For nearly three decades, the Sala brothers have been a familiar face at this Beloit institution. Now, another familiar face – representing a new generation – is about to start leaving a mark.
After 24 years of managing The Butterfly Club in Beloit, Mike and Hector Sala are transitioning some management duties to Hector’s 22-year-old son, Aeneas.
“My siblings and cousins grew up in this business,” says Aeneas. “From the age of 9 we ran around here, filling in where help was needed, checking coats, making salads, doing dishes or yard work. We did a little bit of everything.”
Since he was 18, Aeneas has been trained and served as a bartender at the Butterfly Club, 5246 East Co. Road X. He now manages the bar area and supervises up to 10 employees.
The Butterfly Club has been a local institution for decades; in fact, it celebrates its centennial anniversary next year. A prominent part of the Wisconsin supper club tradition, it has grown under the leadership of a half-dozen owners and even survived a devastating fire in 1972.
The Sala brothers escaped from communist Albania in 1991, eventually settling in Freeport, and later Brodhead, Wis., where they owned and operated the Sand Burr restaurant for eight years. During a return trip to then-democratic Albania in 1996, they met and married their wives, Sonila and Ujana. The brothers purchased the Butterfly Club in 1999 and moved their families to Beloit, where they still live.
Growing up as the children of immigrants, especially those from a country with a long-suffering history under an oppressive government, Aeneas and his siblings learned to “appreciate everything.”
“My parents and family are extremely hard-working,” he says. “That is something I learned about them and the restaurant business – the clock never stops. To make it fully function correctly, you must be here every morning and be one of the last ones to leave at night.”
After attending Beloit schools, Aeneas enrolled in Edgewater College in Madison, Wis., to pursue a degree in economics and finance. He has one semester to complete before graduating this spring. During college he became an outstanding soccer player and competed in the NAAC conference. Early last year he was offered a position on a professional soccer team, the Michigan Stars, based out of Detroit.
“He stayed for three weeks of tryouts,” says Hector, “but two weeks before he was to sign a two-year contract, he decided instead that he wanted to come back to the Butterfly and manage the bar.”
“What changed my mind was I really enjoy being and working with my family,” says Aeneas. “Also, at that time the restaurant was crazy-busy, and somebody needed to step up and help out.”
A career as a professional soccer player in America has some definite drawbacks, he also admits.
“Professional soccer in the U.S. has yet to develop like in other countries,” says Aeneas. “It didn’t seem to matter how good I was, I could get stuck playing in third division level the rest of my life. I didn’t want to grow old chasing a dream that wasn’t possible. I would rather come here and focus on something my parents have already built, and try to make it better every day.”
Since he grew up in the family business, the transition to full-time responsibilities held few surprises for Aeneas.
“I knew exactly how things were supposed to work,” he says. “I just had to be willing to take on all the load – and I am.”
His biggest challenge, he explains, is the daily transition he must make from working behind the scenes each morning and afternoon to facing the public each evening.
“I go from looking at a computer screen by myself to becoming a social butterfly [pun intended] behind the bar when we open at 4 or 5,” he says.
Although they’re welcoming this new addition to the Butterfly Club management team, Mike and Hector are not retiring, not by any means.
“We are not going to get out of the picture,” says Hector. “My brother and I are still here pretty much all the time, almost every day. We just want people to know we have another member of the Sala family in charge of the business, that the next generation is stepping in. Maybe when Aeneas is up to full speed we can even take a little vacation.”
The Butterfly Club’s two dining rooms and bar can accommodate around 350 guests and another 100 on the deck that was added in 1984. The restaurant is open six days a week, with live music in the bar on Fridays and Saturdays. The Mike Williamson Trio has performed there for the past 15 years.
The menu includes traditional items like prime rib, steaks and chops, but the specialty is the Surf & Turf combo of filet mignon and lobster tail. The Friday night fish fry is very popular. The usual crowd is so large that the Salas don’t even take reservations on Fridays.
“Our special drink is a brandy Old Fashioned,” says Aeneas. “Most people expect bourbon or whiskey, but ours is made with brandy.”
The Butterfly Club is one of the area’s few remaining examples of the true Wisconsin supper club tradition.
“People come to a supper club not for just a meal, but for the full experience,” says Aeneas. “We are very well-known as a close community, where people come to be treated like family.”
“That tradition is very important,” says Hector. “For example, we try to keep things as they are, or as they used to be. We want people to know they can come here with their parents or grandparents and they will feel comfortable and at home in familiar surroundings.”
“Nothing external about this place will change,” agrees Aeneas. “Our family built it, and we want to just keep running it how it has been.”
The supper club atmosphere is an important contribution to the Butterfly Club’s success, even through the recent storms of a pandemic.
“When people walk through our doors, we make them feel warm and welcome by getting to know them,” say Aeneas. “When they come a second time, we will know them by name, even their favorite drink. If someone else were to step into my shoes, they would probably run things like ‘corporate’ – treat people well, but not like family. Most people don’t want just hospitality; they want to feel special. That’s what we do very well. We make everyone feel special over here.”
The Butterfly Club is open Tuesday through Thursday 5 to 9:30 p.m., Friday 4:30 to 10 p.m., Saturday 5 to 10 p.m., and Sunday noon to 8 p.m.