Exploring new culinary territory
Story by Edible Milwaukee staff
Photography by Joe Laedtke
Though being your own boss is certainly a benefit, for Nell Benton owning and running The National Cafe and Catering means leaning into and improving your local community, day-by-day. On a larger level, this leadership is also about lending a hand to those in need, whether by providing space to Chef Greg Leon and partner Orry Leon’s pop-up concept, Amilinda, or in helping to organize dinners for worthy causes with fellow chef-members of Milwaukee Food For Thought.
“I call Nell ‘Milwaukee’s sweetheart’–and I call her this often. Without her allowing us to use her space, we wouldn’t have had the exposure we received this past year. We are now on the verge of opening our own restaurant,” says Chef Greg Leon.
Since purchasing the business in 2011 for $100 and a promise to uphold a list of magnanimous stipulations by the previous owner, Benton’s continued investment into the community has not gone unnoticed. The neighborhood’s response to her presence has manifested some old-fashioned means of appreciation: a regular clipped the lawn of the cafe for weeks before he was caught in the act of anonymous do-gooding. Another customer helped with the cafe’s spotty Internet and oversaw the setup of new cameras and security equipment for the cafe. This unprovoked samaritanism seems a reflection of Benton’s own generous spirit.
“These past few years have been a crash course learning how to own and grow a business, and in building strong community ties. This upcoming era is all about pushing myself as a chef and exploring new culinary territory”, says Benton.
This September brought exciting change for Benton: in addition to the building that houses The National, she also purchased the building next door, adding landlord, in addition to business owner and property manager, to her list of titles. Although The National has no plans to expand the physical space of their cafe, Benton hints at future dining possibilities in collaboration with fiance, Thi Cao of Buckley’s Restaurant. If previous collaborative menus at Food For Thought dinners are any indication, Milwaukee will have another reason to write home about our innovative restaurant scene.
*This article is an updated version of the piece that appeared in Edible Milwaukee’s winter 2014-2015 edition. The editor regrets the errors in print.
The National Cafe and Catering
839 W. National Ave., Milwaukee, WI • nationaleats.com • 414-431-6551