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Food for Thought

On the horizon

New Look: Acoca Coffee, Appleton

Acoca regulars may have noticed a number of changes to the coffee shop’s storefront and operations starting in 2019, the start of their major renovation project which is set to be ready for the public by late spring this year.

The first goal was combining the old Acoca location with the space next door, tripling the size of the originally small-scale shop, which will allow for a new kitchen and more room for seating. At the same time, owner Bill Wetzel rethought the shop’s atmosphere, planning to bring in new chairs and tables, “in keeping with what I would say will be a neat industrial kind of cozy, warm feel,” he says.

The remodel process was spread out over 2020, with a handful of operational changes in the process before reopening for regular service on February 23. Now there’s just one phase left, Wetzel says, referring to the remaining work that needs to be done on the back of the building. The back area will bring in more casual seating at an L-shaped bar surrounding Acoca’s coffee roaster, making the brewing process visible to guests who walk in.

“We do all our own roasting in-house, have been for 20 years,” Wetzel says. “It’s just so much fun to see how something is done.”

Chef’s Table: RYE, Appleton

Diners in search of a private, luxurious dining atmosphere should keep an eye out for RYE’s new chef’s table, which should be rolling out early this month.

RYE Events Coordinator Charlotte Morse envisions the table as being “for the adventurous foodie.” Guests reserve the table in advance, and at their arrival are brought to a private room which seats two to 10 people.

“It can be for a special occasion, an anniversary or a birthday, a more intimate wedding,” Morse says. “We’re going to have a lot of velvet and textures, and we have some really nice custom chandeliers coming.”

The chef creates a custom menu for a six-course meal which starts at around $70 per person. Morse explains that the menu varies day to day and depends on what’s in season, guests’ allergies or other dietary restrictions, and what the chef has decided to make that day.

“It’s based on the types of food and what he’s excited about,” Morse says. “In the summer Nick [the chef] loves to go down to the farmers market and pick out different, fun ingredients and come up with special dishes.”

Morse thinks RYE’s chef’s table will be popular among restaurant enthusiasts looking for a new and fun concept, particularly as the pandemic continues.

“I think it’s going to be popular,” Morse says. “There’s a lot of foodies in our community, they’re looking for fun experiences, and with COVID, you have your own private room as well, which makes things even nicer.”

A Pandemic Year in Review

Fox Cities restaurant recounts challenges and successes after having weathered the storm for a year

In the restaurant industry, it’s been a challenging past year. Since March 17, when all restaurants and bars were ordered to close, restaurants have had to downsize and adapt to survive. May 13 and Oct 23 were both days Wisconsin courts blocked Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers’ capacity restrictions, and for restaurant owners, with increased capacities often came the complicated balancing act of public health and safety versus staying afloat.

There are success stories, too. Many Fox Cities restaurants are beating the pandemic with increased delivery, outdoor dining and other creative solutions that rethink traditional business models. 2020 and 2021 have also seen a handful of unexpected pandemic-born businesses.

But just as often, this has been an uncertain time for local restaurants. Town Council Kitchen and Bar announced on February 8 that it would close temporarily with indefinite reopening plans. Town Council owner Jonathan Horan says this was due to a combination of COVID cutting into revenue, a chef leaving the restaurant, and the birth of his third child.

“We’re not making enough money to operate,” Town Council owner Jonathan Horan says. “Losing one cook pulls me back in doing full-time food production, and to leave my wife at home to tend to three little ones was pretty much an unacceptable reality to me.”
Horan says that adapting to the pandemic has been easier for some businesses for others, especially restaurants that already had a robust takeout and delivery service pre-COVID. For Town Council, which focused primarily on dine-in, Horan felt torn between an uneasy transition to takeout or outsourcing delivery to third parties, which he views as unsustainable in the long run.

“I’m dedicated to a style of food and service I was executing well,” Horan says. “I have no desire to deliver food to people curbside, and I have no desire to rely on third-party delivery services.”

Horan also points out that restaurants with larger interior spaces and spaces for outdoor dining also had advantages during COVID, whereas Town Council has a small interior.

“When we’re operating at full pace, there’s 50 diners and 12 staff in the building,” Horan says. “I miss the days of packing that place and being super busy all the time. I hope it can be great again, but right now from an ethical standpoint, and also I just have to consider the fact I had a pregnant wife and two young children, and I have to operate in a way where I’m making sure I’m protecting all of them as well. So it basically became impossible to operate indoors.”

Horan hopes to reopen as soon as possible, but for now he’s waiting things out, watching for signs of the coronavirus situation improving, and preparing to hire a new staff when the time is right.

“I’m just enjoying my time at home right now with my family,” Horan says, “and, you know, working on logistical planning and that kind of stuff.”

Feature photo by Michelle Hroma

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