A Surge of Artisan Cooking Moves into the Fox Cities
By Sean P. Johnson
The Fox Cities restaurant scene is always a work in progress. If the comings and goings of the past year tell us anything, it’s that it can change at a moment’s notice. It always offers something new, though, and this year it was the growth of artisan cooking, both with new openings and the expansion of existing eateries. A culinary adventure awaits.
The newest player on the Fox Cities dining scene joined an Thought emerging group of restaurants creating new flavor combinations for diners.
Gather Americana Restaurant and Deli, which opened its doors in February, was created to meet the demand for farm-fresh ingredients and artisan flavor combinations, says operating partner John Chastain.
“People are asking for clean and crisp flavors,” says Chastain.
Which is exactly what Chef Kyle Cross intends to deliver with a menu of simplified dishes he described as “clean and fresh.”
“We are not going to do 10 to 12 things on a plate. We are going to keep it very simple and do it really well,” Cross says. “We’re going to have a delicate touch with the food and let it speak for itself,”
The emphasis on fresh ingredients extends to a garden wall Gather—the restaurant’s favored shorthand name—will use to grow herbs and greens, as well as the bar and deli areas.
Gather will carry a rotating selection of 24 craft beers and feature wines on tap as well as by the bottle. When the restaurant is not serving, the deli will offer artisan cheeses, charcuterie, salads and soup.
COOKING WITH BEER
Joining Gather in bringing scratch cooking and artisan creations to the Fox Cities dining scene was Appleton Beer Factory, which celebrated a long-awaited opening in December.
The College Avenue eatery debuted following a three-year conversion of an old auto parts store into a pub and microbrewery. Along with brewing craft beers, Appleton Beer Factory offers a menu described by Executive Chef and Co-Owner Leah Fogle as “beer- centered comfort food.”
“As I have been planning the menu, I have always been thinking how can I enhance the food with beer,” Fogle says. “The idea is to take real food and raise it up a notch.”
Appleton Beer Factory creates all of its dishes in-house, and Fogle uses local producers whenever she can. Fogle says she is still surprised by the overwhelming response to the menu, much of which is based on recipes she learned cooking with her grandmother.
“It’s all been a bit overwhelming,” Fogle says. “I still think it’s pretty cool that people are asking for my food. That’s just wild.”
Both the beer selection and the menu items change to reflect the seasons.
KANGAROOST HOPS ALONG
In addition to sparking new restaurants, diner demand for artisan, from scratch cooking created opportunities for growth.
Kangaroost, a descendant of the venerable food truck launched by Jay and Kelly Barnes, had been in it’s Kaukauna location just about a year when increasing demand for its unique cuisine—particular catering opportunities—prompted a move to more expansive quarters on Prospect Avenue in Appleton.
“Plum Hill was great, but now we have a bigger kitchen and a bigger space,” says Jay Barnes. “Now we’re not on top of each other.”
Kangaroost is putting that new space to work. Barnes says the menu is changing to give diners more options, including new appetizers, new specialty burgers and a speciality grilled cheese sandwich.
Other additions include an expanded sandwich selections on the lunch menu and hand-crafted cocktails.
“Folks asked us to come to Appleton and they have really responded,” Barnes says.
The past year has seen another new trend in the Fox Cities dining scene—the spinoff.
During the past year, several well established eateries created spinoff’s that specialized in a certain atmosphere or cuisine.
The latest, expected to open this month, is Sap, a creation of the DeFranza family, which owns and operates Carmella’s: an Italian Bistro. Sap will be located in the same retail complex as Carmella’s, just a few doors away.
Sap’s menu will trend toward breakfast and lunch, though it will also feature a deli and will have extended hours. Bakery goods by Carmella’s pastry chef will also be prominent, says co-owner Nicole DeFranza.
The name Sap was inspired by family, she says.
“My nephew drew a picture of the restaurant he wanted to own that would serve breakfast,” DeFranza says, recalling the story. “He called it Sap.”
Other spinoffs also had roots in family or cultural traditions.
The owners of El Azteca launched Chicken Palace in Grand Chute, using an idea inspired by restaurants in Marco Manuel Montalvo’s native Mexico. Montalvo created Chicken Palace when expanding the Reyes Bakery to its second location. The space was too big for the bakery, so he divided it into thirds and opened Chicken Palace and an ice cream counter selling Michoacana brand ice cream made with fresh ingredients and fruit.
It was the resort areas of Mexico that inspired Shirley Gregory and Luiz Vasquez to create Mojito’s Mexican Grill & Bar by Sangria’s, an offshoot of their Sangria’s restaurants.
When the opportunity for a new restaurant presented itself, the couple did not want to create an additional Sangria’s so close to the current Appleton location. Instead, they used Vasquez’s experience living in the Yucatan region of Mexico to create a resort atmosphere in the new restaurant.
Bold colors, live entertainment and large, hand-crafted drinks help give diners a taste of festive locales along the Gulf of Mexico.
“We wanted it to be different, though we still share some core dishes on the menu,” Gregory says. “It’s got more seafood on the menu and it’s a lot more tropical. A lot more wow in the presentation.”
Themed entertainment such as “salsa night” helps complete the resort atmosphere. Mojito’s Mexican Grill & Bar by Sangria’s
“We wanted it to be a nice place you can go for dinner, drinks, music and entertainment,” Gregory says.
Perhaps it’s a sign of better days to come.
Several Fox Cities favorites saw growth this past year and expanded beyond their original footprint.
Weathervane, Atlas Coffee Mill and Blueberry Hill all added space or moved into new quarters.
With wait times stacking up, Weathervane Owner Pat DuFrane expanded his downtown Menasha restaurant into an adjacent space, adding 50 more seats. He can now accommodate weekend buffets and large groups.
“We have four to five new menu items coming as well,” DuFrane says. “People are looking for some healthier options for lunch, so I’m looking at some things there.”
DuFrane plans to add a salad bar in April and will be creating an outdoor dining space this spring.
Adding space for larger crowds was also behind the expansion at Atlas Coffee Mill, where owner Sue Bogenshutz recaptured a space she had previously given up and created a gathering space for groups smaller than 100.
Called “The Gathering Room,” the space has helped make Atlas a destination space for smaller events.
In January, Blueberry Hill moved into space attached to the Best Western on College Avenue, evolving from serving just breakfast and lunch to hours for dinner as well as managing room service and the bar for the hotel.
While the space may not have expanded, Seth’s Coffee & Bake Shop in Little Chute added a liquor license that allows for the sale of craft beer and fine wine as it began growing an evening crowd.
A better plan for existing space was also on the minds of new Il Angolo Resto-Bar owners Conrado and Oscar Mendez when they closed in July to reconfigure the bar space to accommodate more tables and new technology. Extending the restaurant’s usual one-week summer vacation to two, a new bar was constructed, new flooring added, the decor upgraded and a projector and screen incorporated for meetings. The space can now handle 10 tables are more than 40 people.
“It’s working out quite well,” Conrado Mendez says. “We get a lot of private meetings and it’s really helped with that. It just really opened things up.”
We apparently cannot get enough coffee in the Fox Cities.
While existing coffee houses expanded, new players also emerged. The hole created when Starbuck’s left downtown was filled when Bagelicious opened its doors in September. Owners Curt Konetzke and Kyle Fritz introduced a selection of 23 bagel flavors, 10 to 11 cream cheeses, high quality deli meets and cheeses and Intelligensia Coffee to satisfy downtown patrons.
“As we worked our plan, it sort of evolved from a coffee shop to a bagel shop/deli,“ Konetzke says. “We found out what was missing from downtown and we filled that gap.”
In November, Liz Stuck opened All Seasons Coffeehouse near the Mills Fleet Farm in Grand Chute. The coffeehouse serves a variety of breakfast and lunch comfort foods, including wraps and paninis.
Coffee was not the only sector to see newcomers.
One Fox Cities resident’s passion for barbecue resulted in the opening of a Dickie’s Barbecue Pit franchise along County Highway KK in Buchanan.
“It started with a grill we received for a wedding present,” says Anthony Falbo. “From there it grew, and when we started doing events for friends of friends, we figured it was time to turn that passion into a business.”
In February, Falbo completed the takeover of the Green Bay franchise.
Other newcomers include:
- Pizza Ranch opened the first of two locations planned for the Appleton area with a restaurant on North Eisenhower.
- Java Warung, opened in late April 2013, adding a new flavor to the growing palette of ethnic options available to diners in the Fox Cities.
- The Loose Wheel Supper Club opened its doors in Hortonville in mid- September.
- Copperstill Bourbon Bar opened in the building near the Holiday Inn Riverwalk in Neenah, offering a wide selection of spirits, along with artisan flatbread pizzas.
A FINAL TRIBUTE
Apollon, a fixture of the Fox Cities restaurant scene, marks its 20th anniversary this April, though it is with a heavy heart since the death of owner Stavros Kodis in October.
The restaurant’s founder and chef, Kodis is remembered for his dedication to creating an intimate dining experience for patrons. His menu of Mediterranean cuisine has been widely praised by local diners for years.
“We still have people coming in who were here on day one,” says Craig Persha, Apollon’s general manager. “He was a great chef. He really knew how to mix flavors.”
Kodis’ vision made Apollon an integral part of the fabric of downtown Appleton. He also took steps to make sure it would remain so. Kodis hired Persha and worked side-by-side with him and Chef Modesto Santander to ensure his vision for the restaurant lived on.
“He did it his way, and now, 20 years later, the restaurant is still going strong,” Persha says. “People come here to eat and leave happy. That’s a tribute to the way he did things.”