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Our Milwaukee • Beans & Barley

by Jim Loew ~photos by Janice Christensen Amidst a time of many protests and demonstrations — over the war, the evils of big business — sprang a little natural foods store on the 2400 block of North Murray Avenue — where Cory The Bike Fixer sits today — called Beans & Barley. Original owner, Mike Stevens, opened his store in August 1973 with only about six barrels for bulk food and two coolers. According to Lynn Sbonik, who became a partner in 1976, Stevens (who with his wife, Debbie, now live in California) was working at a vegetarian co-op in the old Sydney Hih building called Fertile Dirt. With a wife and one child, however, it was near impossible to raise a family on a co-op’s wage. So Stevens needed a steady income, which is why he opened Beans & Barley, according to Sbonik. Though The Jazz Estate was still across the street, the landscape on Murray Avenue was a bit different back in the early 70s. Next door to Beans & Barley you had Anita Foods; in a nearby basement, you had the popular Dancing Bear Bookstore; there was an upholstery store around the corner; and Van’s Bakery, noted for its chocolate doughnuts, was up the block. “Mike liked the vicinity,” said Sbonik. “It was also close to the Children’s Co-op,” a daycare run by parents where Stevens’ daughter went. Little by little, Beans & Barley grew. In 1979, having outgrown its Murray Avenue location, it moved just a few blocks away to its current spot on North Avenue. It also opened its restaurant at this time. “Mike always wanted fast food that was healthy food,” said Sbonik. “Well, it’s not fast food, but it is healthy.” There were only six seats in the dining room at the time, and some of the first menu items are still just as popular today — the burrito, the egg salad sandwich, and the poppy seed cake. The restaurant proved popular, and seating expanded — first to 20, and then to 45. The menu also grew. Yet Beans & Barley has never hired a chef. “We have been really lucky to have cool and interesting people,” said Sbonik. “People who have really liked to eat and cook.” The crew often worked off old recipes, tweaking them as they went along. For some, it might have been an old recipe from a grandparent. “When I look at the list of salads,” said Sbonik, recalling their origins, “it’s almost historical.” Things were going well for Beans & Barley. And then, during lunchtime in the summer of 1993, the building, as the old saying goes, went up in a fiery blaze of glory. At the time, there were three businesses in the building: Beans & Barley, East Side Wine and Spirits,and in the basement, Esoteria. East Side Wine and Spirits was experiencing a leaky roof, so there was a repairman on top doing work. The day was warm but windy. The repairman smelled smoke, and you could see smoke coming out of the vents and ceiling in Beans & Barley. “Uh oh,” thought Sbonik at the time, “this isn’t good.” Quickly, Sbonik and others were telling patrons that they needed to leave the building. After the last of the flames were extinguished, all that remained was the foundation and one usable wall. The insurance company was never able to pinpoint the cause of the fire. So working with a local architectural firm and an interior designer, the process of rebuilding began. In late fall of 1994, the Beans & Barley you see today opened its doors. Inside, new things awaited — namely, a deli, which started small and has since grown. Seating capacity also expanded to about 80 seats, plus 15 more on the patio during the warmer months. But Beans & Barley isn’t just its restaurant and deli. It is also home to a fabulous market, with the mission of carrying local products whenever feasible. “We try to feature locally made and locally grown as much as possible,” said Sbonik. “Our grocery manager, Todd Leech, for instance, is excited to be getting a new line of milk from Sassy Cow Creamery,” she said, which is a one-farm dairy out of Southern Wisconsin. Any frequent patron of Beans & Barley is also familiar with its rather interesting toy section, where you might find wind-up chattering teeth, Sigmund Freud finger puppets, a switch-blade mustache comb, or glow-in-the-dark fairies. This is entirely Sbonik’s doing. “I buy gifts and cards,” she said, “that’s my department.” Because of the store’s loyal clientele, Sbonik likes to change up the selection. “People get tired of the same old things,” she said. “And people seem to like what I like — for the most part,” she added with a chuckle. In addition to Sbonik, who lives in Riverwest, she is partners with husband and wife team, Patty Garrigan and Pat Sturgis, and Eastside resident Peg Silvestrina. As for the future of Beans & Barley, the group has no big plans in the works. They will continue allowing the East Side Green Market to use its parking lot for the various organic produce vendors, artists, performers and customers during the summer and early fall months, which came about to help raise the profile of the neighborhood. “This area was always known as an evening place,” said Sbonik. “We wanted to highlight the day businesses.” Throughout all the years, Beans & Barley has been a labor of love. “I would just like to give a lot of credit to our staff,” said Sbonik. “They’ve been spectacular, they’ve been interesting, and they are very important to our success.” Plus, she added, “there are our wonderful and loyal group of customers. All of these people — singing the song — have made this an interesting and vital business.” Beans & Barley 1901 E North Ave 414.278.7878 beansandbarley.com Open daily 8AM – 9PM