Founder Gabriel Stulman spends several years working in local restaurants in Madison, Wisconsin while attending college there. During this time, he falls in love with the restaurant industry and meets many of the people who would later become part of the Happy Cooking family at local restaurants including Café Montmartre, Magnus, The Great Dane, and Paul’s Club.
Upon graduation from UW Madison, Gabriel moves to New York City and begins working in Manhattan restaurants. He works his way up from bartender to eventually opening The Little Owl and Market Table as a partner.
Gabriel along—with his wife, Gina, chef James McDuffee and partners Matt Kebbekus and Brian Bartels—open Joseph Leonard in a small corner space in the West Village.
The team opens Jeffrey’s Grocery across the street from Joseph Leonard. Originally conceived of as a hybrid food market and lunch counter, the space soon evolves into a full-service, all-day restaurant with a focus on seafood.
Longtime West Village restaurateur Fedora Dorato approaches Gabriel and Gina to take over the space where she’d operated her eponymous bar and restaurant since 1952. Mehdi Brunet-Benkritly joins the team as Fedora’s chef, with Brian Bartels overseeing the cocktails.
The restaurant group’s nickname, “Little Wisco,” is coined in a profile of the growing company in The New York Times, which highlights the number of Wisconsonites working at the restaurants and their emphasis on Midwestern hospitality.