A lot of really big things happened on the shopping, service and restaurant scene this year.
If we were to describe a general trend of Wausau-area business changes that occurred in 2019, it would be that shops and services are taking a different approach to how they provide their products to customers. Only a few of our Buzz stories from 2019 fit the traditional narrative of “here’s a familiar kind of new store, come buy things” — though there were plenty of those in a year that saw a tremendous amount of notable changes.
Changing business practices — disruption, if you want to use fancy buzz words — mean Wausau folks get to try something new, and experience them in a different way. Everything from new ways to eat ice cream (nitrogen, who knew?) to new ways to play golf, to new ways to operate an animal hospital. Heck, there’s even a new pop-up singing group in Wausau. We can’t highlight everything that happened on the scene in 2019, but here are the notable moments.
Whitewater Music Hall owners (and sisters) Kelly Ballard and Leslie Patterson
To start, we need to dedicate some space to Whitewater Music Hall.
Did Wausau really need another music venue, and could the market support it? Turns out that was the wrong question. Kelly and Brad Ballard and Leslie Patterson turned Whitewater into so much more. They’ve opened the large space to musicians, artists, film screenings, plays, political groups, non-profits, birthday parties and pretty much anyone who wants to use a big open modern space in a historic building that for decades was the Masonic Lodge. There’s even an artist co-op in the adjoining space below.
That’s not even mentioning their concert series, so far focused on bluegrass but with other genres mixed in. The place is a coffee shop during the day, and a great place to grab a beer at night. It’s hard to remember the building had been an under-used, largely empty space that once made City Pages’ list of woeful empty buildings.
Whitewater is only one in the genre of doing new things with old spaces, ideas or business models. Insta-Choir is another good example. Through the Grand Theater, sign up for a quick text, show up a few days later to sing with strangers for an hour, then go home. Do it again if you want to, or the next time. Considering people’s crazy busy schedules these days, more of this please!
Wausau Animal Hospital is another great example of updating business models. While Townline Road was under construction this year, they rebuilt the hospital to be more pet friendly, separating cat and dog entrances, designing exam tables at the pet’s level, and thinking about every aspect of the process to make sure Fido the dog and Felix the cat feel as comfortable as possible.
And let’s talk food. 180 Cuts Market didn’t invent the quick meal, they just made it a whole lot healthier. Whether it’s their salmon and rice and veggie take-home, heat-and-eat meals, the cauliflower crust pizzas, or healthy protein smoothies, this local venture proves that healthy food can also be fast. Now they just need to open another location, preferably in City Pages’ break room.
Biggby Coffee didn’t make ice cream healthier, but they made it more tasty (who knew this was possible!). Their Nitrogen-cooled ice cream is a visual feast as well as darned tasty. Ice cream becomes an experience.
Target transformed its food court into a Starbucks. But you could also go to Condor Coffee Company, which opened in 2019 in the building right in front of Target, if you want to keep it local instead.
Speaking of new ways to do business, we also should mention Mulligal, an online women’s golf clothing store with pop-up, in-person sales. It opened a spot in Wausau Center Mall, and is holding regular hours through Christmas Eve.
One of the biggest changes to come that was set in motion in 2019: the Wausau Center Mall itself. It’s quite possible that in a few years the mall will not look at all as it does now. A pair of local nonprofit foundations offered to buy the mall if the city of Wausau put in a third of the cost, $1 million. The plan was to keep the huge property in downtown from venture capitalists who would buy it at a bargain price, suck out the profits, then leave it empty like a giant used juice box in the heart of the city. City Pages was unable to get an official update as of mid-December, but insiders say there have been some hang-ups on the sale due to environmental remediation, but that these are delays, not roadblocks.
Another transformation is the Riverlife redevelopment near downtown, along the Wisconsin River. Long plagued by developer woes, the first residential building is now underway and local developers Riveron, Ohde and Viegut expect to soon get city approval for another project there —townhouses and condos, according to plans submitted to the city.
And on the public side of this development, 2019 saw the second phase of Riverlife Park finished, with its obstacle course, and crazy-awesome playground equipment. Kids and adults alike swarmed it on day one this summer. Impressive.
The Gaming Emporium move into the mall was essentially an ownership change of Johnny Cee Cards.
Some business news this year wasn’t necessarily groundbreaking in form but a major change nonetheless.
One of the most visible in downtown Wausau: Daly’s restaurant being sold and this fall turning into Ciao’s. It all started in Rib Mountain, when the owner of Michael’s Supper Club closed that long-time restaurant and turned their attention to downtown, to open an Italian restaurant inside the former Daly’s as Tee and Jim Daly decided to retire. The Michael’s building is being turned into a Glass Nickel Pizza Co., and construction is already underway.
The Gaming Emporium opened in the mall — essentially a move and change in ownership for Johnny Cee Cards. A mix of the more elaborate style of board games and card games, along with Legos, the shop also highlights another transition of the mall itself. A good portion of the mall is now occupied by local businesses as national retailers moved out. The exodus of mall stores seems to have slowed (with the noted exception of Cellcom).
Speaking of the mall, there was great news as HOM Furniture opened this year in the former Younkers wing. It took longer than expected but turned out beautiful.
Attention cheese lovers: We thought Navieve Fromagerie looked pretty cool, but its new incarnation, The Milk Merchant, is a sight to behold. Mary Gallagher bought Navieve and transformed the store into a kinfolk masterpiece, emphasizing grays and whites for a remarkable aesthetic. Cheese lovers were relieved to learn the business wasn’t going away.
Attention night scene lovers: Nightschool Night Club opened in the old Bruiser’s location, marking the long-awaited return of some kind of nightclub in the Wausau area. And its owner is not messing around. He told City Pages he’s dedicated to keeping troublemakers out, and making sure his patrons have a good time.
Also in that same complex (the Western Villages in Schofield) is Wild Roots Apothecary, serving its blend of smoothie bowls, healthy shakes and other health food concoctions. I visited the place on a recent Saturday and couldn’t make it from the front door to the back wall, it was so packed with customers. Has the Western Villages regained its place as a hot spot?
Not open yet but aiming for January: Lemongrass Asian Fusion is slated to open in the downtown space formerly occupied by J Gumbos. When it does — the space already looks amazing now— it will raise the tally to two Southeast Asian specialty cuisine locations, as The Pho Zone opened earlier this year in the mall.
One of the most fascinating space transformation we’ve heard in years: This year the longstanding Wausau bed & breakfast, The Everest Inn, was sold to the Catholic church and is now operating as a convent. Yes, a convent for nuns.
The big one
The ninja course at Sawmill Trampoline Park, which changed the face of fun in Wausau.
One of the biggest business openings last year was a doozy. The Sawmill Adventure Park (trampolines!) opened in spring in the Cedar Creek area, and people have been bouncing around its confines ever since. A visit a week after it opened found lines going out the door to get into the play area (they only let so many people in at a time to make sure it’s not shoulder to shoulder people).
Another big one, in Stevens Point, could be open soon. District 1 Brewing Co. in Stevens Point is planning to open on Division Street. The 12,000 square feet space will be a potential coworking space and co-op for food truck startups too. They’re hoping to roll out a soft opening just after Christmas and to have their own beer available in late January.
Other new Wausau-area business openings to note: KimBob’s Cafe, The Boot Pros, Taqueria El Zebas, Inn at the River, Clean Slate Coffee House (in the former Periwinkles), Hemp Etc, Five Guys, a learning restaurant at Northcentral Technical College, Newch’s Eatery, Ruby Coffee in Stevens Point, Doggie Day Care, Papagalos (former Checkers), a second location for The Local in Weston and Your CBD Store, also in Weston.
Other notable happenings: A new Wausau Triathlon is starting, Janke Book Store celebrated 100 years in business, Community Soul Yoga changed ownership to become 401 Flow Yoga.
This year saw a lot of closures, as most years do. For once, most of them weren’t in the mall.
Patina Coffeehouse closed, but then reopened under new ownership; Sweet Lola’s underwent an ownership change.
All-Star Nutrition, Holly Ann Music, Mike’s Berries, Poppy’s Boutique, The Jig all closed this year.
Diamond Showcase is in the process of closing. Homestead Inn reopened and closed all in the span of 2019. Unique Notions opened and closed in 2019 too.
Of course the biggest closure of 2019 was Shopko. All Shopkos closed nationwide, and it left Wausau without a traditional retail department store within city limits… and none on a bus line.
City Grill becomes Benvenuto’s City Grill
If you walk into City Grill today, you probably won’t notice a whole lot different. Until you look at the menu.
The downtown restaurant at Jefferson Street Inn closed Nov. 10 and reopened Dec. 9 as Benvenuto’s City Grill. The restaurant is not part of the Benvenuto’s Wisconsin chain of Italian restaurants, but is being managed by them, says Asst. General Manager Jenna Schuett. City Grill is still owned by local businessman Bob Wierauch.
The interior will look largely the same, Schuett says. The main thing that will change is the menu, with a strong Italian focus while retaining some of City Grills’ fan favorites, such as the crab cakes and the sea bass. Even the gift cards are the same — that’s been the most-asked so far, Schuett says.
They still plan to do their popular Mother’s Day and Easter buffets, and live music; and all their banquet menus are the same, Schuett says. “We had some brides concerned that they would have to change their entrees, but that’s not changing,” Schuett says.
The timing is interesting. Ciao opened a block away in the old Daly’s spot while the changes were underway at City Grill, and so now there are two Italian restaurants in downtown Wausau. But Schuett says each is a little different and there is room for two.
City Grill hopes to be open for lunch by the end of the year and plans to have a grand opening celebration in early January, and a ten-day gala featuring Italian dishes from different regions of Italy.