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Alumni Profile / One Year, $100, One Great Cup of Coffee

Nell Benton ’01 graduated with a degree in sociology and a desire to work for humanitarian causes. Armed with a talent for cooking, she also had the idea that someday she might become a chef. Today, Benton, 37, marries her talents as the owner and executive chef of The National, a café in a Milwaukee neighborhood in transition.

The National already had a loyal following, and business has increased since Benton took over, which she attributes to her role as onsite chef. She has developed a rapport with the teachers and employees of local nonprofits who frequent the café. “I love my clientele,” she says. “I feel like a part of the community for the first time since moving to Milwaukee.” Recently, she spearheaded an additional humanitarian effort, Food for Thought. She and five chefs from various local restaurants volunteer their time preparing meals for fundraisers benefiting causes such as research into Parkinson’s disease and shelter for homeless women and children. “Chefs have a bad rap as being egotistical and high maintenance,” she says. “I hope this (effort) changes perceptions.”

Benton’s newest endeavor comes on top of devoting 65 to 70 hours a week to the restaurant. She’s gotten the opportunity to use the culinary skills she developed at the Art Institute in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. 

She worked as the executive chef at a Milwaukee wine bistro before purchasing The National, where she uses locally produced eggs and vegetables in the breakfasts, lunches and weekend brunches she serves. While her restaurant prides itself on its vegetarian and vegan items, it caters to meat-eaters as well. One of the most popular choices is a braised beef sandwich, Benton notes with a smile.

Making the transition to restaurant owner has included a massive learning curve. “You can’t let little things get to you,” she says, adding that it took several months to realize there is a natural ebb and flow to running a business, and not to panic during the ebbs. To help the business grow, she also caters weddings, showers and parties. She said she was lucky to inherit “a phenomenal staff” of six; another challenge has been figuring out all their roles and making sure they have a life outside of work.

March 27, 2013