Remote work: Milwaukee businesses suffer a downtown dilemma

As the world starts to re-open, some people are realizing they actually like working from home. It’s estimated only about a quarter of workers have returned to the office in Milwaukee. This shift in mindset is already changing the heart of downtown. 

Mitz Erickson has made a lot of soup over the years, as the co-owner of the Soup House near the corner of Michigan and Milwaukee. She owns the restaurant with her daughter Ruby. 

"Actually, the very last soup I’m making is a soup I have never made before just because it was the last one in the pile I guess," said Erickson.

Mitz Erickson

Mitz Erickson

On April 28th, Erickson prepared her very last soup: A coconut curry recipe. Her mother clipped the recipe out of a newspaper years ago, but it got lost in the shuffle of a busy business. 

"Every day this dining room would be full and turnover again, and this is only in a three-hour period," said Erickson. 

Surrounded by office buildings downtown, the Soup House was selling out of soup nearly every day until March 2020.

"Just like that everything shut down, and everybody was gone. It was like a ghost town down here for almost a year," said Erickson.

Milwaukee is opening up. The health order, which includes the mask mandate, is set to expire on June 1st. However, that doesn’t mean people are coming back to work. 

"There were a lot of things we didn’t like about being in an office, being in a cubicle all the time. Now we can be very deliberate in how we get together with each other and communicate and really take advantage of the flexibility that remote work offers," said Erin Bloom. 

Erin Bloom

Erin Bloom

Bloom is the head of culture and community at Aquent. The staffing company used to have an office inside the City Center along Water Street. The company let their lease run out earlier this year, deciding to make work-from-home permanent. 

"After a couple of months, we realized we were spending a whole lot on money on wasted office space because people were thriving from home," said Bloom. 

Aquent is just one example of the changing downtown. There are "available office space" signs all over. 

It’s estimated only around 25% of workers in Milwaukee have returned to the office, but Beth Weirick is optimistic. Weirick is the CEO of the Milwaukee Downtown Improvement District BID #21. She’s expecting 50% of workers to return by the fall. 

"We’re all looking at September as a really big comeback time, not only here in Milwaukee but my colleagues across the country," said Weirick.

Beth Weirick

Beth Weirick

Milwaukee’s comeback is not quick enough to save the soup house. 

Mitz and Ruby served that last post of coconut curry soup on April 29th. After 21 years in business, they decided it was time to move on. 

 "The whole thing was exhausting. All the back and forth, the loans. Are the people coming back? Aren’t they coming back? The frustration of all of it has just taken a toll where it’s just like maybe it’s something saying your time is done," said Erickson.

Mitz Erickson

Mitz Erickson

Loyal customers formed a long line outside on the 29th to try to get a final taste.

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"You could see it coming. We’ve been downtown since June, but a lot of offices haven’t. It’s really sad to see a place that’s kind of been a staple for downtown employees leave," said customer Celia Kasten.

Soups quickly started selling out. Only about an hour and a half after opening, the very last bowl sold. 

The Erickson’s hope one day someone else will find success at the corner of Michigan and Milwaukee.

"I think if people come back to work, I think it’ll revitalize again, but I don’t really see that for at least a couple of years," said Erickson.

It’s unclear how many years that comeback will take, and the Erickson’s can’t afford to wait. 

"Definitely out of the soup game for now," said Erickson.