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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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Eat, Drink, and Be Me(rry)… While Still Serving Others

Can we just agree daylight savings time blows? I’m not saying the sky spitting rain into the upper-30s air would be entirely tolerable with a 5:30pm sunset. But dark at 4:30 after a brutal stressful day? It seems downright cruel, inducing enough crankiness to make a non-violent person contemplate punching the cheer out of anyone. I could see myself jumping on the Hanover stage at Elf that night and cold cocking the actor that plays Buddy the Elf. Which would of course lead to my getting my ass kicked by said actor and a horrified audience, being thrown in jail, and then failing to make bail because everyone including my family hates me for punching Buddy and ruining the show… and Christmas. You feel my mood?

I was in this damp down state of mind and weather when I found myself on Shrewsbury Street between appointments. Seeking a salve for my ill temper – okay, rage against the season – just because “the man” made me turn my clock back an hour, I stopped in Nuovo, hit the bar, and ordered up Alex Gjonca’s Albanian Appetizer of oven braised liver, garlic, feta cheese, and hot pepper – a dish that I “discovered” when I profiled him for Foodies a couple of years ago. It proudly captures his and wife Loretta’s Albanian heritage amidst the tasty Italian fare that fills the rest of their menu. I asked for a good glass of red to go with it and ended up with a cabernet. I wasn’t listening when the bartender told me what was poured.

The liver was rich and warming as I remembered, and the wine was yummy – deeply tannic and balanced with those berry jammy flavors I love. Mood, lifted.

And I might have kept all this to myself if I hadn’t looked at the check before I paid it. The wine turned out to be the Vaillancourt 2018 Christmas Wine, a reserve cabernet sauvignon from Alexander Valley in Sonoma County. It’s a new wine sourced by Luke M. Vaillancourt to be sold this season through his family’s two-generation folk art business in Sutton. Now, full disclosure, Vaillancourt is a sponsor of Mass Foodies and Luke is the site’s founder and publisher, but I wasn’t at Nuovo at his behest or Vaillancourt’s. I was there to lift my funk with a delicious glass of wine and a tasty plate of food and got it.

But as I am wont to do, I started overthinking my way into this story: What did it mean for Luke to pursue this culinary passion as part of his family’s business? It’s not like wine and Vaillancourt’s chalkware is a classic combination like bacon and eggs or grilled cheese and tomato soup. It seemed to me more like milk and cockles not milk and cookies. Sure, it goes with Luke’s passion: He, Ed Russo, and another partner launched the Worcester Wine Festival in 2017. Yet still, to bottle wine is to go to extraordinary lengths to execute on a vision, especially when there is not a natural pairing. But what do I know? It worked. And lucky me that I got a sip or two of little that remains of the 672 bottles produced this season. (Less than 3 cases remain between Nuovo, VIA Italian Table, and Uxlocale and as well as at Julio’s and the Vaillancourt’s retail gallery.)

Inspired, I checked in with a few of my favorite couples and families to hear what they do to pursue their culinary passions this season. My thought was that the holidays should be a time of great cheer, but for those in restaurants and food (and indeed all) retail it must be exhausting: the hours grow longer as the days grow shorter between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. How do you retain and show what the holidays mean to you and your family while still making it about everyone else – even if you work with your family? It must be a slog with little time for yourself and those closest to you, right?

Leave it a guy from Queens, New York to tell me I had it all backwards. “The holidays are when ‘normal’ people get into the spirit of giving,” said, Jared Forman of deadhorse hill and simjang. “This is where the hospitality industry is all the time. It’s always with us. You’re into our groove this time of year.” For Jared, like all chefs who cook seasonally in the New England, the fact that there is less local fresh food available makes it even more fun, because it forces him to be more creative with what he has and to do more with less. It seems like a cruel irony that the restaurant is slower in the summer when Jared is overwhelmed by New England’s bounty and packed with people and events when December hits, but he loves the feeling when lots is going on, even if that means catering an event on his day off.

The creativity extends to the look of the restaurant – the province of Julia Auger, Jared’s long-time girlfriend, who runs the front of the house and the wine program. Instead of flowers, she worked with Five Fork Farm to fill deadhorse hill with winter foliage that looks and smells incredible: “The aroma of the New England forests and the organic ambiance is amazing and just adds to the holiday spirit.” As for a personal connection, deadhorse hill’s Feast of the Seven Fishes menu offered December 18 to 24 is based on the traditional Italian Christmas Eve dinner Jared had growing up. “Our parents, family and friends have been coming to deadhorse hill on Christmas eve to join us since we began doing the dinner,” Julia says. “It’s unique to the season and always served family style. We now see other families returning, making it a tradition for them and theirs. It means a lot to be included in their family.”

Bill Aldrich and Jeanette Harmsen of Theatre Café just down Main Street from deadhorse also show their passion by creating special menus for the holiday gatherings they cater and donating food (like to the family of the firefighter who died this past weekend in Worcester and to the St John’s food pantry). But what really stood out to me was when Bill talked about how they give meals to regular customers during the holidays whom they know are on limited budgets. They know how much it means.

“It can be difficult to bring the holiday spirit ‘home’ during this absolutely busiest time of the year,” Bill says “During November and December, we average around 80 hours each week, so we have very little time to decorate and celebrate. We tend to treat ourselves to dinner out a bit more than usual and plan family holiday time for January after the rush is over. We also try to reward our dedicated staff for their efforts throughout the year. But I love making the experience great for our guests, so it’s rewarding on both levels. We don’t suffer in the end.”

The idea of customers extended family means a lot to everyone I spoke to, but perhaps none more than the sister and brother team of Miriam and Gregory Hyder, whose father Ed passed away last February. This is their first Christmas at Ed Hyder’s Mediterranean Marketplace and at home without him. Family is definitely on their minds, especially as Miriam is due with her first child just 12 days before Christmas. But when I speak to her, she tells me it’s “Christmas crazy right now” and she is far less concerned about the baby due Thursday and more with the fact that she can’t get any anise oil from her supplier in New York City which is going out of business after 100 years. “I’ve got Italian customers who need this for their cookies, and I have one bottle left. I need to figure it out.”

Hyder’s 43rd anniversary also fell in December and for the fourth straight year they did a tasting of the exquisite Cavedoni balsamic vinegar (straight from little spoons, no bread necessary), which makes a nice foodie gift. “This is what we do,” Miriam adds, revealing how her dad used to hand out envelopes of scratch tickets to everyone because he didn’t have time to shop. “We go flat out until we get out Christmas Eve, turn out the lights, and say, That’s it, we did it! I get a little jealous of the people at home making those cookies. But really this is our family.” To this, Gregory adds, “It sounds strange but the joy of making it easier for everyone else keeps us going. People come in here and they’re happy, looking in baskets, talking, seeing friends. You can’t get that in a supermarket or big box.”

“That’s like what Worcester is: family. It’s about family,” adds Sammy Cheng, who owns Blue Shades Coffee and Liege Waffles on Park Avenue with his wife Crystal. Their ten-year old son Evan is (seemingly diligently) doing homework in the back. Crystal is six months pregnant with their second child. And none of the holiday craziness phases them at all. Because they always know and are grateful they have each other.

“My family were refugees from Vietnam in 1981,” Sammy tells me. “My father saved enough to buy a boat and we escaped to a detention center in Macau when I was seven. My sister was born in the center. We were sponsored by a Jewish organization and ended up in Worcester. We were the lucky ones, and we never forgot it. We worked hard until we could buy our first business, a gas station, where I learned to run a business in 2003. I opened this place in November 2016, and I’ve added things Worcester understands like ramen and pork belly until they get the waffles. But I am here with my family every day. We get that here.”

We all should. So grab a waffle, try some balsamic, feast on fishes, and really try to support all the great family places in this city, especially those that have families working them like Meze Greek Tapas, Theatre Café, Armsby Abbey, Crust, BirchTree Bread, Lock 50… And if you want to have a glass of Vaillancourt’s wine at Nuovo and liver isn’t your thing? Try Alex and Loretta’s spinach pie. While available most of the year, this is one dish they especially share with family, friends and customers this time of year – and it takes a lot of passion to keep making because it takes a lot to make.

“The making of spinach pie is something that has always gathered our family around the table for years and especially during the holiday season. The process, while time consuming, is one that we have been practicing for many, many years,” Says Loretta. “We start off by first making filo dough from scratch and then layering the dough into sheets on a pan using butter or olive oil between each sheet. From there we stop halfway and add our stuffing. Typically this is a combination of cooked spinach and cheese, some Greek yogurt, butter, milk and eggs. However, there are also special occasions where we use meat fillings, leek, tomatoes, and onions. From there we continue adding the dough layers and finally once all the dough has been used, we bake it in the oven and wait for that yummy smell to fill up the kitchen.”

Listening to Loretta, I felt like a jackass for wanting to punch anyone, let alone an elf. It’s easy to get self-centered and overwhelmed when you are having a craptastic busy day and feel anything but giving. What I should have remembered is that’s when you give more. That’s when you make spinach pie even if the restaurant is sold out for days, you are catering events on your day off, or searching for anise oil while waiting for your water to break. I was right to use that down time to take care of myself, but I should have also used it to think about others, which I guess I did eventually. That’s also the piece of advice I got from Jared – a lesson for all of us amateur cooks and bakers and givers of gifts this season: Take a moment to think about what you’re doing in the few quiet moments you have.

In other words, plan to be thoughtful, not just generous this season. Even when it’s dark at 4:30 in the afternoon.