out their business plans. And they lost at least one regular renter of their banquet services.

I can understand the need to raise the price, with everything else going up, including oil, food and whatnot. I would be willing to pay a higher price for it, if they had only kept up the same quality that they had before. But the new manager has really fouled the place up, and they are now driving away business in droves.

I am going to write a letter to the board of directors sharing my feelings. I hope others are doing so as well. I also hope that the board reconsiders the path that they are allowing Mr. Cwiklik take them down, before things go too far.

I know that there are hundreds of other fish fries in Milwaukee, and I am open to suggestions of a good place, preferably on the south or west side of the county. But what really makes me upset is that what was a cherished family tradition of sharing lives, remembering lost loved ones, and just enjoying each other's company may now be irretrievably lost, just to cut some corners, or simply due to slipshod management.

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