From The Black Sheep to
The Little Lamb
By all accounts, last fall Whitewater restaurateur Tyler Salisbery was poised for another banner year with his restaurant, The Black Sheep. The eatery had been enjoying a steady stream of success with a loyal following, and had nearly two-dozen weddings booked for his special events and catering business. But like many people, Salisbery found himself in uncharted territory and had to quickly navigate the choppy waters that came at the hands of a pandemic.
Nearly a decade had passed since Salisbery first opened the doors of his restaurant to customers in March 2012. The physical and emotional support of friends and employees has been an important foundation from that first day. So when the pandemic upended all of his laid out plans for last year, Salisbery says there were a number of concerns front and center on his mind, namely keeping as many of his employees on the payroll as possible.
The solution came in the form of Little Lamb, a burgeoning food truck business that has become a complimentary offshoot of The Black Sheep. Initially, the business was an opportunity to make use of the fleet of catering vehicles that otherwise would have sat dormant; it has since grown into a full-fledged business of its own.
“I didn’t intend to start a food truck. That was not on my radar,” Salisbery concedes. “It was not my original intention, but it was an important part of us surviving. Now, we get inquiries every day.”
This year, the Little Lamb food truck has been parked at a number of area locales, including the Staller Estate Winery, W8896 County Road A, in Delavan. On one particular warm-weathered day in July, Little Lamb was serving its popular fish fry, pork smash bowl, among other popular menu items.
Staller Estate Winery, which is situated in a beautiful stretch of rural Wisconsin, is a family-run operation that offers on-site tours, tastings, and, of course, opportunities to purchase signature wines. The business was established on the basis of a “love for family, passion for farming, and appreciation of the wine aesthetic,” which aligns well with Salisbery’s excitement for food and community.
Without Little Lamb, Salisbery says he would have resorted to the alternate, gut-wrenching option of laying people off.
“We added an avenue of business that was new to us, and it kept things going,” Salisbery says. “My restaurant is successful because of the people who understand my dream and help me to see it through. That still blows my mind at times.”
From the get-go, Salisbery says he and his employees received hearty support for Little Lamb. The food truck continues to pop up at disparate special events, including office parties and other venues.
Little Lamb and The Black Sheep are decidedly distinct, Salisbery emphasizes, though there are common binding ingredients between the two philosophies baked into the pair of concepts.
Salisbery describes Little Lamb as a spot for serving up “elevated street food.” The Black Sheep, on the other hand, specializes in a menu filled with what the restaurateur considers “playful, seasonal ingredients.”
Neither Little Lamb nor The Black Sheep have a standard, year-round menu, meaning a visitor to either establishment might see one set of menu items on a given day and another set on a subsequent visit.
While there are a few standard favorites, such as the classic Friday fish fry, Salisbery says he and his team are not afraid to tinker with ingredients and food concoctions at Little Lamb. The same philosophy has been a hallmark at The Black Sheep from the get-go.
“If I had a food truck that served the same thing everyday, I would be over it very quickly,” Salisbery proclaims. “The sky’s the limit. I love variety, and the creativity. I live to tell a culture’s story, or a person’s story and the history of a food through those flavors.”
Through all the twists and turns that have abounded in the past year-and-a-half, Salisbery notes he is overcome with gratitude and amazement as he inevitably reflects on his near decade as a business owner and restaurateur.
For Salisbery, the seed of running a restaurant was planted when he was exploring career opportunities at his high school in Waupaca.
He gave culinary school a try but subsequently took other avenues, such as a stint as a flight attendant, before deciding to settle on earning a business degree at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater to bridge some of his interests and experiences.
Speaking of his time in the aviation industry, Salisbery says, “I realized I was good at creating food as I traveled the United States. I experienced different kinds of foods, and they were amazing. All of a sudden, food became something I wasn’t afraid of any longer. I realized it was something I could be good at.”
Thanks to a dedicated, loyal team, Salisbery says he is still able to travel the country, and beyond, and continue exploring communities and cultures that help him innovate and expand his restaurant concepts.
“I love talking about food and telling people about the story of food,” Salisbery says. “Farmers are a huge part of what we do. I’ll say my job is hard, but the only job that is harder is the guy who is making the food for me. I’m grateful for those folks, and I want to tell their stories.”
When asked about the future of Little Lamb, The Black Sheep, or any other possible future business ventures, Salisbery comfortably says he looks at it with a blank slate and an open mind for the possibilities ahead.
But there is always the overarching mission that inspired him to get into the business in the first place.
“I love having a restaurant where I can serve people, and I love having a restaurant where I can be creative,” he says.
With those days of requisite stay-at-home orders, shutdowns and other safeguards now in the rearview mirror, Salisbery says he is grateful he can still do what he enjoys most: intertwining his loves of food and community.
The Black Sheep
210 W Whitewater Street, Whitewater, WI 53190
262.613.7119 | eatatblacksheep.com
By Dave Fidlin
Photos by Matt Haas