On the menu at O'Brien's

On the menu at O'Brien's.

Photo: Courtesy

At O’Brien’s Irish American Pub, there is more to being green than just the bar and restaurant’s Irish heritage. 

In fact, O’Brien’s — in the Washington Heights neighborhood at 4928 W. Vliet St., Milwaukee — is sustainably cultivating much of the food it serves.

From the looks of things, outside and in, O’Brien’s appears like any other Irish pub. On a given evening, count on burgers and beer, darts and shuffleboard, and television screens showing area teams at play.

But peer through the windows of the small storefront adjacent to the pub, and the view is very different: Hydroponics and aquaculture are hard at work, ushering in a new approach for a Milwaukee watering hole.

The 800-square-foot space is illuminated by grow lights shining on plants resting on steel racks. The 4’ x 8’ beds are gravity-fed a constant supply of fresh water, most of which recycles through the closed irrigation system. Dehumidifiers collect moisture from the air and feed it into the system, partially replacing the water lost in the cultivation process.

“It’s been an adventure,” says co-owner Brian Eft, the architect primarily responsible for conceiving and launching O’Brien’s experiment in nutrition and sustainability.

‘Disney was the catalyst’

Eft, who grew up in Washington Heights and also owns a small excavating company, had spent his youth working in bars — cleaning them from age 10 on and then tending bar when he was old enough. He tended bar at Wolski’s, Saz’s and other spots before purchasing what once was the Golden Zither with Joel Klamann. They reopened the property as O’Brien’s almost 20 years ago.

This past March, during a family trip to Disney World’s EPCOT Center, the proverbial light went on in Eft’s head — and it was shining on greens.

While visiting the 6-acre Land Pavilion, Eft and his family took the 13-minute Living With the Land boat ride through natural environments, demonstrating ways agriculture can be developed, and crops cultivated in even the harshest environments. Hydroponics, aeroponics and aquaculture were used to produce some of the food served in the pavilion’s cafe, including Mickey Mouse-shaped cucumber slices.

“That’s when the light went on for me,” Eft says. “Disney was the catalyst. I got off the ride and got on the phone.”

A friend and ‘mechanical savant’

Henry Herbert, a longtime friend of Eft’s, was at the other end of the phone. Eft explained his experience and the ideas generated during the ride.

In addition to being a food industry veteran, Herbert was facilities manager at Sweetwater Organics, served as natural resources research scientist at UWM’s School of FreshWater Sciences, and taught aquaponics workshops at the former Growing Power urban agricultural operation. He understood Eft’s enthusiasm and began making plans for the empty storefront space.

“Henry is a mechanical savant, and anything he gets his hands on he does exceedingly well,” Eft says. “He’s been indispensable to the project.”

Klamann is helping Herbert manage the growing operation.

The owners had already been growing various crops for use in the bar and restaurant behind the building. During the first week of November 2017, though, they moved production indoors and began building their aquaponic empire.

“My parents were avid gardeners and we had a plot on the county grounds that we would all garden together,” Eft says. “Nothing is better than eating fresh fruits and vegetables right off the vine.”

A cornucopia of produce

Eft’s current crop includes fours kinds of lettuce, including mini romaine, Five Star Leaf lettuce and Butternut Crunch lettuce, all used in O’Brien’s sandwiches and wraps.

Thyme, basil, dill, rosemary and tricolor beans also are grown, as are hot peppers, including jalapenos, habaneros, serranos and Chocolate Scorpion peppers.

A strain of pink celery also is under cultivation, and its rosy-colored stalks are used to garnish various cocktails.

The team also tried growing tomatoes, but was not satisfied with their first attempt. The growers have since starting cultivating a more suitable variety from seed, and the seedlings will be trained to grow against a latticework recently installed for the purpose.

“The west wall now has a lattice that measures 20 feet wide by 6 feet high,” Eft says. “We’re going to train the seedlings to become one large tomato bush. It will be spectacular.”

Eft and his partners have invested $30,000 in the growing operation, which has saved them from buying some of their produce from outside vendors. 

But economics is not the key reason for the garden.

“Profit was never the motivation,” Eft says. “I have the excitement of a child just thinking about it. It’s an everyday experiment, and it’s just a blast!”

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Brian Eft

O’Brien’s Irish American Pub co-owner Brian Eft.

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