Cranky Al’s Brings Old- and New-School Donuts to a Revitalized Wauwatosa
Popular doughnut and pizza restaurant focuses on bringing generations of people together with great food and an inviting atmosphere
North Avenue in Wauwatosa has undergone an unmistakable revitalization over the course of the last decade. The sense of community and charm in the area is remarkable, and the businesses and people that make up the neighborhood have a rare sense of camaraderie. East Tosa has evolved into the ideal area for young families to raise children, for entrepreneurs to start their businesses and as a weekend destination for dining and nightlife.
Cranky Al's represents a vital component of that growth and development. Since owner Susie Brkich started the current incarnation of the popular donut and pizza restaurant in 2006, she's seen numerous successful businesses crop up nearby. Cranky Al's is a family business, and Susie's nephew Joey Carioti took over as general manager in 2012, as well as becoming a managing partner earlier this year.
We sat down with Brkich and Carioti to talk about what makes Cranky Al's special, their love for 'Tosa, their recent visit from a celebrity chef, and more.
Brkich and Carioti enjoying a moment outside of Cranky Al's.
How has North Avenue changed since you opened the business?
Susie Brkich: I can speak to when I first moved here. There were a few places, the anchors that already existed, but people asked me why I wanted to come to North Avenue. I drove around looking at real estate, and saw all of the families walking in internal streets (in Wauwatosa), a lot of closed down businesses and it was off-putting to them.
I was thinking, “This place is a great family area, and I saw that this street could develop into a place where people walk around with their families. I was always confident in what ability I had, I’ve had to morph a few times, I’ve had to adapt and change a few times. The growth of this community is something that I saw happening, and it grew right along with us.
Did you look at multiple spots when you started?
SB: No, I just knew this spot was special, I had a feeling. We were in the middle of the block and we lost our lease. So we started with nothing, and then had less than nothing. We had been in the spot in the middle of the block where Il Mito now is.
So, I knocked on every door, my dad really encouraged that. I was hesitant because I didn’t know if I could do it again, I didn’t know if I had the energy. He was like, “Yeah, you’re going to do it.”
I knocked on every door, seeing if anyone was interested in selling their building. This building was Arrow Auto, they said they were thinking about retiring. And I said, “Well, I’d like to buy your building.” My dad financed it, it took me years to pay him back, but I did. That was 2006, almost 11 years ago.
It took a little over a year building this place before we opened.
What did you serve in those early days?
SB: Donuts and pizza, we started with both. We’ve had the same dough recipe, the same sauce recipe since the beginning. We've kept the same basic recipes since the very beginning, but we also really enjoy trying new things in the kitchen.
How did Joey become such a big part of the business?
SB: I never imagined Joey wanting to become such a big part of this. He came into the business when my dad was sick, to help me. My dad was really the heart and soul of this place, he told me I could do it when I didn’t believe I could do it myself.
Joey Carioti: He sat right over there, right behind ya.
SB: He was like the communal grandpa.
JC: He walked in, he knew everybody’s name, what they did, who they were.
SB: So when Joey started working with us and loved the business, it couldn’t get any better than that. Because someone’s going to have to take over the business some day, and who better than family? I’m so proud, I can’t even tell you.
Joey, did it take a lot to convince you to take on such a large role in the business?
JC: That’s the thing, I just fell in love right away. When you know your aunt and uncle from a certain perspective, just as family, and then you come in here and you think “wow, this is what they do, and this is who they know,” it makes you see them in a different light. I was in awe of the way they take care of people and the way they interact with people. That’s what really attracted me to the business.
Also I love the community aspect, on a Saturday morning when people are waiting in line. They're like “Hey John,” “Hey Mike”- it makes you feel really good that this is a place where the community can come to and feel at home.
SB: I always cared for Joey and his brother, and I wanted them to learn that what you see is what you get. If you behave the same at work as you do with people you love, that’s a great way to live. That’s a good life lesson, no matter what you do for a living.
JC: It feels like family here, and that’s what we want. No matter who you are, we are going to treat you like family.
When do you make the donuts?
JC: The night before.
SB: All night—every day but Sunday, because we’re closed on Monday.
JC: It’s an 8-10 hour process.
SB: Sometimes 12 hours.
JC: When we get bigger orders, everyone’s pitching in. Susie and I are back there hand-icing, frying donuts.
What type of donuts are you most proud of?
JC: We love having real simple donuts, classic donuts, with a twist. We do our gummy bears, a specialty cake doughnut, a maple bacon doughnut. We really enjoy coming up with new ones.
One of our most popular is the Hoyty Toyty, which was originally thought up by a customer, with the proceeds going to Hoyt Park when they were rebuilding.
SB: That one has a bit of a cult following.
JC: It’s really cool, when people order it everyone yells out (in a funny cartoonish voice) “Hoyty Toyty!”
Your customers seem really invested in the business. Do you consider yourself a community hub first and foremost?
JC: Yeah, that’s the number one thing for us, and we’re so thankful for that, just in 'Tosa alone but also people from Milwaukee and surrounding areas have just supported us from day one. We really can’t thank them enough.
SB: I started this place with, like I said, two nickels, and people were so supportive and so great, and stuck by us through thick and thin, and we’re still in a work in progress. We’re self-taught, we’ve had great mentors and great vendors. We spend a lot of time in the kitchen testing things out.
I can’t believe what our business has become, I never could've dreamed it.
JC: The word of mouth that customers spread, people telling each other, “You gotta check out Cranky Al’s, you gotta check this out.” That’s been our number one form of marketing.
SB: I’m still surprised by the amount of people who know about us. I think social media has a lot to do with that. Our demographics have changed since I started the business 11 years ago, it’s all about the new generations coming in. I’ve known a lot of our customers since they were children, and now their children are customers.
It seems that you’re plugged into the community in a number of ways?
JC: We’re nothing without the community. We love to give back, we do a ton of fundraisers for local schools and local organizations. We love giving back to a terrific community that helped us from day one.
SB: I think the community saved me in a way. You go through hard times and trauma, but if you get silent support from the people around you, it means everything.
JC: Some of our regulars can tell if we’re having a bad day, and they’re used to us trying to put a smile on their face, and they do the same. To know that they have your back is such a great feeling, and I think that’s rare in this world. That’s what makes Milwaukee so special, and ‘Tosa so special, to have these relationships.
SB: I’m really happy to be a part of this community of business leaders in Wauwatosa.
JC: It’s a great group. North Avenue Grill is fantastic, Camp Bar, restaurants in the village, just to name a few-
SB: Businesses that care.
JC: And that’s what’s so great, the city is a hidden gem that is finally exploding with interest.
I've noticed that you’re involved in the biking community as well.
JC: We love the biking community. We were, and still are, huge supporters of the bike lanes and do whatever we can to support the biking community.
We are a sponsor of the Santa Rampage and we also sponsor the East Tosa Gran Prix which is coming up again on June 26. The East Tosa Gran Prix comes right down North Avenue, and I think it’s going to get national recognition this year. It’s in its fourth year and it’s a really great event.
When did your brand redesign officially happen?
JC: Three years ago, almost four. It was kind of time for a little update, we wanted something that kind of fit who we were as a family, and as a business.
SB: When we opened, we didn’t have two nickels to rub together. We had a lot of people do work for us just out of friendship, and this was the first time we were able to afford a professional branding rebuild and website redesign, and Joey had to talk me into it, cause I’m tight with money.
JC: Yeah, I had to beg her for it.
Have you seen a lot of benefit from the redesign?
JC: Yeah, it really helped us. Before we had a few different logos, and to bring it all to one brand really helped. The sign is next, we want to maybe bring in a neon sign, an old-school doughnut sign. An old-school doughnut shop like we are, it’d be nice to bring that aspect back to the community. We have to talk to the city about that.
Is part of Joey's role to look for ways to expand the business?SB: Yeah, for me, that’s one of the things I admire most in Joey, he’s always looking to make the business better and build partnerships however he can. He always has his eye on the next thing while maintaining our integrity. Whatever that will mean for him in the future, I’m down with it. I’m here to support him, he’s a partner and he’s done an amazing job. It’s all about the next generation now.
JC: I think we’re happy with where we’re at, as far as getting the wholesale accounts established-
SB: And that’s a whole new aspect of the business itself.
JC: We’ve also been getting into doing wedding donuts, which have become a huge deal. We work with Married In Milwaukee.
SB: We’ve done quite a few weddings this year already.
JC: We’re happy to be a part of weddings, just another extension of the family. Making someone happy.
SB: Helping to create memories is a wonderful feeling.
What businesses do you work with for wholesale?
JC: Our pizza is served at two of the Camp Bars, the one in Wauwatosa and in the Third Ward. Our pizza is also served at The Landing at Hoyt Park. North Avenue Grill is using our fritters to make French toast, Indulgence Chocolatiers are using our Bismarks to make ice cream sandwiches. Valentine Coffee carries our crullers on the weekends, just on Saturday and Sunday.
SB: It’s going really well for us, it’s like a whole nother business but it’s going well. For me it’s all about Joey, and what’s going to take him to the next level, and this is a great way to expand the business.
JC: That’s how Alton Brown found out about us, he tried our cruller at Valentine Coffee.
I remember when that happened. What was that like, having Alton Brown here?
SB: We didn’t even know he was here! So we couldn’t even enjoy the experience. There was a line out the door, and I was making like a hundred espresso drinks, and Joey was at the register.
JC: I was in back, we had like forty sandwiches to get out, it was Valentine’s weekend, and all of a sudden one of our girls comes back and says, “Oh my God, I just waited on Alton Brown.”
I’m like, “What? Where’s he at?” And she says, “He just left.” I’m like, “What’re you doing?! Why didn’t you tell us this?” It was kind of funny.
Then all of a sudden we get a tweet from Alton saying, “Hey, best donut I’ve had on the road in 2015.” And a couple of months later he gave us a shout out on national donut day, and then he came out with his list of his favorite donut places in the United States and we were right there on it.
Were you number one on the list?
JC: It didn’t say a particular order, but yes, we were number one on the list. (Laughs.)
SB: The coverage was amazing, and let me tell you, our business just exploded after that.
JC: We’re just a family donut shop in Wauwatosa, and he loved what we were doing. Business definitely picked up a bit because it got the word out.
SB: When you’re doing one donut at a time, it can feel pretty solitary. (Laughs.) Cause we hand-cut, we hand-ice, we really don’t have the capability of wholesaling to the masses, because we produce all of our donuts by hand. I mean we produce a lot of donuts, don’t get me wrong, but the demand in the store itself is so high that wholesaling just wouldn’t be a possibility.
Do you run out of donuts on busy days, like when Alton Brown was in town?
SB: That’s the hardest part, when we run out of donuts, to see the look on people’s faces. They get upset and ask why we don’t make more donuts, and we’d love to, but we make them all by hand, it’s not like we can produce endlessly. We really encourage people to call ahead and have us set donuts aside for them, if they’re making a trip across town.
JC: We take a lot of pride in the quality, when people try our donuts they aren’t disappointed. They know they’re going to get a fresh, hand-cut doughnut.
If you have donuts left at the end of the day, what do you do with those?
SB: We donate whatever we have left.
JC: Twice a week, we donate to Dry Hootch on National, it’s a veteran’s café that we donate about a hundred donuts to a week. And then Ronald McDonald House, we’re actually working on donating a million donuts to eventually. Currently we’ve donated just under a half a million donuts since we started about 5 years ago.
It’s great, we get so many letters from them, from the families there, about how it brightens their kids’ days.
SB: We’ll never meet the families, but those letters are so meaningful to us.
JC: It makes all of the hours of doughnut making worth it when you get a letter from a family that says that it made a hard time a little bit easier for them and it made their child happy.