Nitty Gritty History

Getting Down to the Nitty Gritty

The original Nitty Gritty was established on October 3rd, 1968 by Madison TV personality Marsh Shapiro. The building was built in 1898 and served as a general store until the mid 1940s, when it was converted into Glen’n’Ann’s, a popular neighborhood bar until 1968. The early days of the Nitty Gritty were turbulent ones that reflected the social and political unrest of the Vietnam War era. In the late 60s and early 70s, the “Gritty” served as the informal headquarters for the campus subculture which led to many anti-Vietnam War protest demonstrations and marches. In fact, the 1970 bombing of Sterling Hall was planned by four anti-war activists within the walls of the Nitty Gritty. This event marked the pinnacle of the anti-war movement in Madison and a change in culture on the UW campus. During these years, the Nitty Gritty was a famous Midwest blues music venue, featuring live music seven nights a week. The Gritty featured gigs by the likes of Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Luther Allison, Bonnie Raitt, Charlie Musselwhite, Buddy Guy, and Cheap Trick. The Nitty Gritty was home to nearly all regional bands at that time. In 1970, Jefferson Airplane played a four-hour jam with the Luther Allison Blues Band in what has become a legendary happening on the Madison music scene. A change in entertainment tastes here on the UW campus marked the end of the music era in 1975, as the Nitty Gritty focused on food and service over the next decade.

In 1985, Marsh and his wife Susan, reformatted the Nitty Gritty to be Madison’s Official Birthday Place. Since that time, the birthday bell, birthday board, Gritty memento mug, birthday balloon, announcement and songs have become staples of the celebration tradition. Since its inception, the downtown Gritty has averaged 57 birthdays a day, and about 20,000 birthdays each year. The oldest celebrant, Hortense Sperling, celebrated her 108th birthday here in 2006. The youngest, Megan Spude, was here just 24 hours after being born. The Widder quadruplets started celebrating their third birthday with us in 1992, and haven’t missed a year since. In 2019, the birthday total surpassed 775,000 birthdays.

Over the years the concept may have changed, but one common thread running through the colorful history of the Nitty Gritty is the award winning Gritty Burger: Six ounces of ground chuck, bathed in our own special sour cream based sauce, served on a honey wheat sesame seed bun. Since the start, the Gritty has been known for its outstanding food and service, and we have been fortunate enough to win the Best Burger of Madison award year after year. We are proud to be a part of the Madison tradition and appreciate our loyal customers.

In 2002, Marsh and Susan partnered up with longtime managers Lee Pier and Eric Suemnicht (both former UW students) to open a new West side Gritty in Middleton. The Middleton Nitty Gritty is located in the Stonefield Glen shopping center, in the heart of the neighborly Stonefield and Wexford area. The original restaurant space was Stonefield’s, as well as a few other restaurants before the Nitty Gritty took the space. We are pleased to have had over 17 years of success in the community.

In 2010, the new era of the Nitty Gritty officially began, as legendary restaurateurs Marsh and Susan Shapiro sold both businesses to Lee (with wife Ragen Shapiro) and Eric (with wife Caitlin Suemnicht). Eric and Lee have been working together at the Nitty Gritty since 1997 and have formed an equal partnership with on-premise management to ensure that the tradition started back in 1968 continues well into the future. In 2011, the Middleton Nitty Gritty welcomed Madison native Jason Riewe to the ownership group.

In 2013, the Nitty Gritty opened a location in the historic cannery district of downtown Sun Prairie. The restaurant is housed in a building that was developed as the Sun Prairie Canning Company in 1900. Over the next 100 years, the cannery changed hands several times and was owned by companies such as the Fuhremann Canning Co., the Oconomowoc Canning Co., Stokely USA and Chiquita Brands International. Industrial operations ceased there in 2000, and the building was added to the National Registrar of Historic Places in 2004. It was redeveloped as a commercial and residential facility in 2007 where it later became the home of the Sun Prairie Nitty Gritty. 

We are proud to be a part of the greater Madison community, and are happy that you are here to eat, drink, relax and enjoy your time at the “Gritty.” If there is anything we can do to enhance your experience, please do not hesitate to ask. We hope you’ll return again soon!