The Coopers Tavern invites patrons to think globally, eat (and drink) locally

You could have forgiven Peter McElvanna if he’d decided to give up on his dream. Opening a gastropub in any economic climate is a tricky proposition, but trying to get a business off the ground in 2009 — when the economy was still shedding jobs at a healthy clip and lenders were tightening the money spigot with unheard of enthusiasm — must have seemed like the ultimate fool’s errand.

But McElvanna, co-founder of The Coopers Tavern, which has already become a popular Madison fixture in the time it takes many businesses to simply find their bearings, wasn’t willing to postpone a good idea, even though his uphill climb looked nothing short of mountainous.

“We were in our 30s when we moved here, and there were a lot of college bars on State Street, and then there were the supper clubs — not really a lot in between for the 30-somethings and 40-somethings.” — Peter McElvanna

“We probably tried — I’m not exaggerating — 15 banks, and every one was, like, ‘We’re just not lending right now,’” said McElvanna.   

Eventually, McElvanna entered into a partnership with Food Fight Restaurant Group and was able to secure the financing he needed, ultimately proving in short order that his concept wasn’t just workable but lucrative.

In fact, the business has already expanded twice. In its first year, it added a patio, expanding its seating capacity from 76 to 116. And earlier this year, it opened a second floor, which increased its capacity to 240.

In the meantime, McElvanna and Amy Marsman, his wife and business partner, have proven that all those banks’ reluctance was misplaced, to say the least.

“When we opened up, we had a seven-year note that we paid off in under three and a half years,” said McElvanna.

And those bankers? In addition to McElvanna’s moderately priced yet upscale pub fare, they’re (gladly) eating a considerable amount of crow.

“A couple of the banks on the Square, we see their people drinking here, and they say, ‘Yeah, we’re sorry we didn’t lend you the money, but we’re so happy to see you succeed.’”

Seeing the world through a local lens

McElvanna and Marsman were recently rewarded for their foresight with a 2013 Dane County Small Business Award — a testament to their perseverance and their refusal to give up on what they were convinced was a viable business idea.

Peter McElvanna started The Coopers Tavern with his wife, Amy Marsman, while the Great Recession was still wreaking havoc on the economy.

A native of Ireland, McElvanna lived in New York City for 14 years before moving with Marsman to Wisconsin in order to experience “the white picket fence and the whole nine yards.” McElvanna worked as a manager at Brocach Irish Pub on the Square for about two years after arriving in Madison in 2007, and he sensed that there was a wider market for professionals who were looking for a sophisticated atmosphere but didn’t necessarily want to break the bank on a weekday lunch or a night out. So he set out to create a gastropub where you can “have lunch for 10 bucks and then have dinner and a pint for under 20 bucks.”

“We were in our 30s when we moved here, and there were a lot of college bars on State Street, and then there were the supper clubs — not really a lot in between for the 30-somethings and 40-somethings,” said McElvanna. “So when we applied for a liquor license, we stipulated at the ALRC [Alcohol License Review Committee] that we did not want college kids. We wanted a place for professionals. And that’s why we chose this part of the Square.”

McElvanna had worked in the restaurant industry since 1994 — doing everything from dishwashing to cooking to managing — and he was confident that he knew the industry well enough to make a go of his concept. This was his first attempt at starting a business, however, and so he needed to cover all his bases.

“We took business classes at Grainger Hall through the Small Business Development Center, and we found those very helpful,” said McElvanna. “We knew what we wanted to do. I had experience with people and training and that kind of thing, but [I wanted to learn] small aspects of the business — looking forward, planning — stuff that at the time I didn’t think would be super helpful, but now three years in, I don’t know what I would have done without them. I’m very, very thankful.”

One of McElvanna’s business strategies was to place a strong emphasis on locally sourced food and drinks.

“Everything is pretty much fresh and local,” said McElvanna. “We wanted to use Wisconsin stuff, and the people have embraced it from the day we opened. … Why buy something from California when you have no interaction with the farm and you don’t know what they’re doing? So we always wanted to build relationships with local farms. We have an abundance of good food here in Wisconsin, and we just wanted to bring that into a rustic pub setting.”

Gastric adventures

But while The Coopers Tavern has a palpable Wisconsin vibe, it also boasts a worldly flair. For one thing, it’s hard to miss the soothing Irish lilt in McElvanna’s voice, and the pub’s sometimes exotic offerings betray the cosmopolitan outlook of its owners.

According to McElvanna, the pub was inspired in part by his and his wife’s travels, particularly in Europe.

“If you go to a restaurant, you’re seeing different techniques or different styles,” said McElvanna, “and so something that might be cutting edge in the Czech Republic maybe hasn’t hit America yet.”



A look at the menu instantly reveals the couple’s adventurous spirit. For instance, you can order roasted bone marrow, as well as a Badgerland take on a UK favorite.

“It’s very popular,” McElvanna said of the bone marrow. “People, when you tell them about it, they say, ‘That’s disgusting.’ But once they eat it, they change their minds.

“We also have a Sconnie Egg, which is sort of our knockoff of the Scotch Egg, but instead of sausage we wrap it with a bratwurst.”

Meanwhile, the pub’s drink menu is as extensive and diverse as you might expect, offering everything from stouts and lagers to Belgian and Scotch ales to Irish and Scotch whiskeys.

In all, The Coopers Tavern offers around 150 bottled beers and almost 30 draft selections, as well as numerous wines. And in keeping with the pub’s philosophy, you can find numerous beers from Wisconsin producers, including Madison favorites Ale Asylum, The Great Dane, and One Barrel Brewing.

As for the continued success of The Coopers Tavern, Madison’s adventurous tipplers and eaters need not worry. These newly minted Wisconsinites may have spent plenty of time overseas and on the East Coast, but they’ve put down roots here.

“My wife and I have been living here six and a half years now,” said McElvanna. “We just had our second child, so we’re here for the long haul.”

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