Carol March was born and raised in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her restaurants were, too.
March is the president of Madison Restaurant Group, a family-owned company that operates eight eateries that popped up over the past five years—all in St. Paul.
One of them, Fitzgerald’s—named for hometown hero F. Scott Fitzgerald—opened in 2016 in the neighborhood of Cathedral Hill, an area near and dear to March’s heart.
“I grew up on Cathedral Hill,” she said. “I spent most of my summer days at the University Club swimming at the pool. … It’s a neighborhood that I know well and that is exciting and fun to be a part of.”
As a kid, she also spent time in the nearby neighborhood of Lowertown, going to the popular farmers market. Today, that rapidly changing area is home to four Madison Restaurant Group locations, including the first one March opened, Public Kitchen + Bar.
“We really saw (Lowertown) as an area that would be growing and changing and that there was room for growth,” she said.
March’s family moved away from St. Paul for a little while when she was a child, but she moved back for college. Now, she lives in Minneapolis and travels across the Mississippi River to get to work in St. Paul every day.
“I call it bicoastal, jokingly,” she said. “But I have really enjoyed working in St. Paul and reconnecting with the community and hoping to grow and improve the dynamic area that we have down here.”
Lowertown has been growing fast, and so has March’s company. All eight Madison Restaurant Group locations were launched in the time since 2013.
“A lot of that I attribute to our strong team,” she said. “I’ve been really fortunate to hire great leaders who have helped us to bring us to that level of growth,” including culinary director Josh Hill, who oversees all the restaurants’ chefs, and operations manager Aaron Johnson.
“The original intent was just the one space,” March said, but her dad owns a local real estate company, Madison Equities, and great opportunities just kept coming.
One of those was the space that would become the Gray Duck Tavern. Madison Equity had already purchased a downtown St. Paul building that had once housed the locally famous Lowry Hotel (and has a colorful disco history, as well). A restaurant was supposed to go inside it, but the proprietor had halted development of the space.
“It had been sitting vacant for a number of years and the city was really encouraging someone to finish that development so the city didn’t have that boarded up wall on the corner anymore across from the courthouse,” March said. “We looked at it and analyzed what we thought the (return on investment) would be of putting a restaurant in there.
“There already were a lot of really good restaurants in there but (we thought), ‘There’s a niche we could still fill.'”
This is an outlook March has taken with all of her restaurant properties: “Not directly compete with anything that’s in the neighborhood, but add onto what’s existing.”
March sees value in making room for everyone.
“I think it’s important in any community to present more offerings… to those in the community, as opposed to go head-to-head with somebody who’s already invested in a like business and may have been there for years—hopefully it’s already having success,” she said. “I think you can present another great offering without detracting from whats there.”
This sense of community between St. Paul business owners is one of the reasons the city has seen a bit of a revival, March said.
“I think everyone that’s invested in St. Paul, including all the restauranteurs, including the ones that have been around 20, 25 years, have invested a lot in the city and absolutely we’re hopeful that we’re having a positive impact,” she said. “I definitely want to give credit where credits due (to those) who have been here much longer than us.”
She hopes the steady increase in new businesses will “encourage others to open restaurants, attract other businesses that will encourage people to hang out here.”
“It’s great to see more nightlife coming and more options for things to do,” she said. “I love seeing the breweries and the distilleries and just stuff to do. … It’s all about this big cycle of working together. Everyone’s gotta be on the same to team to get the vacancies filled and recruiting businesses to come down here.
“I love seeing new restaurants come. I don’t see it as competition, I never have. I welcome new businesses—it brings excitement.”
This article is part of “Living for the City,” a Rewire initiative made possible by The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.