Weary Traveler changing hands after 20 years, co-owner

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The three owners of The Weary Traveler Freehouse sold the business Tuesday to a longtime bartender and his business partner.

Christopher Berge, who had a 50% share, said he’s spent 11,911 days in the restaurant business.

That’s 32 1/2 years, and Berge said he’ll have more time to travel and won’t have to constantly put out fires at the Williamson Street restaurant and bar, where he said employees usually quit two at a time.

Weary Traveler owner fighting for 'the character of the neighborhood'

Berge spoke outside the restaurant last Sunday morning after he got a call from the restaurant’s security company that the alarm was going off.

He opened The Weary in 2002 with his brother, Bowe Berge, and Bregan Fuller, and was a co-founder of the former Blue Marlin, the former Restaurant Magnus, Barriques, Nattspil and the former Cortadito Express in the old Cardinal Bar.

The Weary is known for its West of the Andes sandwich made with beef tenderloin or tuna steak, Bob’s Bad Breath Burger, tom ka tofu soup, Hungarian goulash, and relaxing, convivial atmosphere.

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Berge, who sold his share of Nattspil two years ago, said his start in the restaurant business came on Nov. 9, 1989, the day the Berlin Wall fell.

Bowe Berge, 52, said he’s also been working a state government tech job for the past five years. He said he’s a little nostalgic about selling the business, adding that after 20 years, he’s looking forward to “not having to work the weekends for the first time in decades.”

Jeff Schmidt, 44, and Kyle Martin, 41, are taking over. Schmidt, who studied economics at UW-Madison, has bartended and been bar manager at The Weary since 2008, and has been in the Madison bar industry since 1999.

He started at The Comedy Club on State and has worked at Johnny’s Italian Steakhouse, 1855 Saloon and Grill in Cottage Grove, the former Restaurant Magnus, The Ivory Room Piano Bar, 1847 at the Stamm House, with some of those jobs overlapping.

Martin, who is from Watertown and graduated from UW-Madison in 2004, has lived in New York City the past 18 years.

He was the chief operating officer and partner in Sweet Chick restaurants in New York City and Los Angeles, and co-founder of Ludlow Coffee Supply in New York City.

Rapper Nas, one of hip hop’s biggest stars, is a partner in the chicken and waffles business, which, Martin said, has five locations plus outlets in the Mets and Dodgers baseball stadiums.

Martin moved back to Madison in May and sold his shares in the coffee shop, but said he’s still an investor in Sweet Chick, but not involved in day-to-day operations anymore.

He said The Weary has been a favorite of his from the beginning and that he always stopped there when he was home from New York. Martin said he met Christopher last winter, hit it off, and Christpher offered to sell it to him when he heard Martin was considering moving home.

“It’s quite the honor,” Martin said just after signing the legal paperwork. “I knew how important Weary was not only to the staff, but to the community.

“Being back this last month and talking to people, really let me know how important this restaurant is, understanding we have a big task and making sure we keep it similar,” he said. “That all the people who’ve been coming for the past 20 years feel just as comfortable as they have throughout the years.” 

Martin said that a new chef, Cookie Scheib-Brazzel, started April 15 and “has been doing some really great things. She’s super passionate about not only The Weary Traveler, but food in general.”

According to Scheib-Brazzel’s LinkedIn profile, she worked doing food prep at The Weary from March 2015 to October 2017 and as a sous chef at The Edgewater from July 2015 to October 2018.

Martin said they’re going to keep all the classics on the menu, but add some items and hopefully get brunch running again soon.

“We’re kind of taking the summer to just reassess things and get our feet on the ground,” Martin said. “And then, hopefully by fall, really come out with what we believe will be a really strong menu. That’ll feature all the classics with some of Cookie’s new creations.”

Berge (copy)

Christopher Berge photographed last year outside The Weary Traveler Freehouse, the restaurant and bar he’s co-owned for 20 years.

Samara Kalk Derby | Wisconsin State Journal

Meanwhile, Bowe Berge said the most important thing to him is continuity. “It was fun. It was a good time,” he said. “We just wanted to make sure that it continues… I’ve already made plans and have moved on. I just wanted to make sure that the employees are taken care of, our customers are taken care of.”

Bowe said the restaurant, at 1201 Williamson St., has about 30 employees, which is a little less than it had pre-pandemic.

“It would seem a waste if we were to simply shut it down, which is an option, but not one we would like to do. I would much rather some people who have some attachment to the business and care about it, take it over and it sounds like we’ve lined up people to do that.

“So, I’m pretty excited that I’ll be able to, hopefully, go and dine at The Weary Traveler for the next 20 years as well.”

Read more restaurant news at: go.madison.com/restaurants

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