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The birth of a restaurant: Dan Fox hustles to open his much-anticipated Heritage Tavern
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Credit:Narayan Mahon

It's Valentine's Day, and Dan Fox, along with mixologist Chad Vogel, is hosting a pop-up dinner under the moniker Fox & Bird. It's going to be the name of their restaurant as well, and the event's aimed at generating buzz and nurturing an early following.

As tickets begin to roll into the cramped kitchen via a bevy of freelance waiters from top Madison restaurants, the music in the kitchen changes from Beirut, a riotous gypsy-influenced indie band, to soft R&B. The slow music is in direct contrast to a sudden rush. Every server now comes to Fox with a question or problem.

He listens, unflappable, and quietly offers solutions.

From an area no larger than a generous walk-in closet, Fox and company have conjured an elaborate dish of smoked duck and foie gras with beet-apple compote and candied orange mustard. Next appears an Ossabaw speck-wrapped black bass in a dark squid ink reduction. The courses are rich, luxe, grand and well executed.

For a moment, there's a glimmer of what a Dan Fox restaurant might be like.

Over the next six months, Dan Fox would go on to shepherd his restaurant idea to reality -- through financing, leasing, designing, building, branding and hiring.

This is the story of that restaurant, now called Heritage Tavern, and why it's the most anticipated Madison opening of the year.

Escape to Wisconsin

Chef Dan Fox, originally from Kenosha, studied the culinary arts at Kendall College in Chicago and then worked at Everest, one of the country's premier restaurants. From there he went to work in kitchens in France and Austria.

"When I was in Austria, I was tucked right into the Alps," says Fox. "Surprisingly, their cuisine closely parallels Wisconsin's. And in Provence, too, the ingredients were very similar."

Fox then returned to the States to work at Spring, a beloved Chicago restaurant. In 2006, he took an open position at the Madison Club, relocating here with his former wife. "I also wanted to get out of Chicago, " Fox says. "It was a sea of cement."

It wasn't long into his tenure at the Madison Club that Fox's passion for local and sustainable food led him to make the leap into raising his own heritage pigs. He partnered with Micah Nicholes at Cress Spring Farm and began raising Hampshire-Yorkshire, Mangalitsas, Swabian Hall, Red Wattle and Tamworth-Hereford breeds that are rare and expensive but prized by chefs for their magnificent flavor.

From this interest was born one of Wisconsin's foremost culinary events, SloPig, which launched in 2011. A celebration of all things pig and punch, SloPig is a gathering of Madison and Milwaukee's finest chefs -- plus one or two from Chicago -- who compete using Fox's heritage breed pigs to make small dishes. Fox personally delivers the pigs to each participating chef before the event.

Bartenders from Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago also compete to make a winning punch.

The event has not only brought the culinary worlds of Milwaukee, Madison and Chicago closer together, but has enhanced the Dan Fox brand. His pigs now sell to area restaurants, and he has earned the respect of fellow chefs through his hard work and persistence.

The heritage pig business and SloPig, in turn, led Fox to purchase a commissary kitchen last year in the old Fitch's Chophouse space in Fitchburg. From there he launched Fox Heritage Foods, which will be offering cured heritage hams in retail stores later this year.

Fox also caters from the commissary kitchen, and has used the space to prepare the menu for Heritage Tavern. "Without the Fitchburg space there would have been no kitchen to work on menu ideas for the restaurant," Fox notes. "We would have had to launch essentially from nowhere."

Group think

Eight people are standing in a circle in the rough space at 131 E. Mifflin St., all wearing hard hats. Present are Dan Fox, Chad Vogel, representatives from building owner Urban Land Interests, the architect Jacob Morrison and an electrician. The meeting commences next to a blue portable toilet just inside the entryway, which is covered by plywood.

Concrete has just been poured on the floor, and the weekly meeting with the architect and builder includes a lengthy progress report. Changes crop up frequently to the ever-evolving plans.

There are still walls to be moved, walls to be erected, electrical wiring to be added, water and gas lines to run, and more. This week, the plans for the ice cream machine have changed. The electrician warns that espresso machines come in different voltages and wants to know what kind will be purchased.

During the meeting, the group walks slowly through where guests will stand and where they will sit, where switches for the kitchen fans will go and where servers will get water. The group talks bricks, tables, ceilings and wall colors. Decisions are fluid, based on both necessity and vision.

Architect Morrison leads the group around the kitchen area, designed to the last inch with the help of Madison's Kavanaugh Restaurant Supply.

After the meeting, DJ Mike Carlson from MC Audio will consult on the sound system. The electrician wants to know what kind of speakers will be purchased.

A sales rep for Sysco, the nationwide restaurant food supplier, appears, unannounced. He assumes that construction means a new client. Fox politely tells him he won't be using Sysco products, and the man seems genuinely surprised and departs.

The site of the new restaurant is the ground floor of the Capitol Hill Apartments. The space had most recently been home to the restaurant Underground Kitchen, there for less than a year before a fire in June 2011 almost destroyed the whole building. Before that, the space had been home to the beloved Café Montmartre. It is coveted downtown real estate, and a number of parties other than Fox and company were interested in the restored venue.

Peter Siepe from Lee & Associates worked as Fox's real estate agent for the project. "It was extremely important to me that I have an approachable spot," Fox says. "I wanted it to be casual enough to not be just a special-occasion place."

The location is not without potential issues, however. The Capitol Point condominium association across the street is curious about its new neighbor.

After the meeting with builders, Fox and Vogel head to a gathering of the condo dwellers. Noise from the street carries straight to their windows, they say, and residents are anxious about closure times, wheelchair access and live music. Will there be outdoor seating? Will it be loud?

Worries of a conflict are set aside, however, when resident Tom Terry gives Fox a ringing endorsement, and argues that the restaurant will set a classy tone for the street. Fox's cooking has already earned him fans in the building.

Later that night, at a meeting of the city's Alcohol License Review Committee, the Fox project is approved.

The breakup

"I've bought a house, remodeled it and set up kitchens. I've been divorced. But this is, hands down, the toughest thing I've ever done."

Fox is sitting at a bar staring at a goblet of Belgian beer.

Financing restaurants in Madison has been grim since the economic downturn, even though there are strong federal incentives for banks to lend. "Every Madison bank told me, 'Sorry, we're not currently loaning to restaurants,'" says Fox. "The State Bank of Cross Plains was literally my last phone call, and they said 'Yes.'"

Fox raised the majority of the money needed to open Heritage Tavern privately, but bank lenders were still hesitant to fill in the gap. During the loan negotiations, Fox and Vogel parted ways, amicably, with Vogel deciding to pursue other opportunities. (Because of nondisclosure agreements, neither could comment on the breakup for this story.)

Fox & Bird became Heritage Tavern, a link to Fox's retail business, Fox Heritage Foods.

"To secure the money, the lawyers go through a number of doomsday scenarios," continues Fox, downing his beer. "This process has been like going to business school."

After undergoing drug testing and procuring life insurance, Fox finally received the necessary financing to move forward. Alone.

Vogel's departure left Fox without a front-of-the-house bar manager and decision-making partner. To make matters worse, his farming partner, Micah Nicholes, broke his ankle and could no longer farm the pigs.

Fox is now driving to Cress Spring, outside Blue Mounds, to farm in the mornings, and returning in the afternoons to run the catering company as well as continue opening the restaurant.

For a time, the office at the commissary kitchen had drawers filled with Fox's clothes, to accommodate changing between farming and running the businesses.

What's in a font?

How does a font translate into a flavor? This is the question Kristin Redman, or Cricket, as she is known, asks herself. Over the past few years, Cricket Design Works has become a go-to shop for food-related businesses in Madison looking for brand and design help.

Beginning with Ancora in 2002, the company has worked with an impressive list of clients: Sardine, Graze, Marigold Kitchen, L'Etoile, Pizza Brutta, Gates & Brovi, Fromagination, Wollersheim Winery and the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.

To round out the company's offerings, Leah Caplan, former chef and Metcalfe's Market adviser, has joined the team. Caplan brings years of food-industry-specific experience, and assists clients with brand strategy.

"We look at chefs really as artists," Redman says of her company's approach. "They are artists but also taste makers, and they are constantly putting things in front of people. That's already baked into their awareness, so that's not a job we have to do." However, she adds, "It's sometimes hard to get them to articulate that. We help tap into the visual or linguistic side."

From this premise, Redman and her designers work on elaborating a chef's abstract ideas, helping realize them in images, colors and fonts.

To begin, thoughts and reference points get tagged to Pinterest boards. "It can start with phrases or just words," says designer Tracy Harris, who is working on Fox's restaurant designs. "A cuckoo clock. An old pool table. We have conversations about what color green an old pool table is or should be."

This initial inspiration-gathering phase leads to more talking with the client. Often, two designers will work alongside each other independently in two different directions. Then they present their findings.

"Concepts will grow, and then we'll whittle them back down. It's a spoke effect," Redman explains. "Strategy is important at this stage as well, because we know Dan Fox needed to be able to expand at some point down the road. We wanted our images for him to work on his products as well as for a restaurant."

Caplan agrees: "We're not just making things look good. Whatever we do graphically supports their way of doing business. We ask ourselves, 'How do they tie together?'

"Cricket is incredibly well versed in fonts and their impact on a brand," Caplan continues. "It's one of those things the layperson doesn't see."

Fox's principal font is called Abraham Lincoln.

Design is never so satisfying as when an element can reappear. A drawing of a fox head that Harris worked on will appear on shirts, business cards, postcards and the website. It will also be designed into the restaurant's handmade chairs.

"Dan has been so easy," Redman says. "He wants the designer to complete the look. He's decisive but not micromanaging."

On the day of final approval, Fox looks at the options in front of him with Redman, Caplan and Harris at the Cricket Design Works offices on Monroe Street. They are all good options, each a different direction the restaurant could go in. He chooses one.

Out of a multi-stage abstract process comes a completed restaurant look and feel. "Sadly," says Harris, "when one is chosen all the other children are now orphans!"

It's a surprising way of thinking about it: Of the Madison restaurants that exist, there were many possibilities, each a different version. The city is dotted with invisible, orphaned ideas.

Gathering the team

With the financing secured, build-out proceeding as planned, design elements chosen and in production, Dan Fox turns to assembling his team. He's hired a personal manager to help stay organized. He's also hired his former colleague from the Madison Club, Jason Veal, as executive chef and manager of Fox Heritage Farms, the catering and retail arm of his business. But there's still a sous chef position to hire for. And, with Chad Vogel's departure, Fox needs to find a bar manager fast.

Applicants for cooking positions try out for the job in the commissary kitchen in Fitchburg. After Fox has sifted through resumes, the final applicants are asked to create three courses from a box of mystery ingredients. These full meals are then critiqued.

Jon Rosnow from the much-lauded Minneapolis restaurant the Bachelor Farmer, is offered the sous chef position. He produced three straightforward, well-executed dishes from the box, which in his case included a live lobster.

For bar manager, Fox taps local mixologist Grant Hurless. Hurless is a familiar face, having worked at Nostrano, Tornado Steakhouse, Merchant and Forequarter. A Chicagoland native, he started behind the bar with famed tender Charles Joly at the Drawing Room.

Following a Skype interview and a few meetings in person, Fox then hires Zack Lozoff as front-of-the-house manager. Lozoff has worked at the farm-to-table Chicago restaurant North Pond with James Beard-winning chef Bruce Sherman.

That these two positions were filled by people with time in top Chicago establishments is not lost on Fox: "I didn't set out to do that; it just happened," he says. "But I do think that experience will serve the clientele here well."

To build the restaurant's wine list, a time-consuming task requiring knowledge of what is available in the Madison market, Fox approaches Andrea Hillsey, owner of Square Wine Company. It's just around the corner from Heritage Tavern, and the two have collaborated on events; she understands his aesthetic.

With the major positions filled, each manager begins hiring the remaining staff needed to work the nearly hundred-seat restaurant.

Opening night

The original date for opening Heritage Tavern was early July. But as so often happens, the build-out took longer than expected. There were issues with the counter and some of the tables, which had to be remade. There were more issues with the outside sign. A major party that was to act as a soft open had to be pushed back.

"I didn't come to Madison with the idea of opening a restaurant," says Fox. "But it may have been subconscious. It is certainly not something that would have been possible in this way in Chicago with this kind of support."

Fox has earned a strong following from his work with the Madison Club and SloPig. He has exposed even more diners to his cooking through his many pop-up dinners. And he has surrounded himself with a successful, experienced team.

Even so, one in four restaurants closes or changes hands in its first year. The reality is that even the best restaurant concepts can experience trouble if they fail to connect with their clientele.

"We're starting manageable," Fox notes. "Dinner first, then lunch in a few weeks. Just because the restaurant is open doesn't mean there won't be problems. Opening may be the big milestone, but it's not the finish line."

Heritage Tavern is expected to open to the public at the end of this month. Staff training has already begun in earnest, and the final touches to what has become a luxurious space are being completed. Light fixtures, seat cushions and glassware seem to arrive hourly. Dan Fox's first restaurant, begun as an idea, shepherded through months of hurdles and heartache, is about to become a reality.

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