On June 30, 1996, Jeff Feltmann was accepting the keys to his very own business, the Old Milwaukee Club in Ideal Township, when the restaurant and bar manager asked Feltmann if he would last as long as the former owners, Chet and Elaine Nelson, who had owned the club for 23 years.
Without hesitation, Feltmann said, "No way. I'll probably get bored with this and move on before 23 years go by."
The place must have grown on him because 23 years and some days later, Feltmann still doesn't have any plans to leave.
"Every day is a challenge, and I don't mind," Feltmann wrote in a summary of his 23 years of ownership. "There is no time to get bored. The phone is always ringing to fix something, go find more product because we ran out, or the 'I can't come in today, I'm not feeling well.'"
In addition to ownership, many other features at the Old Milwaukee Club have not changed in the past two-plus decades. There is still a large rock in the parking lot where children (and adults with off-road vehicles) like to have fun. There is still a large, brick wood stove in the center of the bar, and the walls are still decorated with street signs.
Features like that are the source of a lot of memories and stories at the club.
“People remember it from when they were kids,” Feltmann said. “They come here and say, 'I haven't been here in 30 years but that's the same and that's the same. And that same person is sitting at the bar!'”
Some patrons today still remember socks hanging around the wood stove in the winter, hung up to dry for snowmobiling patrons. One still remembers sitting in a booth as a child when the attack on Pearl Harbor was announced over the radio. Others remember the open attic with a plastic Santa looking down on them. Even some of the staff and regulars are the same.
Things like that are why Feltmann hasn't removed the parking lot boulder to make room for another parking spot or removed the wood stove to make room for more seating. Even when there was a fire at the bar in December 2005, Feltmann repaired the bar with the old materials salvaged from the fire, or old wood that recreated the original look.
“The first thing I noticed when I bought the club was all the history and signs on the walls,” Feltmann said. “I knew right away they all had a story, so I kept them.”
Not everything is the same, however. Feltmann has changed a small handful of things. He has updated, remodeled and expanded the kitchen. He added a patio and moved seating around. Feltmann offers services like catering, as well as private dinner reservations in The Executive Room, which features a five-course meal in the off-season.
“There really hasn't been much to change,” Feltmann said. “Even the employees haven't changed very much. We did put a patio on the south side of the restaurant with a fire pit.”
While his tenure has lasted longer than he expected, Feltmann does hope to pass the torch eventually.
“I plan on sticking around for a while,” Feltmann said. “I’m waiting for my son, Benjamin, to come up from the Cities and take over one of these days, but he is enjoying being a chef and managing the restaurant Travail, currently in Uptown, till they move back to Robbinsdale at a new location. So I have a feeling he won’t be up anytime soon. So in the meantime, my staff and I will keep plugging away at one of the most unique bar and restaurants in the Brainerd lakes area.”