Chef Dave Heide is closing Liliana’s Restaurant in Fitchburg after 15 years and opening two restaurants in its place.
“It’s been a run, it’s been a ride,” Heide said. “With a restaurant, after a certain amount of time, you have to either reinvent or you have to slowly die emaciated.”
He plans to close Liliana’s dining room permanently on June 15 and begin construction on the two restaurants.
Heide said there are multiple reasons he made the decision, including COVID-19 and the new dining habits that it has brought.
The biggest issue with Liliana’s, he said, is that it was named for his first-born child, who now goes by Ollie.
“My kiddo doesn’t go by the name that’s on the restaurant anymore,” Heide said. “They don’t use that name. They go by a different name. As a dad who loves their kid, to have their dead name on my shirt every day when I come home and their dead name on their restaurant … that’s part of it.”
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He said when he opened the 170-seat, upscale New Orleans-style restaurant in 2008, it was just before the country went through a recession, which prompted him to add more affordable items like cheese curds and po’ boys.
As the recession faded, he said he became known for some of the more reasonably priced items and wanted to keep them.
Another issue with Liliana’s, he said, was it was too nice a place to just grab a burger and a beer on a Tuesday, but not elegant enough for people to come for anniversaries or other special occasions. “We were kind of in this middle spot.”
Heide, who trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Minneapolis, said he grew up in the area near Liliana’s, and when he opened, his parents were the average age of the people in the neighborhood. But, 15 years later, the demographics have changed.
“My parents’ generation was all about wine, the big focus with fine dining food,” he said. “And now a new generation has come in and it’s much more about cocktails and beer and food that they go out to eat three times a week instead of one time a week.”
Even though Liliana’s is family-friendly and has a kids’ menu, it’s also elegant, which hasn’t translated into families feeling comfortable dining there, he said. “People don’t tend to think of us as the place to go when they have their kids. So, it’s once a month when they have a babysitter.”
To address these issues, Heide is creating two entities within the same building at 2951 Triverton Pike Drive. The restaurants will share the same kitchen, but have separate employees and separate entrances. Customers won’t be able to walk through one to get to the other.
Before COVID, Heide had three businesses, all named after his children. That included Charlie’s on Main in Oregon, which he closed in October 2020. Little John’s is a nonprofit he founded but doesn’t own. It provides 10,000 meals each week for people in need.
The room where the bar is will get renovated for a restaurant called Ollie’s, which will serve Detroit-style and deep-dish pizzas, pastas made from scratch, burgers, sandwiches and cocktails. The other restaurant will be St. Charles Station, serving fine-dining fare, still in New Orleans style.
The restaurant’s name comes from the St. Charles Streetcar Line in New Orleans, which has been running since 1835 and is the oldest continually operating line in the world. “It’s also a cute shout out to my kiddo, Charlie,” Heide said.
He said he’ll keep many of Liliana’s signature dishes. “Just because Liliana’s (will be closed), doesn’t mean that my passion or love for New Orleans cuisine isn’t there.”
Last month, Heide was named Wisconsin’s 2022 Small Business Person of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration. One winner was chosen from each state, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
The winners will be recognized Thursday in a virtual awards ceremony. This year’s theme, “Building a Better America Through Entrepreneurship,” highlights the “resilience, ingenuity, and creativity of these award winners who, like millions of small businesses, have navigated challenges from the pandemic and contributed to our nation’s economic comeback.”
Heide said before the pandemic, less than 1% of his total sales were from takeout. Overnight, he said, it went to 100% of sales. Some of Liliana’s food such as jambalaya, his No. 1 seller, and gumbo do well as takeout. But pan-seared scallops to-go would be rubbery and gross, he said. “So, trying to find a menu that worked well for takeout was really tough.”
Carryout remains at between 30% to 40% of sales, he said. “So, trying to have a concept that worked well for the new way people eat was really important.”
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