15 Sep 2014
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Hip Restaurant Group Mojofuco Eyes Key North Avenue Corner, But Needs City's Help

Hip, funky Mojofuco Restaurants would open its first suburban location, a second BelAir Cantina, at 68th and North with assistance of CDBG funds.

Hip Restaurant Group Mojofuco Eyes Key North Avenue Corner, But Needs City's Help

One of Milwaukee’s hottest, hippest restaurant groups wants to come to a key location on North Avenue, in what would be its first foray into any suburb — but it needs help from the city to make it work.

Mojofuco Restaurants, owners of the Hi-Hat Lounge, The Garage, Fuel Café, Balzac, Palomino and BelAir Cantina, would like to open a second BelAir on the southwest corner of West North Avenue and North 68th Street.

“We’re optimistic that we can put this project together,” said Kristian Sydow, vice president of Grubb & Ellis Apex Commercial in Brookfield, who is the commercial real estate broker for the group. “But that’s dependent on some public financing assistance.”

Mojofuco owners Kristin St. Dennis, Leslie Montemurro and Scott Johnson are asking for $150,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds, Sydow said. The group will present its case 8 a.m. Tuesday before the Wauwatosa Economic Development Commission.

CDGB funds are not locally tax-based. They are federal tax funds returned to local governments for beneficial projects.

Sydow said that he and Mojofuco are near to a closing on the building but need to know the outcome of their CDBG request to finalize the deal.

“We really need the WEDC to step up for us,” Sydow said. “They’ll have a feather in their cap. This is a $1.3 million redevelopment project.

“It’s all the things that Tosa wants, it’s all the things that (Mojofuco) wants: to fill a space on the sidewalk with a good, solid, attractive business that will bring jobs to North Avenue.”

“We hope to have this all together in August,” Sydow said. “This project has been wrought with a lot of extra steps. It’s been extremely complicated to put together.”

Mojofuco partner Johnson said, “We have intentions of opening a restaurant. We haven’t gotten any loans on it yet. That’s about all I can say at this point.”

Dividing up the CDBG pie

Complicating matters, though, is the fact that the BelAir request and two others add up to more than the total of CDBG funds Wauwatosa has to dole out.

“Depending on how (WEDC) divides up the funds, that could make the difference,” Sydow said.

A story reported Friday in WauwatosaNOW pointed out that BelAir’s $150,000 ask, a $130,000 request from restaurant, 6913 W. North Ave., and a $199,000 request from , 802 N. 109th St., come out to more than $130,000 over the $347,000 WEDC has to expend.

NOW’s report said the city is already invested in the BelAir project, with $100,000 already approved from the Wauwatosa Revolving Loan Fund.

Il Mito’s request said it would create up to eight new jobs and the Century Services would create three, the story said.

Sydow told Patch that the BelAir request would create an entire new restaurant staff that might total some 25 employees, although he said he was not sure how many full-time equivalencies that would be.

A key business at a key location

It’s impossible to say whether one business, more or less, can make or break a whole commercial district — but BelAir Cantina could be the game-changer that East Tosa has been waiting for.

The property, vacant for some time, was last occupied by the Aqua Terra tropical fish store. It is considered an anchor location, a large lot, dead-center in the district at the crossroads of its principal thoroughfares.

For some time, it’s been an anxious eyesore for many in the community — a drab, rundown, empty building right at the axis of the area. Detractors of East Tosa have for years pointed at that single property as the antithesis of progress: If you can’t keep your anchor locations filled with solid, successful businesses, how good can you be?

That would change dramatically in the hands of Mojofuco. The BelAir Cantina Tosa, if its predecessor at 1935 N. Water St. in Milwaukee is any model, will be bright, sleek and inviting. The motto is “Cali-Mexican done right,” with a lengthy menu of border classics.

The move is certainly a game-changer for Mojofuco, if not for East Tosa. In the nearly two decades since first opening Fuel Café in Riverwest, the eclectic owners have targeted every funky, bohemian haven in Milwaukee, never leaving the city and never once repeating a concept.

With the city’s east side hangouts and Bay View covered, they most recently moved toward a more nightclubby, downtown destination feel with BelAir Cantina on Water.

A nexus on North Avenue?

Replicating that concept on North Avenue signals that, as the suburbs go, Tosa could be the new place to be and be seen — and not just in the Village.

“I would just be thrilled if they can come to North Avenue,” said Meg Miller of the East Tosa Alliance. “I don’t know what else to say — I’d just be thrilled. It would be so good for the district.”

There is plenty of disposable income in the area to support it (and no other nearby Mexican restaurants to compete with it). A demographic and economic study commissioned for the North Avenue Redevelopment Plan found that $20 million a year in entertainment spending was leaving the district for lack of places to spend it.

The news should be particularly welcome for some area business owners, such as Lee Barczak, the new owner of the soon-to-reopen , next door to the long-empty storefront.

The immediate neighborhood has recently attracted new businesses including Rocket Baby Bakery, and Signature Sweets. It’s also home to established restaurants Il Mito, close by, and , up the avenue to the east, as well as the popular coffee-and-doughnut shop in the morning, pizza stop at night .

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