Susie Brkich never expected to make donuts.
"It came out of sadness," she said. "We had lost everything with a different business venture. It was one of those things. I was racking my brain. What could we do?"
After looking around her new neighborhood -- Brkich and her husband, Alex, moved from Chicago to Milwaukee to start their other restaurant – the idea came.
"I said, 'I think we should do donuts.' And he said, 'Are you crazy?' But I saw all the kids in the community, all the walking traffic, and there were no donut shops."
Then, on a trip back to Chicago, Brkich helped a woman find her car. To say thanks, the woman gave her donuts.
The universe had spoken.
"Alex learned from a friend how to make donuts in two nights. That's how it started, with $500 and a lot of help from friends and family and a lot of debt and a lot of hard work and, my god, the community. Our donuts were so terrible. There were nights we forgot the yeast. We once put salt instead of sugar on the scones. But they stuck with us. I feel like the luckiest girl in the world."
This year, the Tosa institution known as Cranky Al's will celebrate its 10th anniversary.
"We didn't notice it taking off. You hear people saying, 'Cranky Al's, I've been there!' I'm still surprised," Brkich said.
At the corner of 69th Street and North Avenue, they've become known as the Cheers of donut shops, offering a warm greeting, the classic art of conversation and the kind of crullers rumored to send women into labor.
"We have a 90 percent success rate of inducing labor in the ninth month. We're up to 28 women," said Joey Carioti, Brkich's nephew and a partner in Cranky Al's.
It hasn't all been easy.
Only a few years in, they lost the lease on their original building, about a half block from where they are now.
Once again, Brkich felt the world falling from under her feet.
"When we had to close our other store, I knocked on every door to see if anyone would sell our building to us so we would never be kicked out again. No sadness here. It worked out," Brkich said. "It's a testimony to reinvention. We've rebuilt and reinvented ourselves more than once in a lifetime. If it wasn't for the community, I don't know what we would have done. People just had to look at me and give a nod. I felt totally propelled by them. I don't know what I would have done if it wasn't for Wauwatosa."
It's part of the reason Cranky Al's donates pizza proceeds and tips to local schools and neighborhood causes, a Tuesday tradition the donuts-by-day, pizzas-by-night restaurant has observed since it opened.
"It's just been a dream come true, really, to be able to do so much more with our business than sell donuts," Brkich said. "That was always my dream and to see it come to fruition, it's very gratifying."
"We can't thank the community enough," Carioti added. "They just keep coming back. We wouldn't be anything without them, and we talk about that every day."
Brkich said Carioti's involvement with Cranky Al's — he joined the team in 2011 — has allowed the eatery to maintain their commitment to the community, while expanding the business to include wholesale pizza sales and collaborations with nearby bars.
"A lot was going on in my life and Alex's life, and we were ready to take a step back. Joey was able to come in and take the business to the next level. We're now doing donuts for weddings, things I never would have imagined," Brkich said. "It's been a happy and sad time. Now, it's about the next generation."
JUST THE FACTS
BUSINESS: Cranky Al's 6901 W. North Ave.
PHONE: (414) 258-5282
OWNER:Susie and Al Brkich
TYPE OF BUSINESS: bakery and pizza parlor
PEARLS OF WISDOM: So, how did Cranky Al's get its name?
"We were a partner in Crabby Al's seafood restaurant. We had a hand crank donut machine that was, like, ancient. And that's kind of how the name evolved. It was a stupid name, we know. But we did the best we could." Susie Brkich laughed.
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