Featured The Hustle

Stop & Pop: Fred Williams’ Press Break drive-through sandwich shop survives on grit and repeat business.

Photo by Robert Chappell.

When the COVID-19 pandemic threatened to decimate the restaurant industry, Fred Williams was in a pretty good place, even if he didn’t know it.

“I was so nervous when COVID happened,” says Williams, owner of Press Break, a sandwich and soup shop on Rose Street in La Crosse. “Everybody else is trying to figure out how to do curbside pickup and delivery, I was rocking. I was so scared, nervous they’d close all the restaurants down, but they said drive through only. That helped me. During that COVID time my business was able to flourish.”

That’s because Williams’ shop is and always has been drive-through only. 

“I picked up a lot of new customers,” Williams says, especially essential workers who weren’t working from home. “And they hung around.”

Like many entrepreneurs, Williams started his venture relatively late in life, after a varied career. Originally from Chicago, Williams moved first to Minneapolis and then to LaCrosse, where his wife attended college at UW-LaCrosse. That was 30 years ago now. As they started their family he worked a series of odd jobs, including as a short order cook at a place called The Patio on the Gundersen health system La Crosse campus, before landing in telecommunications. He worked his way up from a call center representative to upper management, which was an accomplishment – but which came with plenty of headaches.

“After managing 250 people, I said I want to do something where I’m less stressed,” Williams says. 

The company he was working for relocated to Kentucky in 2015, so he took the opportunity to scale back on the stressful work, taking on jobs through a temp agency. At the same time, though, he started keeping his eye out for entrepreneurial opportunities.

And when the little white box on Rose Street became available in 2017, he took his shot.

It had been a sub shop, and Williams was acquainted with the owner of that shop, who put in a good work for Williams with the landlord. Williams ran the idea by his wife.

“She said, ‘You never ran a restaurant before,’” he recalls. “I said, ‘I don’t consider it a restaurant. This is a stop and pop thing, get a sandwich and keep it moving.’”

It didn’t take long for Williams and his wife, who consulted on the menu, to settle on what they wanted people to stop and pop for – Italian beef and paninis.

They also settled on the theme – Press Break, with a basketball-inspired menu.

“We’re a basketball family. We all love basketball,” says Williams, who, by the way, is also the former head men’s basketball coach at Western Technical College. His son and daughter both played Division I college basketball, as well.

So, with the menu and theme and lease in hand, Williams put $6,000 into the business and it took off.

“It’s a thin line. It’s a thin margin,” he says of the restaurant business. Still, he was successful enough to open a second location, a sit-down spot in downtown La Crosse to cater to the after-bar crowd on the weekends.

“It went over well down there,” he says. But, unfortunately, it didn’t last as an episode of violence erupted just outside his door, which “put a hindrance on it.”

“That’s my one sore spot,” Williams says. “Guy from Illinois came up and got into it with some guys and they chased him out of my place … I guess he had been following them around and frequenting all the places and getting into it with him. I was the last spot they came into. I said get out, I said no fights, no fisticuffs in my place. He comes back about 20 minutes later and lights up the whole block.”

The landlord didn’t cite that incident as the reason not to renew the lease, but Williams understands it may have been a contributing factor. 

So Williams has again focused on the drive-through shop … but not entirely. He also works part time for an office cleaning franchise, the owner of which is encouraging him to buy the franchise. (See page xx for more on franchising.)

Williams doesn’t really want to work as much as he does, but it’s hard to break free.

“I want to free myself. I’m a slave to money,” he says. “I hate to use that word, but I’m in work jail.”

He acknowledges that’s due in part to his own difficulty in giving up control – and not wanting to disappoint his customers.

“There’s a lot of grumpy old men, a lot of little old ladies who put me in their schedule,” and would be upset if they saw someone else minding the Press Break shop. Still, he knows he needs to step away, at least a bit.

“That’s my one downfall. Gotta let go a little bit and trust somebody to come” and run the lunch service once in a while, he says.

If he had to do it again, he’d be more open to getting some financial assistance to start up – and advises new entrepreneurs to be open to working with a bank.

“I will tell them to check financially with the bank,” he says. “There’s some programs out there for first time minority business owners. I just jumped right in. I should have done more research. I think I should have had a mentor. That first couple of years, man … crumpled up receipts everywhere …” He shakes his head with a laugh. 

Those programs, through organizations like the Packers Protege (see page xx), or the Small Business Administration or Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation, or even your local Chamber of Commerce, can provide not only financing but mentorship, connections to services and other supports.

“I think it’s an educational piece,” says Williams. “Being able to know the right questions to ask.”

He doesn’t love Chicago dogs and Italian beef as much as he used to – “I have to look at them all the time,” he says – but that hasn’t stopped Fred Williams from thinking about more expansion. This time, though, it’ll be more on his own terms.

“The next place I open it’ll be because I own the building,” he says.