Michael Hierl oozes confidence. The 53-year-old Madison native and Harvard graduate calls himself a "serial entrepreneur" who has generated more than $100 million in sales with his various companies.
But Hierl's latest venture has an altruistic component, something he calls "social entrepreneurism."
"Make no mistake, I'm out to make money," Hierl says. "But I'd like to think there are ways to do that and help the broader community."
With Segredo - a restaurant with a boutique bowling alley and other games he wants to put in the building that is now Madison Avenue, 624 University Ave. - Hierl hopes to transform a part of town known mostly for college beer joints and brawls.
"I don't think this is a little bar and restaurant we're creating," he says. "I think it has potential to be an anchor for a vibrant entertainment district downtown."
His ambition doesn't end there; Hierl sees the Madison Segredo (the name means "secret" in Portuguese) as a prototype for similar establishments across the U.S.
Hierl says "it's not going to be difficult for people in Madison to embrace this." And, at least so far, his proposal seems to be getting support from officials and downtown boosters.
"The focus of his business is not drinking," says Susan Schmitz, president of Downtown Madison Inc. "It's a really cool place to hang out with things to do. You kind of need somebody to get it going, to jumpstart this. There are plenty of smart people out there. If they see it becoming successful, they might change their venues."
Dawn Crim, who heads UW-Madison's Office of Community Relations, is also enthusiastic. "We are always looking for opportunities where all our students and faculty and staff can actually enjoy themselves," she says. "Any time you can have a variety of entertainment opportunities, you have the opportunity to attract a mixed crowd."
The concept of boutique bowling started in Brazil about six years ago. Although boutique bowling uses the standard size balls and pins, the lanes are shorter, which makes bowling possible in spaces much smaller and more chic than a traditional alley. [The print version of this article gave an incorrect planned lane length.]
Boutique bowling has spread to Europe. There are no venues yet in the United States, but Hierl has partnered with the developer of boutique bowling to be the exclusive developer in this country. He hopes Segredo will be a model he can use to market the equipment around the country.
Aside from its four lanes, Segredo will include Wii and Xbox, I-Jump, a hoops game with a moving basket, and I-Flip, a pinball/foosball hybrid [corrected from print version].
Hierl says the "secret" of his venture is not the bowling or other games. He's coy, but hints that it has to do with the food, which he brags will be great and inexpensive.
His managing partner is Ryan Dionne, currently director of operations for Food, Beverage Hospitality & Lodging [title corrected from print version] at the PGA club in Princeton, N.J., where Hierl was once chair of the local chamber of commerce. The planned menu includes items like "crispy rock shrimp tacos," "pulled chicken and Wisconsin cheddar enchiladas," and "chino-Latino nachos."
Dionne will be using the kitchen at Johnny O's, next door, and also serving food there. Hierl will lease the Madison Avenue space from its current owner, John Okonek. Okonek has operated bars in Madison for decades, but his license for Madison Avenue was suspended this summer for a month due to fights and underage drinking.
Downtown advocates hope Segredo will change the downtown dynamic of "vertical drinking": large groups of young people packed standing-room-only into bars, slugging down drinks.
A survey on the nighttime economy (PDF) undertaken by Downtown Hospitality Council found that, although downtown is a popular regional destination, there is a surprising lack of after-hours diversity. Retail stores close early, and restaurants don't stay open late. There's little to do except drink, and fewer options still for people under 21.
Ald. Mike Verveer marvels that Segredo, which will be open to patrons 18 and over, is "like a prototype for the Downtown Hospitality Council. The number-one recommendation out of that is alternative entertainment concepts for downtown. The food/bowling concept would fit right in there."
Hierl's purchase of Madison Avenue is contingent of his getting approval for a liquor license. His application will go before the Alcohol License Review Committee on Oct. 21, and to the Common Council on Nov. 3.
If his plan is approved, Hierl will shut down the bar for renovations before opening Segredo in early January. He expects to close for a month over the summer for additional work.
Hierl figures it could take a year and a half to build his customer base and reputation. He envisions three markets, coming at different times: older professionals and families after work; younger professionals during the early evening; and the younger crowd in the late-night hours. And he wants to open his doors to nonprofits for fundraisers, both to help them out and to attract new customers.
He knows he has his work cut out: "You don't just flip a switch and turn a college drinking bar into a multi-use establishment. I'm prepared to let it happen naturally."