Food by VICE

I Started Milwaukee's Epic Bloody Mary Garnish Wars

It all started with a few pickles, and the next thing I knew, I was putting entire fried chickens in my Bloody Marys. A full-out garnish war in Milwaukee has ensued.

by Dave Sobelman; as told to Hilary Pollack
Mar 2 2018, 3:00pm

When Dave and Melanie Sobelman of Sobelman's Pub and Grill decided to garnish their Bloody Marys with whole fried chickens, it just seemed like the natural progression of things. After all, the Milwaukee restaurant owners had already been topping their 80-ounce hangover helpers with sliders, bacon-wrapped jalapeño cheese-ball skewers, and entire bottles of Corona. Why not a whole fryer?

Like the over-the-top Caesars of Calgary, this is beyond a meal in a glass. But the story behind it is a little more complicated. Ostensibly, it began as a way to help a neighbor, and then the needy; the Sobelmans donated 10 percent of the the proceeds from each $50 Chicken Fried Bloody Beast to Milwaukee's Hunger Task Force, helping Wisconsin's disadvantaged population while feeding their clientele.

But like anything else, it's also a story of resourcefulness. And war. This is the story of Milwaukee's Bloody Mary garnish wars, as told by Dave Sobelman himself.


The first year, it was just—I don't know—a pickle, an olive, a small shrimp, and a celery stalk, of course.

The original location of Sobelman's Pub & Grill, where I'm at now, is in the Menomonie Valley. It divides the north side of Milwaukee from the south side of Milwaukee, and it's always been industrial. At one time, the north side of the valley had some homes going up the hill to the rest of the neighborhood, but the freeway went through it and the city took out all of the homes. There were many buildings like them, but they're gone. I'm the only one left. So it's a weird thing—I've got the only bar in the valley, other than the one at the casino.

There's a lot of industry around here. Next door is a pickling plant. It's very blue collar, so many owners before me had pickled eggs, or pickled pig's feet, and herring in different sauces that they would offer to customers. People would come and do shots, drink beer, watch TV, and snack on pickled sausage. Just weird stuff.

When I took over, I had different intentions for what I was going to do here. I wasn't doing much business with my neighbor who had sold these items to the previous bar owners. They've been there since the 50s. He was disappointed, but I'm a neighborly guy, and I want to get along with everyone.

I went next door and I saw his showroom, where he had those items—the pickled pig's feet, ham hocks, but also different types of olives, pickled mushrooms and onions, asparagus, normal stuff. He had never mentioned that stuff to me. I was walking back to the bar and thinking to myself, You know what? If I bought all of this stuff from Reinhard and put it in my Bloody Marys, I'll have the most crazy and exciting Bloody Marys in town, and I'll be making my neighbor happy.

I was born in St. Louis. I'm not of the German-Polish stock, which is the majority of people in Wisconsin. These people seem to love all of these over-the-top Bloody Marys. We initially started with 12 or 13 ingredients in the Bloody Mary. But one day, about two and a half years ago, I stuck a cheeseburger on a toothpick on a Bloody Mary and wrote on a Facebook post: "Am I going too far?" The next thing I knew, I had 100 comments. Everyone loved it. It seemed to me to be so ridiculous, but I got home and I sat down at the table and said to my wife, "Wow, I think we're on to something."

sobelmans-bloody-mary-2

Once we started putting pictures of this stuff on Facebook, people started coming in and really wanting this stuff. I think the whole rest of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has learned a whole lot.

Now there's this big Bloody Mary race. Everyone's doing it now—it's no longer just me. Everyone saw the popularity of everything, from the cheeseburger sliders to all of the kebabs that we put in, to the Bloody Beast and then the Chicken-Fried Beast, where we put a three-, four-, five-pound chicken on it. We can sell five to ten of those a week, or sometimes it can be up to 20 or 25 a week..

We've become very popular in the Midwest—people come from other parts of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, northern Illinois, and Indiana. People come for conventions, shows, different concerts. They're in town for one reason, but they're going to make sure they get to Sobelman's Pub & Grill.

Every Bloody Mary comes with 12 or 13 garnishes unless you ask for something different. Every Bloody Mary comes with at least a cheese wedge, a pickled Polish sausage, a pickled mushroom, a pickled Brussels sprout, an asparagus, a celery stalk, a green onion or scallion, and on another toothpick a shrimp, a lemon wedge, and a grape tomato. We put a little wooden spoon in there so you can stir it, and a beer chaser, because we're from Wisconsin and it's just unheard of to get a Bloody Mary that doesn't come with a beer chaser.

It all started with the cheeseburger slider. Then I came up with this crazy idea of taking jalapeño cheese-balls, spicy cheese in a breading, that we deep-fry, then wrap them in bacon, deep-fry again, and then put on toothpicks. We call them the Baconado because it looks like a tornado and it comes right out of your Bloody Mary.

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Then it goes on. We've got the Crown Mary where we take a small bottle of Corona, put it on a bottle holder, turn it upside down, and put it on there so that when you're drinking your Bloody Mary with a straw, you're drinking a combination of the Bloody and the beer. For a time, eight out of ten were the ones with the cheeseburger slider, but now they're all very cool and interesting. Most people are here for the burgers, but I get more attention for the Bloody Marys.

I could go on and on.

There's a new place just up the street. They came up with an over-the-top Bloody Mary, it's like my Bloody Beast. It's just simply designed to get attention by all the local news crews.

There was a place called the INdustri Cafe. The owner put out a Facebook post in which he had this over-the-top Bloody Mary. It had an entire pizza on it. He said, "You see this? You'll never get this at the INdustri, because we just don't do this." I said to my wife, "He just started some shit for himself." Either he's going to have to do this when customers come in and want it, or he's going to have to disappoint his customers and tell them no. He started offering it, but he had to shut down his kitchen on a Sunday and start offering this Bloody Mary only. You do what the customers want you to do. He had to either eat his words and give into this ridiculous Bloody Mary craze in Milwaukee. He eventually went out of business.

I'm losing on some of the Bloody Mary contests. It's gonna happen. My secret's out—it's easy to imitate what I do. But it's my wish for some day for someone to say, "Dave Sobelman started this crazy burger-and-blood-Mary competition." Before me, nobody was making these over-the-top Bloody Marys. Before me, you got a jumbo shrimp, a pickle, an olive, and a celery stalk. All of a sudden, because of this pickling plant next door and wanting to keep peace with my neighbor, I just started throwing everything in a Bloody Mary.

When you do that and you put it on Facebook, you get all this attention. And I think honestly that's what people these days are after—the attention.

I have something new planned for this weekend. I just got back from a food show. But you'll have to wait to see it. It's still a secret.


This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in March 2015.