By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
Brava magazine, October 2007
Column: Around the Table
Recipe: Berry Mojito
Kristi Genna was doesn’t remember the day her father, Frank, opened Genna’s Lounge in 1964 – she was only three years old at the time. But she knows its role in Madison’s cultural history as one of a cluster of taverns that earned a little stretch of University Avenue downtown the sobriquet “the Bermuda Triangle.” They say the unwary could become lost for days wandering the Black Bear, the 602 Club, Bob and Gene’s, Jocko’s Rocketship – and Genna’s.
In the 1980s, after graduating from the UW-Madison armed with a degree in communications arts, Kristi headed for Chicago “to pursue a career in television and film,” she says. She soon found work in commercials, but when her father fell ill, she found herself spending weekends in Madison helping with the bar.
“It became obvious that I couldn’t remain in Chicago and continue helping my father during his illness, so I moved back to Madison,” she says. “I ran the bar by myself while my father was ill.” After Frank’s death in 1987, ownership passed to Kristi. “Since then, I have never looked back. I am a proud bar owner, and this is what I do.”
In 1993, Genna’s moved to its new location on the Capitol Square, in a historic building that Kristi’s husband, Jack Williams – “with the help of a few loyal patrons,” as Genna’s Web site says – renovated completely.
Today Genna’s combines family tradition with urban sophistication, leading the way in cutting-edge mixology and authentically rendered classic cocktails.
VVK: What are your earliest memories of the family business?
KG: My father would take my sisters and me to help him clean the bar on Sundays. He provided incentive by telling us, “You know those drunks always drop money on the floor.” We later realized that he threw money on the floor as a little treat for us to find.
VVK: Did you think you’d be involved in the operation someday?
KG: Actually, my father refused to let me work at Genna's while I was at UW-Madison. I told him that he didn’t have to pay me – I would just work for tips. Without his permission, I started helping out the bartenders. As business began to increase, over time most of his bartenders left.– they didn’t care for the younger clientele. With more business and a smaller staff my dad conceded that he needed me there. He never put me on payroll, but he always helped me pay the rent. I think in the end he was happy I pushed it.
VVK: Do you still see patrons from those days?
KG: We often see people who once frequented my father’s bar. They usually express some degree of surprise that Genna’s is still operating, even if in a new space. They tell colorful stories about my father, whom I have learned over the years was quite a character.
VVK: Tell me about your passion for this business. What role do establishments like yours play in life and culture?
KG: I believe that taverns, if run correctly, provide a great service to society. People are social animals, and throughout history, we have gathered at meeting places to share our stories. The ancient Greeks and Romans certainly knew the value of gathering over wine to discuss life, art and philosophy. I think Genna’s has provided just such a meeting place over the years. The value of skilled bartenders is not only serving good drinks but also listening to the patrons’ stories as well as contributing their own.
VVK: How has Genna’s – and the Madison lounge scene – changed over the years?
KG: The old Genna’s was a classic hole-in-the-wall Wisconsin tavern – a “shot and beer” bar. Genna’s today retains that classic atmosphere, but the new space allows us to be so much more.
We helped bring the modern cocktail lounge to Madison. Just before the move, I hired Kitty Bennett, who was then head bartender at L’Etoile, to teach our bartenders the art of mixing classic cocktails at drink-making seminars. In 1993 very few people ordered martinis, but we continued offering specials. I persuaded my friends and regulars to try them. Genna’s became one of the few lounges in town serving Martinis, Cosmo[politans]s, and Manhattans.
The current set of bars serving finely crafted cocktails grew around us, and I am proud to have been part of that evolution. Genna’s still offers cocktails that are known to be some of the best and most unique in town. Our Bloody Mary is second to none, and where in Madison can you order a Pimm’s Cup?
We also offer a vast selection of microbrews and hand-crafted beers. Ten years ago, we couldn’t give away a Belgian beer, and now they’re quite popular.
VVK: What’s your secret to success?
KG: Genna’s staff certainly has been a large part of our success. An excellent staff tends to attract other people of the same caliber. And once these professionals are in place, they must have the freedom to be themselves. They help foster an atmosphere of individuality, creativity and free expression. People work better when they know management will support them and back them up. Our staff really is like family.
VVK: What’s the most difficult aspect of the business?
KG: Maintaining the equipment and infrastructure. If it weren’t for my husband Jack, I don’t think Genna's could have made it. Jack built this bar, and he has maintained it and kept it operating for over 20 years.
VVK: What’s been your biggest surprise?
KG: That my marriage has not only survived but thrived. I work alongside my husband every day and it really has been a great experience. After 17 years of marriage we still have so much fun together.