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Madeleine Ahlquist and Caitlyn Carolan Open Up About Worcester Restaurant Group

Madeleine Ahlquist and Caitlyn Carolan of Worcester Restaurant Group

The women behind Worcester Restaurant Group are unusual.

For one thing, Caitlyn Carolan is never going to read this article. Despite the pressures of social media on modern business owners, she takes no pleasure in watching herself on camera or rehashing old interviews. She doesn’t mind skirting award ceremonies and staying off entrepreneurial lists. Her family measures success by longevity, not likes.

Carolan’s parents, Madeleine and Robb Ahlquist, share their eldest daughter’s love for privacy. An outward facing career in hospitality has that effect. As the architects of Worcester’s most revered restaurant group, the Alhlquists opened The Sole Proprietor nearly 40 years ago. That purchase gave way to the 111 Chop House and then VIA Italian Table, both on Shrewsbury Street.

Carolan has the poise of a débutante—she is polite, but never soft spoken.

“I get nervous because I’m shy, you know? But, if I describe myself that way, most people tell me I’m wrong,” she says, adding, “I guess it’s just how I perceive myself.”

Madeleine Ahlquist and Caitlyn Carolan of Worcester Restaurant Group
Madeleine Ahlquist and Caitlyn Carolan of Worcester Restaurant Group

Carolan remembers the early days at The Sole Proprietor, when she and her sister would spend Saturday afternoons setting out silverware for dinner service and eating sandwiches at the bar. When she got older, she and her teenage clique took up residence in a corner booth drinking Shirley Temples. Madeleine and Robb never minded giving her friends rides home; they’re the type of people who stay up late.

Even back then, Carolan was watching her parents with a careful eye. Some part of her always knew she’d end up in the family business.

On the occasion of the 111 Chop House’s 20th anniversary, Madeleine Ahlquist and her daughter agreed to sit down with Mass Foodies for a rare glimpse into WRG’s past. Does this willingness to open up indicate a shift in their PR philosophy? Probably not. But, their stories reminded us that if we’re too shy to ask we’ll never know.

Putting Fish on the Plate

“It’s a challenge every day to keep the staff sharp and to keep the customers happy,” says Madeleine Ahlquist.

She is sitting in the palace that she built, awash in the hum of jazz music and surrounded by vintage works of art. The staff of the 111 Chop House readies for service, dressed in freshly pressed uniforms.

“I think it’s affordable,” she says, “But, there’s something about somebody showing up to your table in a white coat that feels like you’re walking into a restaurant in Chicago or New York.”

Ahlquist sees the 111 as more than a “special occasion” restaurant. “People come in and cannot believe our wine list; they’re often pleasantly surprised. They’ll plan parties and think the budget is going to be $1,000 to $2,000 more for a large party than it is, and it’s not,” she remarks.

These days, Ahlquist doesn’t work as much as she used to. “I spent a lot of time at VIA when it first opened 12 years ago; that was the toughest restaurant to open because everybody has their version of Italian food,” she remembers, “Their mother did this, their grandmother did that, and on Shrewsbury Street to boot. We really had to identify ourselves. It came out great, but it wasn’t without a lot of heart and without a lot of hard work.”

She likes to stay behind the scenes. “There can only really be one focal point in terms of who makes decisions,” she says, “But, we’re all a team. They’re going to have to pull me out of the restaurants kicking and screaming.”

When asked about her initial struggles as a restaurant owner, Ahlquist replies like a good business woman—optimistically.

“I’ll tell you what wasn’t a struggle,” she offers, “We had our seafood supplier right off the bat, we used the M.F. Foley Company; they’re very high-quality fish people. We still buy our fish from them today for all three restaurants.”

Behind every strong empire is a brilliant woman.

“My husband and I both went to Syracuse University where we met and lived. He ran a restaurant and I taught school. Through word of mouth and some of his family members, we found the location in Worcester,” Ahlquist explains.

Back then, the most appealing thing about Worcester for the couple was the absence of a dominant seafood restaurant. She remembers thinking, “There should be a seafood restaurant on every corner in Worcester and there wasn’t.”

Madeleine continued teaching while Robb scouted locations throughout Central Massachusetts.

“When the space on Highland Street came up, we applied for a small business loan, sold our house, and put a downpayment on the restaurant. That’s how we started,” she says.

Optimism aside, this was not without its struggles. For one thing, the Ahlquists had to convince people that putting fish on the plate was something to show up for in Worcester.

“The physical plant that we moved into wasn’t as beautiful as we wanted it to be and we just didn’t have the money to make it as wonderful as we had envisioned,” Ahlquist recalls. “We came from running a beautiful tavern in New York state with gorgeous antiques and all kinds of Stickley Furniture.”

The Ahlquists were not deterred. They knew enough to lead with their passion for hospitality and food.

“Concentrating on those two things was what kept us focused,” she says. “After three years we got a little more money and we survived the typical time when restaurants fail if they’re not going to make it.” The Sole gained momentum and the Ahlquists felt supported by Worcester’s community.

Now, the couple is on its fifth renovation of The Sole. “We like to make sure our environment matches our product,” Ahlquist says, “That’s really important to us.”

Tire Kickers

Ahlquist’s version of what came next doesn’t do justice to her hospitality empire. “We were tire kickers, so it took us a long time to open another place,” she says. The Sole Proprietor finally got a little sister after twenty years in business.

“We saw the building, which is actually VIA now, and we thought it was absolutely beautiful. We always wanted to open a steak restaurant and we thought we could put it in that location,” she remembers.

The space had been the woodworking unit for the Worcester Public Schools. “If anything had to be repaired or manufactured for the City of Worcester’s schools, it was done in that building,” says Ahlquist, adding, “On my first tour there was sawdust everywhere.” She sighs, “Oh, we loved that building, but it wasn’t ready.”

They constructed the 111 Chop House on an adjacent lot from the ground up. “Our designer Peter Nimitz built a very timeless environment, so there have been very few changes. It has stood the test of time for the last 20 years.”

General Manager Aaron Francisco has been with the 111 from the beginning. “I think the expectations that we have for ourselves have always been the same,” he says, “We’ve developed this operation on three basics: service, food, and environment.”

Francisco has spent a lot of time massaging the woodwork over the last two decades, smoothing out chips and scratches with his own two hands. He credits 111’s steadfast service to a unique pod system where each section is accompanied by two servers. “There aren’t many other restaurants that manage that way and we put a lot of attention to the tables, a lot of attention to the customers,” he says.

In hiring her staff, Ahlquist has always looked for people who she felt could do the job better than she could. “It’s heartwarming for me when I think you could take my job. That’s when I know you’re hired,” she says, “I think we should all strive for that, embracing those who are energetic, innovative, smart, and involved. It’s been magic for me.”

She notes that many of her contemporaries are off in Florida. “It’s not for me,” she says, “I just love being around as many people as I can. The younger the better.”

This brings to mind Carolan who spent 4 years in New York City working in the children’s clothing industry before returning to Worcester. Carolan is a graduate of Syracuse like her mother.

“The business part of her is strong,” Ahlquist says.

At first, she tried to talk her daughter out of joining the family business. “You’re going to start as a hostess and then you’re going to be a waitress,” Ahlquist told her. “We pushed her away as much as possible.”

Carolan was persistent.

“She’s a very organized mother of three who can certainly accomplish lots of things and she’s turned on by the idea of this business,” Ahlquist says. “She has surrounded herself with the same people we like to surround ourselves with because one person can not do this alone.”

“My mother is passionate and she has a strong intuition,” Carolan remarks. If it weren’t for her shy disposition, she might admit that this is a quality they share.

The Future of WRG

In many ways, WRG’s future is embedded in its past. Ahlquist and Carolan put a lot of effort into retaining strong staff members who can coach new hires.

Like Francisco, server Patty Newton began working at 111 Chop House when it first opened two decades ago. “We had she and her family here for dinner on the night of our 20th anniversary and we celebrated her,” Ahlquist says smiling proudly, “She’s also a school teacher.”

As a former teacher herself, Ahlquist places great value on education. Carolan knows this better than anyone.

“My job right now is to suck up as much information as I possibly can from my parents to make sure the way they envisioned their restaurants operating is the way they continue to operate in the future,” Carolan says, adding, “And to learn to make them better—if that’s even possible.”

Ahlquist believes that relevance does not hinge on a social media presence or a PR push. For the matriarch, a willingness to embrace learning among her staff, her customers, her family, and herself is the secret ingredient that will keep WRG relevant for decades to come. In this way, she is not just unusual, she is extraordinary.

Madeleine Ahlquist and Caitlyn Carolan of Worcester Restaurant Group
Madeleine Ahlquist and Caitlyn Carolan of Worcester Restaurant Group
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Instagram Your Rosé the Worcester Way

Whether dining in or enjoying the summer weather with BYOB Rosé is the drink you should be choosing. Pictured: 90+ Cellars Lot 33 Languedoc Rosé is the perfect summer sipper.

There was a short time in my adult life when the mere mention of “pink wine” produced wrinkled noses and piteous stares from my sophisticated friends. A glass of white zinfandel rendered the drinker not only cheap, but also destined for a hangover.

With the rise of Instagram came America’s widespread introduction to a proper rosé. Yes, it was pink, but it could also be dry and delightfully sessionable. Plus, it was attractive and French—like Brigitte Bardot or an Hermès bag.

By 2013, American millennials had developed an unquenchable thirst for rosé.

My yearning for rosé continues to correspond directly to the temperature. When the weather gets warm, I want crisp pink wine, light salads, and fresh seafood. Mesmerizing instagram shots are also a must. Worcester has plenty of spots for sunny day sipping, snacking, and snapping. Here are a few of my favorites.


Rosé is picture perfect on Instagram
Rosé is picture perfect on Instagram

Bocado Tapas Wine Bar
Pairing: Bocado offers a wide selection of “light reds” or rosados from Spain and Portugal. Pair with tapas frias like the gazpacho or the ensalada de madalena, made with chopped lettuce, red onion, hearts of palm, tomato, avocado, and manchego.
For the Gram: Bocado is located just up the block from one of Worcester’s ghostly manufacturing murals. This hand-painted advertisement for Heywood Boot and Shoe Company features a faded red heart. Murals by street artists Adam Fu and Earth Crusher are also within walking distance, located at the rear of the Fidelity Bank Worcester Ice Center.

The Sole Proprietor
Pairing: The Sole’s selection of rosé sparkles all summer long. Pair with a Buster Roll made with blue crab, apple, avocado, and cucumber then topped with crisp smoked salmon.
For the Gram: Buster the giant inflatable crab was conceived more than 25 years ago when The Sole Proprietor closed for a week’s worth of renovations. Owners knew they would need a boost to make up for the dip in sales. Buster still brings in the crowds year in and year out. Just a short walk from the Sole, you’ll also find the iconic iron bridge at Elm Park and more than a dozen striking Pow! Wow! Worcester murals at Elm Park Community School.

North Main Provisions
Pairing: North Main Provisions offers the makings of a perfect picnic. Ask owners Nate Rossi and Alexis Kelleher to help you pair a bottle of rosé with just the right artisanal cheese. Pick up a loaf of naturally leavened bread next door at their flagship establishment, Crust Bakery.
For the Gram: Take your picnic haul up the hill to Bancroft Tower, Worcester’s breathtaking feudal castle and have at it.

Lock 50
Pairing: Lock 50 has hosted entire evenings dedicated to rosé. As such, the staff is exceptionally knowledgeable when it comes to thinking pink. Pair with the chilled Spanish octopus served with salsa verde and Aleppo pepper.
For the Gram: In many ways, Lock 50 has succeeded in becoming the most Instagrammable restaurant in the city. Aside from the eye catching igloos, Lock 50 is home to a special mural painted by esteemed Native American artist Spencer Keeton Cunningham. Owners are opening a new restaurant called Russo across the street with a camera-ready cave room this spring.

deadhorse hill
Pairing: deadhorse hill has the strongest natural wine program in the city on account of manager, Julia Auger. Her intimate relationship with winemakers from around the world distinguishes deadhorse’s rotating wine list. Visit with a partner or pal on a Tuesday or Wednesday to enjoy their $45 date night experience.
For the Gram: Just a few paces from deadhorse’s front door, you’ll find stunning murals by artists Arlin Graff and O.G. Slick on the Palladium Theater. Owners opened an equally vibrant Korean-American eatery on Shrewsbury Street called simjang, which features another of Graff’s mesmerizing works.