Recreation and Re-creation on the Riverfront

A revived riverside building blends businesses into year-round good times.


Clockwise from left in Boone & Crockett: Derek Collins, Emily and John Revord, and Mitch Ciohon

The Cooperage

It’s a gray and dreary morning, but inside The Cooperage — a music hall, event space and wedding venue housed within a Cream City brick building on South Water Street — the atmosphere is anything but. A wall of glass windows floods the space with natural light, offering unbeatable views of the Hoan Bridge and Milwaukee River, and exposed steel beams and wood floors add warmth and texture. Edison-style string lights dangle overhead, and fresh greenery decorates various columns and hard surfaces, inspiring co-owner Mitchell Ciohon, a trained chef, to liken the space to a greenhouse. Outside, a joint patio area and greenspace hugs the Milwaukee River.

But the event space is just one piece of the building and its surrounding property. A separate entrance leads to Boone & Crockett, the cozy craft cocktail bar owned by John Revord. Ciohon’s wildly popular food truck, Taco Moto, is a permanent fixture in the parking lot. Ciohon’s friend and fellow Milwaukeean Derek Collins also operates his multiple businesses — which include Milwaukee Pedal and Paddle Taverns, Brew City Kayak and a Duffy Sun Cruiser boat rental service — from the riverside location too, with plans to build out a brick and mortar space nearby this year.

Together with two Minneapolis-based partners, the trio purchased the building from former owner Paul Mueller in early 2018. Mueller had owned the building and the dual dance clubs/entertainment venues it housed — better known as Hot Water and Wherehouse — for decades, and Revord says it was Collins who first heard murmurs of Mueller wanting to sell.

“Honestly, we were super lucky that a big developer didn’t find out that we were nosing around here,” adds Revord. “We told Paul right away that a big development company could come in and pay way more than us, but they would gut the 40 years of work he put in. … [We said,] ‘You can either go that route or go with us. It will be less money, but we’ll build upon everything you’ve built upon over the years and operate the space the same way.’ And he loved it.”

To their credit, Revord (whose wife Emily serves as The Cooperage’s director of operations) and his partners have, quite literally, built upon Mueller’s work. The wood floors in Boone & Crockett were installed by Mueller himself and left intact, and The Cooperage regularly hosts Latin dance nights — an homage to the Wherehouse and its once-esteemed reputation as one of Milwaukee’s top salsa clubs. Much of the building was untouched by Mueller, though, so Revord, Ciohon and Collins have renovated additional spaces to better accommodate their businesses and provide new revenue opportunities.

Ciohon, for example, most recently completed construction on a commercial-grade kitchen that he’ll use as a prep kitchen for both Taco Moto and The Cooperage’s catering operations. Beyond the ground floor, an Airbnb that sleeps eight (a boon for visiting bands and wedding guests) and artist studio space were added to the second floor, and the third floor — a 5,000-square-foot space with river views — is currently vacant, though they hope to lease it commercially to a local business. Adds Ciohon, “The building was at about 15 percent activation [before], and now it’s at 115 percent.”

This spacious Airbnb features decor by Bay View boutique URSA.

This spring the trio will turn their focus outside, where they hope the synergy between their businesses will shine. “Because there is a lot of activity between [Derek’s] companies and our company and [Mitch’s] food truck outside, we want to do a beautification project to make this whole [riverside] thing sort of like our own boardwalk,” says Revord. Kayakers can grab a cocktail from Boone & Crockett while they wait for their tour, he continues, or enjoy Taco Moto tacos for lunch on Boone’s patio. The project will also complement the city’s bold redevelopment plans for the harborfront area of the Milwaukee River.

“The RiverWalk space is going to be extended all the way down through this area and into Bay View,” explains Ciohon. “We are one of the first people on the list for that riverfront development …  because we’re the only business of this nature on this part of the river that they’re going to develop and we’re the only ones that are open and operating right now, besides the [nearby] marina.” They even adopted a portion of the Milwaukee River through Milwaukee Riverkeeper’s Adopt-A-River Program, which asks participants to clean their section of the river two times per year, and recently held a fundraiser that raised thousands of dollars for the nonprofit.

Future growth will be organic, they say, such as inviting other food trucks to park in their lot and sell to their patrons during the summer months. “We’re kind of creating a little city down here,” adds Revord. “... It’s very much still a work in progress, but we’re super happy with how everything is working out.” MKE