Setting the ‘Bar’ High

Brown County Tavern League’s collaborative culture looks out for interests of members, community – one pour, one charitable event at a time

By Heather Graves

Brown County Tavern League members, from left, Robert Heinritz, Don Mjelde and Ben Brunette, helped deliver donated toys tavern members collected during the holiday season to Toys for Tots. Submitted Photos

Separately, they are 185 different establishments – owned and operated by members of the community – filled with rich heritages, spilled beer and the anecdotes of those who’ve drank there.

Together, they make up the Brown County Tavern League, a nonprofit organization dedicated to serving the needs of all bars and taverns throughout the county, which was established in 1994.

“Having that camaraderie in the industry is very important,” Don Mjelde, owner of Richard Craniums in Green Bay and president of the Brown County Tavern League, said.

The league is made up of all types of establishments, from Lenny’s Tap and Kittners, to 1919 Kitchen and Tap and Narrow Bridge Brewhouse, and a branch of the Tavern League of Wisconsin (TLW), which consists of more than 5,000 members.

Founded in 1935, the TLW is the largest trade association in the country to exclusively represent the interests of licensed beverage retailers.


Mjelde said the purpose behind the tavern league is to look out for the greater good of all its members.

“From a financial standpoint, you get discounts through different insurance companies, music licensing fees, service courses, you get discounts on those as well – that’s just the financial side,” he said. “We also look out for interests, on a legislative level, things to kind of care for your business, make sure that you’re being handled fairly from a legislative stance. And I just enjoy the networking. Once again, there’s 185 different bar owners in Brown County, to be able to meet and talk with them.”

Mjelde said the Brown County Tavern League meets once a month at one of its 185 establishments to talk business, plan charitable events and learn tricks of the trade.

“(We have) area speakers that can help your business, whether it be inspectors from the city or different vendors that come in, maybe even an affiliate member that wants to be able to help network across our industry,” he said. “From a political standpoint, we could have local area leaders, alderpersons, mayors, as well as state representatives and senators speak at our meetings, too. So a lot of good information. We try to make it educational, and bring something back that can help you succeed in your business.”

Mjelde said league membership is $150 per year.

“So, it’s not a lot, and you get a lot for it,” he said. “As far as promoting, that is mostly word-of-mouth. 185 members, that’s second most in the state next to Milwaukee. So we’re very strong in Brown County, and very passionate about the things that we do in our area for our community.”

Mjelde joined the Brown County league in 2013.

“The president at that time had an establishment right across the street from mine, so it didn’t take long for me to be a member,” he said. “And as I grew with the league over a few years, I was on the board of directors in 2016, and was named president of the Brown County league in 2017.”

Don Mjelde, left, owner of Richard Craniums in Green Bay and president of the Brown County Tavern League, received the Member of the Year Award by the Tavern League of Wisconsin in 2021.

Most recently, Mjelde received Member of the Year Award from the TLW.

He said as league president, he keeps in constant communication with league members and those affiliated with it.

“I go a little bit out of my way to make sure I have good contacts with area leaders to be able to network appropriately for our industry,” Mjelde said.

The league doesn’t only concentrate its efforts on its members, but also the customers its members serve.

Mjelde said the SafeRide Program, organized by league members, aims to keep the community safe by making sure customers don’t drive a vehicle if they have had too many drinks.

This is done by offering a free cab ride home.

Their involvement in community safety doesn’t stop there.

“I’m on the Brown County Traffic Safety Commission, which entails going to quarterly meetings with area law enforcement, Department of Transportation representatives, and they go over driving fatalities,” Mjelde said. “We launched the ‘Place of Last Drink campaign,’ which kind of shows where people were at, at the time they got arrested for OWI, (and the study) shows there’s a very, very low proximity of bars (where those arrests happened), which is great. And that drunk driving has gone down substantially over the past few years in the area, which is all great news.”

Giving back

Tavern league members also make an effort, whether individually or together as a group, to give back to the community they serve with charitable events.

“We put together a lot of events,” Mjelde said. “Even just this past Christmas, we were able to give $1,000 donations to four different nonprofits in our area. We also held our Christmas drive where we worked with Toys for Tots and Paul’s Pantry. We were able to drop off more than one ton of food from Paul’s Pantry and a slew of toys for Toys for Tots.”

Mjelde said the league also hosts a picnic for Syble Hopp students at Bay Beach Amusement Park every year.

“This has been going on for more than 40 years,” he said. “We have a field trip with the students and they go to Bay Beach, we take them on all the rides, make hotdogs for them, the fire department and police department show up and all the lights and the things. It’s just a truly awesome experience. So I mean, it’s just a couple of many things that we do around the area.”

For more than 40 years, the Brown County Tavern League has hosted a picnic at Bay Beach Amusement Park for Syble Hopp students, which includes rides, hotdogs and visits from the fire and police departments.

Mjelde said it’s something the league has been doing for many years, and “never really thought twice about it.”

“We care about our community,” he said. “We’re small business owners in the community, and we obviously want to see the areas around us get better… to help our community, to create a better space for all.”

Mjelde said there are a lot of different industries that have different organizations that look after their interests.

“I think that every industry would benefit from an association that could provide tools and resources to help their businesses grow,” he said. “It’s nothing but communal and friendly. And you’ll meet a culture of owners that get along so well. The other reason why I like this industry is because you meet some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet in your life. People that will give you the shirt off their back in order to help you, to see your business succeed, to help your charity become successful and just care about the community.”

Heather Graves is the editor of The Press Times, and a contributor to Green Bay City Pages.

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