In Good Company: Local Brewery Leans into the Creative Process
Since 2015, Company Brewing has operated as part restaurant, part brewery, and part music, art and community space. Recently, I sat down with Myrica von Haselberg and George Bregar, the married co-owners of Company Brewing. From the start, the vision was a reflection of the owners’ artistic roots. In addition to working as the executive chef, Myrica is a professional photographer and food stylist, and George is a musician, whose early associations with Riverwest included performing house shows there in the early 2000s. After working for fourteen years in the Milwaukee coffee industry, George dreamed of transforming his beer brewing hobby into a business. But it was the prospect of ownership of the space at 735 E. Center Street that inspired him to make the leap.
Over the last seven years, the business has evolved, expanding and contracting to weather the pandemic and adapt to changing circumstances. What has remained the same throughout its existence, though, is Company Brewing’s commitment to supporting the creative sector in Milwaukee, through employment of artists, art and music programming, and creative collaborations. Creativity is woven into the fabric of Company Brewing and has positioned the brewhouse, venue and restaurant as one of Milwaukee’s most vibrant and productive cultural hubs.
What was the initial concept of Company Brewing?
George: The concept was to have a space that would be a reflection of the community, and where it would be our decision to enable that. Living in Riverwest, I was really familiar with this building and this space. I might’ve opened a brewery somewhere else, but I was really just pursuing this location. It was like, “It would be cool to take over that spot.” And try to do beer well, and do food well, and do music well and do arts well. We were practically a music venue first; we did two or three shows before we even opened. Because of my background as a musician, that made me put extra attention into making sure the experience that the bands were having was good —that we were on top of the sound equipment, that we had good engineers. We put a lot of energy into the experience, not just for the guest, but for the artist, right out of the gate.
How has it changed?
G: The way we operate has naturally evolved. For example, one day we lost our chef. We said, “We’re gonna take this in-house and do it a different way.” That’s how Myrica got involved. That’s been one of the themes at Company for the last seven years: trying things in different ways and learning from mistakes…continually trying to improve.
How has the internal culture of Company evolved over the years?
Myrica: We have a wonderful community of staff. It's important to me to have a place where people are having positive interactions together instead of just doing their thing. When we started, we didn't have a lot of experience, so we were just following a standard management organizational system, which is to hire managers and hire staff to get the work done. I think we've realized the benefits of more engagement with our individual staff, and have made an effort to invest more time and energy into helping them understand what motivates us and get them on board, cross-trained and engaged in a different way. We’re laying the groundwork for having a staff who are engaged and are hopefully having a more satisfying job experience.
Why does it matter that a person is engaged with their whole self in the workplace?
M: I think during the pandemic, we all realized how important these more casual interactions are. Our workplaces are not our family, and we don't have the same kind of relationship with them. But having regular, more casual interactions with people is a crucial need in our life. People who are removed from you by a few degrees are actually really important. These relationships can be affirming and just make life better.
When I think about the profile of a team member at Company, I think of someone who is actively contributing to the art or music scene, and a person who tries to make you feel at ease, comfortable. Would you say this is a fair characterization?
G: “Comfy Brewing.” I’m glad that’s been your experience. A space like ours that hosts music and art a lot is going to attract musicians and artists. It is still the service industry, and it's a volatile world. But we’ve been really lucky that we've gotten so many great people. As the years have gone by, we’ve de-emphasized experience and emphasized personality when we hire. People use that silly phrase “would you want to have a beer with the person?” in the interview phase, but I think there’s some validity to that.
Is it a prerequisite that someone be a creative to work at Company?
M: No, but all my staff are really good at creative problem solving. What needs to go on the menu? How are we going to fix this thing? How can we improve our flow to be more efficient? These are all problems that involve creativity. And there's a lot of grind in the kitchen, just like there is in a creative profession. I come from an art background, and I'm in the beginning of this journey with my staff trying to turn us into a more creative team. I'm already getting into more interesting conversations with them, and I feel like it's improved the quality of our work relationship a little bit, just the reminder of creativity: the fun part of what we do.
Tell me about the name "Company Brewing."
G: It’s really a blank slate. It could take on a very business-like feel, it can have a community type feel, like, “you're in the company of friends.” And almost every brewery has the word “company” in their name. It was an intentional decision to flip the words around, put “company” first and have this kind of blank slate word lead the branding. We did it because we wanted Company to become what others put into it, not what it was about for us.
Speaking of infusing Company with the creativity of others—can we talk about the branding and can designs by Nat Pyper?
G: One of the things that I really love about Nat is that they don't really care about beer at all, and that's perfect. Most beer branding is repetitive and targeted at the exact same person. And you can tell that the designers are staring at all the other brands all day long when they design for the client they have. Nat’s work totally made me think about what our brand is and what we're doing in a different way. I love all the stuff that they do for our brand and what the designs reveal about us. They helped create our identity. But we were open to it and it turned out great
M: Yeah, it looks super simple, but the more you look at it, the more you see, and all of their work tells multilayered stories.
Tell me about how creativity plays a role at Company.
M: A recent example: we just put N/A drinks on the cocktail list, and that’s because our staff collaborated to get them there. They brought it up, organized a tasting. From start to finish, it was generated by our staff.
G: I spend a lot of time thinking of creative ways to support artistic projects. It’s really about getting out of the way as much as you can. The more you do that, and the less you care about getting credit for something, the more space there is for people to be confident and comfortable being creative. When you approach problem solving creatively, it can lead to a mistake. I spend a lot of time reminding people that I don’t care that a mistake happened. I give them the benefit of the doubt and also expect the benefit of the doubt. We’re all gonna make mistakes.
So this is a safe space for experimentation.
G: Yea. You’re never going to get people to be creative if they are nervous about making a mistake.
M: We have to remember to give each other the benefit of the doubt so that we can keep trying new stuff. But you don’t get to give up just because something failed: you have to push through to the finish. You have to try again. One of my kitchen staff is an incredibly fast, very good line cook. And I was talking to him about it one time, like “you did a great job.” And he said “yeah, you gotta keep pushing.” I think about that sometimes when I’m in the weeds.
Highlight a couple of your favorite projects from over the years.
M: I really loved FemFest. I loved seeing our space filled up with people, life and music. The vibe was really good.
G: Full Moon Karaoke, in terms of the spirit of it. But there’s a lot of lesser-known things that are not as grand that we’ve made space for. Those are the things that I am probably most proud of. Even tonight: we’re doing an open mic poetry thing. We’re not an event space, and we see all different types of clientele. Normally you would never throw poetry into the middle of restaurant service … but, we do. It comes back to not worrying too much if it ends up being a mistake. We’re not worried if it doesn’t work out or it makes a few people have an experience that they weren’t expecting. We do think about the bottom line, but there’s a lot of things that we do that are not for that.
What are some of the challenges that you’re facing, and how are you faring?
M: Business has been slower because of COVID. We’re now in a weird place where things aren’t back to normal. Or is this now normal? It feels like you’re waiting for the next shoe to drop. There are a lot of things that we had to improve or that we chose to improve because we had the opportunity to. But it is work getting things started up again all the time. There are all these things that got interrupted, like the Beer Endowment, and we need to make sure they are thriving or moving in the right direction.
G: These days, our goal is to teach as much about the business to as many people as possible. Because we do that more, we have more face-to-face time with our staff, which opens up the door to more meaningful conversations.
M: It’s ok to say, “I’m having a hard day today.” It lets people know: I am struggling right now. It’s important to feel like it’s ok to be an imperfect person. We can support each other as needed to get the job done.
G: Service Industry businesses that don't have diverse revenue streams seem to have suffered more. Having the wholesale beer, the restaurant, a music venue … we were able to have a little bit of all of those things, and push the levers up and down until the mix was right. It helped me to keep seeing different people and keep interacting with customers—to keep the flame lit during all this. In some ways our job is really difficult because we have so much going on at one time, but it has also helped us to be diverse. We can call up different parts of what we’re doing when needed.
What do you hope that Company Brewing is known for?
G: It comes back to the original premise of Company Brewing. It can keep evolving. I want it to continue to exist so it’s there for people to use.
M: Yeah. If you like it, it’s because you came here.
Company Brewing celebrates its seventh anniversary this April. Company Brewing is open daily for lunch and dinner service, and brunch on Saturdays and Sundays.
FemFest is a “multidisciplinary arts festival with iterations in Milwaukee and Madison that includes music, visual art, performance art, film & video, comedy, poetry, a maker's market, and workshops. The event raises money for local non-profit organizations that serve women, LGBTQIA+ individuals, and families.” The event has been organized in Milwaukee by Mary Joy Hickey, Olivia Doyle, Ellie Jackson, and Johanna Rose. Read Milwaukee Record’s piece on FemFest 2019.
Full Moon Karaoke and Variety Show ran from 2016 to 2020 and was held on or around the night of the full moon each month. The show “combined karaoke, live music, and performance art.” The event series was organized and hosted by artist Sara Caron and co-hosted by Kayle Karbowski and Stephen Strupp.
Company Brewing’s can designs are by artist Nat Pyper.
The Beer Endowment is a project of artist John Riepenhoff, and is “a collaboration between breweries and artist-run organizations. The beer recipes describe qualities of the artist-run projects and serve as a way to promote and raise funds for them.”
Establishment images courtesy Company Brewing
Beer can images, courtesy Nat Pyper
FemFest image by Jessi Paetzke, courtesy Riverwest FemFest
Full Moon Karaoke and Variety Show images, courtesy Sara Caron