By Sarah Wibell
The Madison ChopHouse Grille recently celebrated 25 years since its opening on February 14, 1994. Not always called the ChopHouse, the restaurant has changed names and ownership over the years. Today it is known not only for its food but also for the family atmosphere among the staff and for their desire to give back to the community.
Originally owned by Apple South Inc., later Avado Brands, Inc., the restaurant operated as Gianni’s Little Italy from 1994-1995 when it was converted to Tomato Rumba Pastaria Grille.
“Tomato Rumba was the coolest,” Faye Craft remarked. Craft, who began working at the restaurant when it first opened in 1994, is officially retired but works in a consulting capacity for the business. “It had footprints on the floor in the back room where you could do the rumba. And all the walls were different colors. It was really cool.”
On October 25, 1996, the concept changed again and the restaurant was renamed the Madison ChopHouse Grille.
“A lot of people think this was built to be a test kitchen, but it wasn’t,” explained Craft. “It was built to be a unique little restaurant in Madison.”
Ownership changed when Bruce Wiener acquired it in March 2005 followed by Pat and Natalie Reams, the current owners, who bought it on October 2006.
“I remember opening on that first Valentine’s Day,” Craft recalled. “It was so funny; I mean why in the world would we think to open on Valentine’s Day. Thinking about it now, you laugh about it, but you didn’t laugh about it that day.”
Mary Spoto, general manager, asserted, “There’s so much that both we and the Reams do for the community that people just don’t know about.” Currently, the ChopHouse supports the community in various ways including feeding the City of Madison’s Fire Department once a month and providing meals for about 200 veterans on Veterans’ Day. Craft noted that veterans are one of Pat Reams’ dearest loves and pointed out that there is even a ‘Veteran’s Only’ parking spot. The ChopHouse also packs food for the Morgan County High School football team’s away games and supports Companion Animal Rescue, Inc. Craft added, “The Reams also do a lot to support the special needs kids at the high school.”
“It’s been a long good 25 years,” Craft stated. “I was the general manager for about 22 years. We’ve had some awesome employees and managers through the years. There are stories to tell because some of the parents who worked here over the years now have kids who work here. So we get to see the next generation of people.” Spoto and Craft asserted that even former employees are still considered part of the ChopHouse family.
Spoto, both of whose daughters worked at the ChopHouse when they were younger, noted, “It’s a great place to work. This is what I call my happy job. I came back as a bartender, and the reason why I came back was because of Faye.
“This is the kind of job that is my home. I’m very passionate about this place, and it stays with you. You give your blood, sweat, and tears to this place, and that’s not a bad thing. I have some big shoes to fill. I couldn’t ask for a better mentor or advisor. I’m lucky to have her here with me.”
Craft laughingly shared an example of how the ChopHouse staff acts like a family and has fun together: “When I turned 40 years old, the manager called me. At that time, I made cakes for the restaurant. She said, ‘I have two cakes that need to go out in the morning at 10 a.m. You need to come make them.’ I got up and came down (to the restaurant) at five o’clock in the morning, made the two cakes, iced them and everything. As I was about to leave, two policemen showed up and told me I was being arrested for something.
“They took me outside and put me in their car, driving around for 20-30 minutes, saying I was going to jail before taking me back here. When I came back in, there sat the two cakes I had made now decorated with birthday candles. I had made my own birthday cakes! The place was full of people, and as soon as I walked back in, everyone went, ‘Happy birthday!’
“That’s one of those stories I’ll remember for the rest of my life; it was so funny. I was so shocked. Everyone was really convincing. That’s probably one of the best funny stories ever from the ChopHouse – that I’d made my own birthday cakes. They were good. It’s one of those things that you couldn’t get mad about. I think that’s the kind of restaurant we are – we’re family.
“It’s always been a family restaurant. We have a lot of good clientele. We have some people who have eaten here for 25 years and make this their stopping place in Madison.”
“I’ve had someone describe it as a little hidden gem in Madison,” Spoto added. “We do home cooking – the cooking Momma would do – so I think that’s how we stand out. We don’t have the same menu as other places in town.”
The ChopHouse is open 363 days a year. Along with an extensive menu, they offer a full bar and daily specials including their ‘Meat & 3’ – one meat and three sides plus soft drink for $10.99 at lunch, Sunday brunch, and homemade pies. On Tuesdays, two children per paying adult eat free from a limited menu. “We try to help with the burden on parents,” Spoto commented.
The ChopHouse celebrated their 25th anniversary with a special $25 three-course meal on February 14 that was enjoyed by an estimated couple hundred people.
While a lot has changed over the years since Gianni’s Little Italy opened, some things have stayed the same: Blackened Chicken & Broccoli Alfredo and Cashew Chicken Salad on the menu and the ready smiles and friendly welcome of the ChopHouse family”.