A Tale of Two Bars

By Sabina Badola

Replacing Rivalry With Respect

State Street Brats and the Kollege Klub are located within the same zip code and a mere three-minute walk from each other have an eerily similar formula for success: sports, alumni, and tradition. Both respected establishments, more colloquially known as Brats and the KK, must compete for University of Wisconsin-Madison students looking to let off a little steam every weekend night. One would think that a deep-seated rivalry over which popular bar can get the most inebriated college students flocking into their doors on any given Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night would have been brewing ever since both opened their doors for business 61 years ago in 1953.

Yet, they coexist peacefully. In a mid-sized college town, there are thousands of students moving in and leaving every year. Every semester, the turnover yields a fresh customer base on top of returning alumni.

“A lot of the bars on campus don’t really see each other as competitors because there’s plenty of students looking for stuff to drink. Our capacity is 305. There’s a whole lot more people than 305 that are going to go out on a Saturday night,” general manager of the KK, Kevin Pechumer, explained. “A lot of the owners and managers, we see it as plenty to go around. There’s no need to get cutthroat. There are plenty of college kids that want to get drunk.”

The generational difference in partying style also contributes to the low level of competition. Adult alumni will go to one bar and stay there the entire night, while the college crowd “bar hops,” which is the act of attending many bars to chase the chance of a better night. Therefore, a lot of people make the short trek from Brats to the KK, or vice versa, at least once during a typical weekend night. Undercutting another bar not only harms your own bar’s business, but puts a damper on Madison’s boisterous nightlife overall.

“On a night when I have a night off, I’ll go to Brats for a drink,” Pechumer continued. Everybody knows everybody and it’s not one big happy family but there’s a mutual respect.”

This mutual respect – even camaraderie – is what makes a typical weekend night run so smoothly. The respective staffs of hard-working, yet fun-loving college students set the stage for Madison’s legendary nightlife.

Humble Beginnings

The “decade of prosperity” allowed college students in the 1950s to enjoy a flourishing bar scene. Before State Street Bars and the Kollege Klub had years of tradition under their belts as a core business value, the first owners earned status b genuinely welcoming all students.

Food service experts and bar dwellers, Seymour “Shorty” Keyes and Warren “Lammy” Lamm, marked the beginning of an era when they united to start their own restaurant called Shorty and Lammy’s Brathaus.

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The original Brathaus. Photo by Ann Waidelich.

Shorty and Lammy became known for many things: down-to-earth reputations, reasonable prices (a brat and a beer sold for a quarter each), and even introducing the bratwurst to Madison. But what they are most remembered for today is their hospitality. They became respected for their “wisdom and counsel and friendship [that] saved many a floundering student” (Wisconsin State Journal).

The Kollege Klub was similarly loved for the iconic owners. Founded by Jack Meier and his sons, John (affectionately known as “Big Dad”) and Jim. The Meier family bought the Campus Soda Grill, ironically located where an on-campus library is now, and turned it into the family-owned and family-run Kollege Klub.

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Campus Soda Grill before it was the Meier-owned Kollege Klub

From the start, the Meiers catered towards students and found a simple yet comfortable niche as a campus institution and bar. They don’t use a signature drink or meal to attract business; they don’t keep up with the newest fads and trends. The KK’s seamlessly effortless fit that continues to work today has lead them to jokingly describe themselves as “We are what we’re not.”

“We don’t try to be a nightclub techno bar,” Pechumer pointed out.

It didn’t take long for throngs of customers formed lines out the doors and down the street of the two bars, patiently waiting their turns for a delicious brat or friendly company. When one was busy, the other had a mellow and relaxed atmosphere. Brats and the KK implicitly, perhaps unknowingly, began a symbiotic relationship that kept State Street’s bar scene lively yet manageable.

Enduring Change

As the years passed, State Street Brats and the Kollege Klub still held their respective spots at the top of the college nightlife scene. The 1970s and ’80s triggered progress that furthered both bars’ popularity.

Memorial Library, situated right next to the Kollege Klub, expanded in 1972. The KK relocated off the beaten path of State Street to its own corner of Lake and Langdon streets where it remains today. Pechumer described the windowless location as a “self-contained bunker.” However, the move did not seem to deter any customers from finding their way into the doors of the KK.

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A newspaper announcement (Wisconsin State Journal, September 1953).

The bar kept changing into the 1980s as the first generation shifted out and a new one began filling in to continue the years of tradition. Bruce “The Doktor” Meier bought the Kollege Klub from his dad, “Big Dad” John, in 1983 and would own the KK for 30 years.

While State Streets Brats also remodeled in the early 1970s, it more memorably became a trendsetter for equal employment by breaking their all-male employment barrier in 1973.

“The fellows love having girls here. They’re happy with the change. It gives them a chance to show off their masculinity,” Shorty told the Wisconsin State Journal in 1973. “The gals’ work seems as good as the guys, once they get used to it.”

“The fellows accept you,” first female employee Kathryn Skogg added. “You’re one of the guys.”

Despite Brathaus’ extraordinary growth and success, Shorty and Lammy retired the following year and hired Gary “Jet” Jackson to manage the daily running of the restaurant in 1974. Shorty and Lammy’s retirement saddened regular patrons, but didn’t deter them from returning. Jackson even took Shorty and Lammy’s innovation a step further by opening Brathaus Too, a trendy version of the original complete with an underground cocktail lounge on the Capitol Square in 1977.

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Seymour "Shorty" Keyes (StateStreetBrats.com).

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Warren "Lammy" Lamm (StateStreetBrats.com).

It wasn’t until Wisconsin upped the legal drinking age from 18 to 21 in 1986 that the Brathaus’ good fortune came to a halt. Rumors circulated that the stockholders were pressuring Jet to sell the Brathaus; the rumors turned out to be true. After many disputes, Jet gave up his rights to the name and sold the restaurant he’d managed for 15 wildly successful years.

The dispute snowballed into a citywide controversy.  The change from Brathaus to State Street Brats, set for August 31, 1989, triggered an emotional response in the Madison community. Everyone from the lunchtime regulars to the mayor expressed their displeasure and nostalgia. Wisconsin Court of Appeals judge William Eich summarized the community’s feelings in a Capital Times op-ed:

“Like thousands of present and former customers, I’m sorry to se the old place go. It’s been a part of the life of the community since the early 1950s and part of my own since the early 1960s, and I’ll miss it.”

However, the much-fretted transition went smoothly under current owner’s Kelly Meuer’s supervision and purposeful decision to uphold Brathaus tradition.

Part of the Staff, Part of the Family

State Street Brats and the Kollege Klub become the all-student staffs’ second homes. The Kollege Klub, owned and run by the Meier family for four generations, naturally incorporates family values into the workplace. Current owner Jordan, a fourth generation Meier, has been involved in the KK’s affairs since birth. He would bus tables for a roll of quarters from his dad, Bruce, to play the restaurant’s arcade games.

Father-son dynamics influence the everyday running of the restaurant. Before “Big Dad” John passed away in 2012, grandpa, father, and son would often be in the KK everyday running the restaurant. Family interaction has set the tone and impacts the student staff by incorporating them into the Meier family during their college years.

Shorty and Lammy also created that environment by taking students in under their wing. As Gary “Jet” Jackson stated in 1989, “This [is] our fraternity – a fraternity with a common bond. We all had to work our way through college.”

Dave Zoerb, a part-time employee at the Brathaus during his time as an undergrad in the late ’60s, reflected on this familial bond to the Wisconsin Alumni Association:

“A wide variety of lower State Street personalities […] would come in the back door before opening for coffee and conversation. The coffee was fresh and hot, and the conversation far reaching, covering everything from world politics to Badger athletics, although not necessarily in that order.

Since the Brathaus student hiring pool came from a network of brothers, friends, neighbors, classmates, and roommates of current employees, working there also became a large part of the employees’ social life as well. There were Christmas parties, end-of-school picnics, and even a Lower State Street Businessmen’s Association golf outing sponsored by the Brathaus and other State Street businesses employing students.”

In fact, there weren’t many hours of the day the staff wasn’t hanging out at the Brathaus, morning or night. According to a 1964 issue of the Madison Capital Times, a cop entered the restaurant at 2:30 a.m. with suspicion of burglary; instead he found eight good-natured employees surrounding a table with 17 bottles of beer. (Shorty and Lammy took the sacrifice and were fined $50 each for “permitting tavern open after hours.”)

The current managers of State Street Brats and the Kollege Klub both got their start as part-time student employees. Matt Goesch, manager of Brats, started as a cook his senior year of college in 1999. After college, he became general manager.

Kevin Pechumer, general manager of the Kollege Club, began his management profession the same way. He started bouncing as a college sophomore in 2009, moved his way up to bartender, and eventually became shift manager. When he was graduated, he accepted the promotion of full-time manager.

Goesch and Pechumer both sincerely expressed their gratitude for a fun environment that doubles as their workplace, which is not easy and lucky to come by.

“The coolest part of working here is meeting all the different types of people that I can, whether it’s the business student that’s drinking away his sorrows after the exam on a Tuesday night or the cast of Workaholics,” Pechumer said. “What I really like about this job is that I don’t come in in the morning and do the same thing. A lot of people are stuck in the monotony of their jobs. It’s constantly changing, which I like.”

Fun-loving, all-student staffs are not only the backbone of their respective bars, but also Madison’s thriving and renowned nightlife.

Upholding Tradition

Although the current management makes sure to renovate and create new memories, the bars’ legacies carry on. As long as State Street Brats is in business, it will always have the best-selling red brat on the menu (a butterfly-cut beef pork brat served with fresh buns), cooked “just like Shorty and Lammy did it.”

“This is such a nostalgia spot. Everyone who went to school came here and many met their mates at the KK,” Bruce “The Doktor” Meier said. “There have been hundreds of people who will come up to me and tell me, ‘My parents met here.’”

After 61 years of successful business, State Street Brats and the Kollege Klub have discovered that their surefire formula – sports, tradition, and alumni – is the key to memorable moments for current UW-Madison students and alumni alike.

Brats and the KK stay true to tradition by embracing their identities as college bars. Trends come and go, fads sizzle out, but these bars have stayed on the same path by keeping Badger culture at their cores. Whether the management, appearance, or name changes, these beloved college bars will still remain classic college hangouts and go-to places for a mix of 21-year-old undergrads to start creating memories and for alumni of all ages to come back and reminisce.