Food and Beverage Options Grow At the Bradley Symphony Center

David Lewellen

Tagged Under: 2021.22 Season, Resonance Food Co.

As the Milwaukee Symphony gets used to offering full concerts in a full hall, full food service is not far behind.

Resonance Food Co., the partnership between the symphony and Levy Restaurants that handles all food and beverage service at the Bradley Symphony Center, began with adjusted offerings in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, offering curbside pickup of meals for patrons to enjoy at home while they watched their live-streamed concerts last winter and spring.

But with the grand opening in October, patrons expected to have something to eat or drink before or during the concert, and Resonance Food Co. has worked to accommodate them, with appropriate pandemic modifications.

“We had planned all along that we would allow beverages in the hall,” even to the extent of installing cup holders in the seats, said Jennifer Samuelson, the MSO’s senior director of patron experience. But nothing was allowed for the first several weeks, until “after four or five weeks, we decided that we would allow beverages to be carried into the hall.”

The MSO’s archives show that in the very early years, during the 1950s and ‘60s in the Milwaukee Auditorium, “there were actually waitresses in the hall delivering drinks to patrons,” Samuelson said. Today, audiences are accustomed to cup holders everywhere, and the symphony is making a conscious effort “for people to feel comfortable in the space and not feel regimented or regulated. We’re trying to be inclusive. Our Pops concerts are not too different from other kinds of concerts.”

But the MSO does have rules about no glass and minimal ice, in order to avoid noise that would compete with the music. “Everything needs to be soft and quiet,” she said, “but people do enjoy sipping wine during a concert.”

As the symphony gains more experience with its new building, the menu is expanding, too. “We have found that our patrons are comfortable eating indoors in groups,” Samuelson said, and food service now includes freshly made sandwiches and sweets.

During the summer, Resonance Food Co. did some catering and trained more staff, said David Zakroczymski, director of operations. But the popular takeout service that paired with the springtime social-distanced concerts ended with the Reimaged Season. “People got kind of burned out with carryout,” he said, “and they’ve become more comfortable with going into restaurants and having dinner.”

Patrons were asking for sandwiches, Zakroczymski said, and Resonance Food Co. has upped the ante with chef-carved sandwiches made to order. Even with little advance publicity, “it was our most popular offering during the first weekend, even more popular than wine or liquor.” Another response to patron suggestions has been more seating in both the Atrium and Gallery spaces.

“A one-stop shop experience is ultimately my goal,” he said, particularly for concertgoers who don’t want to walk a few blocks for other options. Service now starts 90 minutes before the concert, and peaks at around 45 minutes prior. “I know what that pre-performance dinner rush is about” from past jobs, Zakroczymski said.

The food company has also contracted with Signature Sweets, a locally owned business run by Kimberly Hall, to provide cake and other desserts before and after the concert. “We’re creating a post-performance experience,” Zakroczymski said, where patrons can mingle with MSO musicians while enjoying coffee, drinks, or dessert. A possible model, he said, might be the chocolate bar that he offered years ago on weekend evenings at the Intercontinental Hotel, located close to the Marcus Center and the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. But for now, “we’re building a foundation to grow that hour post-performance.”

Although COVID-19 vaccination (or proof of negative test) is required and masks are strongly encouraged in the Bradley Symphony Center, patrons may take off their masks to eat. Sometime early next year, the symphony hopes to offer its first full sit-down pre-concert dinner, if circumstances allow.

Another option that is already available is a sit-down catered lunch following Friday morning performances, with an informal talk by the conductor or soloist. These Meet the Artist Luncheons are available by reservation through the Box Office.

When the MSO moved into its own space, one of many benefits it anticipated was renting the hall out for parties and events, “and that is growing quickly,” Samuelson said. Although bookings have not reached the projections from pre-pandemic times, “we are hosting quite a few corporate holiday parties. It’s generating quite a bit of revenue for us during dark days,” when the symphony doesn’t perform. “We are definitely the hottest new venue in town.”