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The Original Best of Milwaukee: A 25-year journey through Milwaukee’s finest

Voting begins Thursday, Sept. 24

Sep. 8, 2015
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Twenty-five years ago, the Shepherd Express launched the first Best of Milwaukee contest. From year one, the Best-of was generated entirely by you, the readers. Since its 1991 debut, this groundbreaking competition has continued to grow in popularity and remains the largest contest of its kind as measured in reader response. For an individual, a business or an organization, winning a Shepherd Express Best of Milwaukee means a higher profile. It’s a contest that really matters.

Says Fujiko Yamauchi, owner of Izumi’s Japanese restaurant, “Others have tried to copy the Shepherd’s Best-of, but they have very low voter participation, so that’s why as a business owner, I believe the Shepherd’s Best-of is the only one that counts.” Attorney Alex Flynn agrees. “Having been voted one of the best criminal defense attorneys in Milwaukee by Shepherd Express readers was not only flattering, it enhanced my law firm’s stature in the legal community and increased our clientele,” he says.

Reader response is key. Unlike many so-called “best-ofs,” the Shepherd Express Best of Milwaukee provides a meaningful take on the taste and temperament of our city. With a readership of 240,000 in print according to Media Audit and the additional tens of thousands who read it exclusively online, the Shepherd’s voter base is large and represents the opinions of people who support local businesses by regularly dining out and attending concerts, sports events and other activities along with all of their regular shopping. The Best of Milwaukee also highlights professionals working in our community as readers choose their favorite physicians and attorneys along with their favorite bars, nightclubs, boutiques, salons and retail stores.

“We feel the Shepherd’s readership is the perfect fit for our business, our services and our products,” says Dr. Amy Jankowski of Metro Eye. “Shepherd readers are progressive, urban, fashionable, modern, bold and uncompromising, just like our business. Like the Shepherd’s readers, we embrace the latest trends in technology and style, but also appreciate the human touches only excellent customer service can provide.”

Much has changed in the past quarter century and the Shepherd’s Best-of has kept up with Milwaukee by dropping old categories and adding new ones. Twenty-five years ago three restaurants competed for Best Polish Restaurant. With only one still remaining (and it was our readers’ perennial favorite), the Best-of has eliminated the Best Polish category, while adding Best African, Caribbean and Central/South American restaurants to reflect changing demographics and new dining options. The Shepherd used to solicit its readers for Best Caesar Salad, back when Caesars were the new trend. The readers have definitely not given up on salads (and we always included Best Vegetarian Restaurant), but have many new choices in the form of Tapas and a category that would have puzzled everyone a quarter century ago, Farm-to-Table.

However, when it comes to food, many things remain the same in a city whose residents love to eat. Several restaurants continue to preserve the Cream City’s German heritage and Milwaukeeans still love to go out for Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Middle Eastern, Mexican, Italian and Greek. Pizza is also improving and the Best-of added a new category this year to respond to new trends in the art of pizza making. That touchstone of Milwaukee, the fish fry, comes in more varieties than ever.

From the beginning, the Shepherd Express Best of Milwaukee has acknowledged people that have made our city special, whether politicians, activists, musicians, bartenders or colorful characters. Many of the names have changed over the years. In the ’90s John Norquist was mayor, Herb Kohl was our senator, Mike Gousha anchored the Channel 4 News and Milwaukee was home to beloved figures such as Dick Bacon, advocate of nude bathing on Bradford Beach, and Frank Pecoraro, who peddled cannoli by night from a pushcart. The musical winners from those years were a who’s who of local talent, topped by Paul Cebar, Jim Liban, Steve Cohen and Jack Grassel.

The Shepherd Express Best of Milwaukee has always been one of the cleanest elections in Wisconsin. The readers have sometimes chosen politicians opposed to the Shepherd’s editorial policies and even if they defeated their closest contenders by a single vote, the readers’ choices always prevail. “Actually, we usually get a few angry calls from readers after our winners edition comes out asking us how can we be so stupid as to select some public figure they view as a total moron. We explain that we didn’t select that person, it was our readers—if you get the most votes, you win, end of story,” says Louis Fortis, the Shepherd’s publisher. “Often after that explanation, the callers end up apologizing for overreacting.”

Also, there have always been mechanisms in place to weed out any kind of ballot stuffing. “It’s absolutely fair game for a business to encourage their customers to vote for them or to advertise looking for support. That is honest campaigning. Ballot stuffing is different and we continue to guard against it,” says Fortis. Honest elections have always been the Shepherd’s top priority, even as the process of voting has changed with about 95% of voting having gravitated to the Web.

In the early years the only way to cast a vote was by filling out a paper ballot, which ran for several weeks in the print edition. Online balloting was added at the turn of the millennium, and for one year the Shepherd dropped paper ballots altogether—but the readers spoke loudly. Many Milwaukeeans, including people who grew up in the digital age, enjoy nothing more than sitting in a coffee shop with a cup of espresso, filling out their ballot by pen. This year, a paper ballot returns—for week one of nominations and week one in the vote for the finalists.

Another change in response to suggestions from you, the readers, is to create a two-stage voting process, first a nominating process election and then a finalist election. This is similar to the primary and general election for a nonpartisan race like mayor or county executive. When you have a large field of candidates, the winner, of course, has the most votes, but those votes may only represent 20% of those voting. An example is today’s Republican presidential contest. Donald Trump has a solid support that ranges from about 22% to 28% of the Republican vote, which is more than enough to be in first place because the other 16 candidates split up the remaining vote. When the field of candidates begins to whittle down, unless Trump can increase his support, even 28% will not be enough to keep him in first place. So by whittling down the number of competitors in each category to just four in the nominating ballot and then presenting those top vote-getters in the final election, the Shepherd’s Best-of ends up with a more accurate representation of the readers’ choice.

Winning a Shepherd Express Best-of has become so important that many local businesses have asked for more opportunities to advertise during voting. In political terms, they wanted a chance to post digital yard signs near our online ballot. As a result, the Shepherd has redesigned the ballot to provide a limited number of advertising spaces for competing businesses to remind their supporters to vote for them.

This year, the Shepherd has moved balloting from summer to fall. Winners will receive their plaques at our Best of Milwaukee Party, held Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016, at one of our city’s historic buildings, Turner Hall. The 25-year anniversary party will be an opportunity to celebrate Milwaukee in all its diversity and cultural richness.

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