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Multi-unit Owners: Comfort food key for Nova Group

Nova Restaurant Group partners Scott Foster (left) and Pat Woodring inside their newest restaurant, Hazelwood Food and Drink.

“I was just supposed to consult,” says Scott Foster, glancing across the table as Pat Woodring laughs. It was 15 years ago that Woodring brought Foster in to help revamp Woody’s Grille in Eden Prairie, a move that turned out to be the catalyst for Nova Restaurant Group. With seven restaurants in its portfolio, Nova has perfected the comfort food concept, with each menu offering familiar items with an emphasis on scratch cooking and what Foster calls “fresh and friendly” flavors.

Craveable bar bites are popular among diners, says Scott Foster, such as these bacon mac ‘n’ cheese balls at Hazelwood.

Sitting at their newest restaurant, Hazelwood Food and Drink, which debuted in August 2017, across the street from the Mall of America’s Sears store, Foster and Woodring say their success comes from quietly executing at every level, day in and day out.

“Our focus is on one customer at a time,” says Foster, a partner and the group’s executive chef. “I’m plagiarizing from someone here, but for us it’s one guest, one table, one plate.”

That philosophy has helped Nova navigate an ever-changing industry, one where restaurants can be quick to jump from trend to trend or focus only on what Foster and Woodring see as a small segment of consumers interested in high-end dining. Nova, however, knows its identity and its sweet spot for developing restaurants that “appeal to the masses, but still offer hip items,” explains Foster, listing Korean Angry Wings, crispy shrimp deviled eggs, and bacon mac ‘n’ cheese balls among the offerings at Hazelwood.

“People like recognizable things,” he continues. “Some menus can be intimidating and people are afraid to try something or ask questions because they feel stupid. That’s the opposite of what we want.”

Foster knows how to create menus with broad appeal, having been executive chef with Lettuce Entertain You Restaurants, working on concepts such as Maggiano’s, Big Bowl and Twin City Grill, and later developing Redstone American Grill with Dean Vlahos. Plus he’s consulted for Tommy Bahama restaurants, Bennigan’s, Blue Plate and BLVD.

Nova also knows where to put its restaurants—i.e. not in Minneapolis. 

“We have no interest in downtown,” says Woodring, who focuses on the business side of Nova and draws from his 40-plus years developing restaurants in his native New York and, for the last 20 years, in Minnesota.

Instead, Nova focuses on the Twin Cities’ suburbs, where it has restaurants in Tonka Bay (Hazellewood Grill), Eden Prairie (Tavern 4 & 5) and Bloomington (the new Hazelwood). Then there’s the Rochester risk the two took in 2008 when they opened Chester’s, a move that’s proved wildly successful and has since led to the openings of Pescara, Terza and La Vetta.

Hazelwood’s Ahi tuna poké appetizer plays to the popularity of poké dishes among consumers.

Back then, says Woodring, “downtown Rochester was filled with skateboarders and dope smokers, literally. Our vendors even said, ‘Do not go to Rochester. Nobody goes downtown, nobody drinks, nobody goes out to eat.’”

But when developer Gus Chafoulias approached them with “such a favorable lease” for a spot on the ground level of his Shops at University Square, Woodring and Foster decided to bet on their ability to give the people what they want. As it turned out, notes Woodring, “Our timing couldn’t have been more perfect.”

Rochester was in the beginning stages of its downtown revitalization effort and Chester’s was able to capitalize on its proximity to Mayo Clinic and other commercial areas. Plus, points out Foster, “Nobody was doing the high-energy feel, the chic bar, the food. We did a greatest hits of all the recipes I had.” 

Pescara, Nova’s fresh seafood concept, followed in 2009 as part of the Doubletree Hotel redevelopment, and was joined in 2015 by Italian restaurant Terza and its rooftop sister La Vetta only two blocks away. 

In addition to the millions of dollars the Nova group has invested in developing its Rochester presence, Foster and Woodring put in the sweat equity to build and solidify their reputations as local owners, not “these big city folks,” which Foster says was the initial perception.

“Scott and I lived [at Chester’s] for a year,” says Woodring. “Our marketing was embracing the guest, getting to know them and making them feel like this was their place.”

It’s an approach that continues to be instrumental as Nova expands and one that extends to another key group for the company, its employees. 

“Scott and I are so closely connected to our restaurants,” says Woodring. “Anybody in the restaurant, from the busser to the manager can get to us. We’re not the corporate guys who sit in the office … we’re at the stores every single day. That’s a key component of our success.”

Foster agrees. “We aim to coach and develop,” says Foster, adding Nova also supports its employees outside the restaurant, such as when they have a financial or medical need. “We take care of our people.”

Be it in the suburbs or Rochester, taking care of people is the mantra Nova Restaurant Group continues to recite with success. 

Nova group’s Italian restaurant, Terza, occupies the main floor of the H3 Plaza building in downtown Rochester.

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