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McElvanna: New pub overcomes credit hurdles to open strong

By Brian E. Clark
For WisBusiness.com

Last fall, Peter McElvanna thought he had everything lined up to open his gastropub -- The Coopers Tavern –- on the Capitol Square in downtown Madison.

That included his liquor license, lease for a 2,500-square foot site at 20 W. Mifflin Street and a loan from a local bank.

But the bank stalled and then balked entirely. At one point, it looked like McElvanna’s plans might become another victim of the credit crunch and recession.

But the former Brocach Irish Pub manager didn’t miss a beat, soon connecting with the Madison-based Food Fight Restaurant Group to jointly open Coopers, with McElvanna as general manager and proprietor.

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“It’s a good partnership, we have full backing of Food Fight so we can buy product at a cheaper price and then pass that on to the consumer,” said McElvanna, 37.

The restaurant opened earlier this month to good reviews and has been going gangbusters since then.

“I knew we would find a way to get this done,” said McElvanna, who grew up in Armagh, Northern Ireland, where his father ran a drapery store. Young McElvanna moved to New York in 1994, where he got a job in the Coliseum Bar near Central Park.

It was in the Big Apple that he met his wife, Amy, a native of Michigan who now works for the state Department of Public Instruction and is a partner in the business.

“We got fed up with life in Manhattan and wanted to be a little closer to her family,” he said. “So you could say it was destiny that brought us here.”

The couple moved to the Midwest in May of 2007 and McElvanna “relaxed” for a couple of months, recovering from 90-hour weeks in New York. He took the job with Brocach, but knew he wanted to run his own place.

“That’s the reason we moved here,” he said. “We were trying to find the ideal location. And one day in May of 2009 we saw the ‘for lease’ sign on this property.”

The site had once been the site of a McDonald’s and more recently, a high-end pastry shop called Sucre.

He named the restaurant – which offers scores of beers for every palate, as well as numerous wines and spirits – “Coopers” to honor the ancient trade of barrel making, which dates back thousands of years.

The gastropub has a rustic feel, and the bar itself feels like it is made from unfinished and uneven planks of wood.

“The interior is designed to celebrate the work of coopering,” he said. “And some of the tables at the front overlooking the Capitol are actually oak barrels that were used to transport bourbon.”

The food, McElvanna said, is rustic fare paired with craft beers.

“Honestly, I think the term gastropub is an over-used word,” he said. “We’re serving simple food, comfort food, but really well done. Not over-thinking food. And people seem to like it so far, but Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

The establishment is open from 11 a.m. to bar closing time, though McElvanna may open earlier on Saturdays to accommodate soccer fans who want to watch games broadcast from Europe on Saturday mornings over breakfast.

He said the restaurant is busy for lunch and dinner, with patrons also keeping the bartenders busy until 2 a.m. Lobbyists, business types, professors, students, state workers and downtown residents all have been stopping in, he said.

McElvanna said he’s able to use some of the experience he garnered working in his father’s shop back in Northern Ireland from age 9 until he left home.

“Be nice to people,” he said. “Greet them when they walk through the door and say goodbye when they walk out. They are doing you the favor.

“Getting them in the first time is easy, it’s getting them back on a regular basis is a challenge in this town.”

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