Forequarter, Underground Food Collective's critically acclaimed, 7-year-old neighborhood restaurant at 708 E. Johnson St., will close on Sept. 21.
Collective co-founder Jonny Hunter said on Wednesday that he's planning to re-concept the 30-seat restaurant. Struggles with staffing, construction with its accompanying parking issues for three out of the last seven years, plus a major new project at Garver Feed Mill all contributed to the decision.
“It has to do with a lot of things but I think staffing is probably the key one,” Hunter said. “We were losing some key members of the team ... and being short everywhere makes it really hard to function. We have a lot of other projects we’re involved with right now.
“It was like, something has to give, or everything’s going to fall through.”
Underground Food Collective is opening a new restaurant and event space at the renovated Garver Feed Mill off Fair Oaks Avenue (a debut at Garver Gourmet is set for this Saturday night). As detailed in a Wisconsin State Journal story earlier this summer, Garver Events can seat 530 people indoors and 280 outside, with a patio, courtyard and mezzanine.
"Garver is starting this week and that’s a big project for us," Hunter said. "We have lot of people and resources going into it."
Forequarter was UFC's second restaurant. It opened in summer 2012, a year after fire destroyed the first restaurant, Underground Kitchen, on East Mifflin Street. Named for the address (708 1/4 E. Johnson) with a nod to butchery, Forequarter was the brainchild of brothers Ben and Jonny Hunter and restaurant veteran Mel Trudeau. Trudeau ran the front of the house and stayed with UFC for 8 years.
"It was, in a way, the first of its kind," said Trudeau. "This elegant, yet casual restaurant that didn’t follow the same fine dining rules that Madison was so used to. We saw it before Forequarter in other markets, but it was one of the first here with this style.
"Forequarter did a part in training the local diner," Trudeau said. "And I want to say that very kindly. It’s OK that not every restaurant is what you expect or imagined it to be before you get there."
Underground Food Collective started as a catering company, which ran for about a decade starting in 2008. UFC opened Underground Butcher on Williamson Street in 2012, a few months after Forequarter. Underground Meats, which makes cured meats and sausages, expanded in 2017 from its 2,000 square foot commissary kitchen on East Main Street to a 7,000 square foot facility nearby. In November 2016, the company got approval from the USDA to sell its sausages anywhere in the country.
Meanwhile, collective members invested in other businesses. Trudeau and Hunter collaborated on Lowry Hill Meats in Minneapolis. Hunter is a partner in All Together Now, a bottle shop and cafe in Chicago's Ukranian Village.
Locally, a cafe called The Heights, a collaboration with Evan Gruzis and Nicole Rogers, opened on Madison's near west side last year. A few projects along the way were scrapped, including a restaurant (Middlewest) and a collaboration with Working Draft Brewery.
But Forequarter itself was consistently well-regarded. In 2013, Bon Appetit named Forequarter one of the 50 best new restaurants in the country. Jonny Hunter made the James Beard Awards long list (semifinalists) for Best Chef: Midwest five years running (2015-2019). This year, he shared the accolade with chef Maggie Roovers. The restaurant itself was a semifinalist for the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant in 2013 (it lost to State Bird Provisions in San Francisco).
Roovers is pursuing a new opportunity, and longtime beverage director Mark Bystrom is also moving on.
Trudeau has been doing some consulting since she left the collective, including work with Wormfarm Institute in Reedsburg on the Fermentation Fest in early October. She said she could see something else in the Forequarter space, "maybe a little wine and charcuterie bar, very European feeling."
"I look at restaurants in Madison I remember so fondly and romantically, like The Blue Marlin in its first iteration, or Deb and Lola's, which was one of my favorite places," she said. "To me, they existed at this perfect time, and they went away before they started to feel they weren't relevant any longer.
"I like that for Forequarter."
In the near future, diners may see 708 E. Johnson St. used for private events, pop-ups and other programming. Hunter may eventually come back with a new plan for the space, but he's not sure when that will be.
"I was looking at where we are after seven years," Hunter said. "I felt proud of Forequarter, but I felt like it was time to move on and close for a season and come back with a different concept."