Kristyn Eitel started her restaurant career in the humblest of ways – as a dishwasher in eighth grade. Twenty-five years later, she’s a partner in the successful and expanding BelAir Cantina restaurant group.
The restaurants, which have a California-Mexican street food vibe with airy open spaces, greenery, fresh food and lots of variations on margaritas and tacos, have been successful in the competitive Milwaukee restaurant market since the first one opened on Water Street six years ago.
“They’re very popular,” said Carol Deptolla, dining critic for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “When you go, there’s hardly an empty seat. They really know how to make a great space — it’s a wonderful blend between the inside and the outside … a place where you want to hang out.”
Eitel, a UWM alum with a degree in business, is one of four partners in BelAir Cantina, which is opening its fourth location in Oak Creek this summer. The Milwaukee Business Journal in 2015 named her one of its “40 under 40,” an annual listing of successful young professionals.
Eitel started her food service career in her hometown of Eden, Wisconsin, washing dishes with her best friend at a local restaurant. When she came to UWM to study business, she worked her way through school by waiting tables full time.
While she worked as waitress, then as a manager and financial analyst in the business after college, her dream was always to own her own restaurant. Knowing that, one of her customers introduced her to two of her future partners, Leslie Montemurro and Scott Johnson, who owned and operated Fuel Café on Center Street. (Executive Chef Noe Zamora is now the fourth partner in BelAir Cantina.)
After working with Johnson and Montemurro for 10 years in their restaurants, she became a partner when they opened up BelAir Cantina in 2010. The original location on Water Street was light and airy, with a roof shaped like a wave, Eitel said. “We liked the whole idea of being on a beach with taco trucks, a very Southern California feel,” Eitel said.
Wauwatosa Ald. Joel Tilleson credits BelAir Cantina, which remodeled and moved into a vacant fish shop in 2013, with kick-starting redevelopment of North Avenue in East Tosa into a vibrant, high-energy business area. “Kristyn is a visionary. She has a real eye for property and what it can be,” Tilleson said.
In addition to BelAir Cantina, Eitel is involved in an array of other local restaurants. With her husband, Mike Eitel, she owns the Panga Bar and Grill on Lake Nemahbin near Oconomowoc (and the adjacent Nomad water sports equipment rental shop). She’s also an operating partner for Fink’s tavern, and serves as financial officer for Johnson and Montemurro’s Mojofuco Restaurant Group, which includes Comet Café, Balzac and the Hi Hat Lounge. Oh, and she and Mike are raising four children, ages 9 to 14.
The growing interest in food and cooking shows – especially the farm to table movement – is a good fit for her and the restaurants, she said. “Last summer we worked with a farmer down near Kenosha who had overproduced tomatoes – a great fit for us with all the salsas. We were able to buy his whole crop.”
Milwaukee is a great restaurant town, she said, one of the reasons she’s built her businesses here. “Going to other cities and seeing their restaurant scenes, I feel Milwaukee is right up there. It’s very diverse. We have the different neighborhoods that all have their own pockets of restaurants.”
Her UWM Lubar School of Business bachelor’s degree with a focus on human resources was good preparation for her role in recruiting and training employees. The three current BelAir Cantina locations employ 525 people.
“Getting to work with all these people is probably the best part of the job,” Eitel said.
She enjoys helping out at the restaurants occasionally, too, though she tries not to step on the toes of the regular staff. “That’s probably my favorite job out of anything I do, being in the restaurants working, serving, busing tables, greeting guests.”
And, she especially likes working with the young people who are just starting out, she said.
“I know we’re providing the first job experience for some of these young kids. One mother (of a teen employee) even emailed me and was telling me how he comes home every day just so excited. That’s the best. That’s why I do this.”
Her work with BelAir Cantina community outreach also keeps her excited about her career. Through a program called “Powered by Tacos,” the restaurants make an annual donation to local organizations. Members of the organization design a taco, and the proceeds from the sale of those tacos – up to $25,000 – go to that group’s project. This year’s taco is for Playworks, which provides coaches to Milwaukee Public Schools to organize playground games and activities.
What’s next for Eitel?
Without sharing detailed plans, she admits she’s already thinking about new opportunities.
“I’m not done yet. I still love what I do, and I’m having such a fun time. My job has definitely changed, just with the growth, but the people I’m working with are able to help me continue the growth.”