Rural tavern-turned restaurant
The Shady Grove is a chef-driven, locally owned restaurant located on Hwy. 65, three miles north of Ellsworth.
What was once a typical rural tavern is now a thriving business that features an inspired menu blending traditional hearty fare with more adventuresome entrées that include bison, sturgeon, roasted duck, Masa cakes topped with shredded pork, and miso-glazed black cod. Owned and operated by Steve and Heather Snook, Shady Grove takes advantage of its location by sourcing and serving as much food from the surrounding area as possible.
From River Falls-brewed Rush River beer, Ellsworth Creamery cheese and locally sourced honey and greens, the Shady Grove brings the "food to table" locovore concept into a cozy supper-club style restaurant that has become a destination for diners from the Twin Cities and western Wisconsin.
As much as it has become another example of the evolution of Midwest cuisine, the restaurant is also a business success that started almost 10 years ago through the discovery of a one-line classified ad for what used to be known as the Copper Kettle.
The couple had moved back to the area from southern California so that Heather could be closer to her family. Steve had joined the Bon Appetit Management Cos. Minneapolis office, giving him the chance to help manage food operations.
He had previously spent time as an executive chef at hotels, stadiums and other restaurant locations on the west coast that gave him the experience managing kitchen operations as well as developing relationships with different food suppliers.
While he enjoyed working for Bon Appetit, the couple was looking for a place that could give Steve the chance to bring all of his experience together in one location.
The answer came via the classified ad. They bought the place in 2004.
The old Shady Grove used to be like many of the more than 5,000 taverns in Wisconsin.
Back in the '60s and 70s, it was a beer bar that was a magnet for area college students when the legal age for consumption was 18.
The restaurant was later purchased by an Ellsworth man who renamed it the Copper Kettle, serving up tasty food in a supper club environment. The club offered American food, had a Friday fish fry, and had a steady bar business.
Steve and Heather had a different idea that would challenge the traditional business model for a small town tavern.
They wanted to find ways to expand the menu, use fresh, local food, yet still find a way to keep the warm, friendly feel of a country restaurant. The challenge was finding a way to expand the customer base while in the process not alienating existing customers.
The first steps included making the restaurant smoke-free before the state of Wisconsin mandate as well as de-emphasizing the bar business.
They began changing the menu by dropping some items and adding more adventuresome choices from bourbon-marinated hangar steak to fresh seafood that was not battered and fried. While some of the existing customers did not like the changes, others immediately responded positively.
The combination of making the business smoke free and expanding the menu created buzz in the community that began building the strong word-of-mouth support for the restaurant.
A recent study by the Perry Group found that most restaurants close during the first year of operation.
Steve and Heather knew the odds and were aware of the risks of buying what was an existing, yet under-performing business - and then making major changes.
The experience Steve had working on both the management and operations side of a number of different food operations helped them launch the Shady Grove and make it a success.
Then and now
Steve and Heather changed more than just the name. They paved the parking lot, spruced up the exterior, built a garden and outdoor patio. They updated the interior, added some windows and made other cosmetic changes that updated the space without losing the "supper club" feel.
Customers can now eat dinner in the garden where the staff grows many of the vegetables and herbs they serve during the summer months.
Guests can still get a steak, shrimp, prime rib and cheese curds at the Shady Grove. But diners can also choose grass-fed bison raised at a nearby farm as well as a variety of seafood that ranges from sturgeon Szechwan to scallop ceviche. French onion soup is still on the menu but people can also choose to try the green grape and almond gazpacho.
Finding ways to balance traditional food on the same menu that can offer more adventuresome choices has been a big part of the restaurant's success.
The overall quality, regardless of what is ordered, helped support the grassroots expansion of the customer base. On many nights the parking lot is filled with cars that have Minnesota license plates, as well as Wisconsin neighbors from River Falls, Eau Claire, Menomonie and Hudson.
Steve and Heather have developed a destination restaurant.
Steve and Heather continue to look for ways to build the business.
They are looking for new local food vendors to enhance the menu. From local honey, beer, cheese, and meats, to other ideas that could fit into their ongoing mix - the increased interest in "food-to-table" experiences gives them a number of opportunities.
Mike Zipko is a Pierce County resident and occasional freelance writer.