The state of restaurant 107 State

Nathan Mergen’s restaurant finds a new way forward by staying hyperfocused on two elements of its original menu.
107 State
Photo by Sunny Frantz

For Nathan Mergen — and many other Madison restaurant owners — the past year has basically been a fast-track trip through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief. Those who skipped to the final stage of acceptance may have the best chance of moving forward despite COVID-19 upending their business plans.

That’s what the Madison-born Mergen did. A New York-trained chef and restaurateur, Mergen achieved his lifelong dream of opening an upscale bar and bistro in June 2019 when he opened 107 State on State Street. Nine months later, the pandemic changed everything.

“It was literally like they just turned the economy off,” Mergen recalls. “You had to recognize where your shortcomings were. 107 State wasn’t built on delivery. We were an upscale bar.”

Nathan standing in front of his restaurant

Nathan Mergen (Photo by Sunny Frantz)

Mergen was forced to reorganize 107 State’s menu — formerly featuring dishes like prime rib, roast chicken and fish fry — into two major categories: burgers and pasta. From there, he created The Burger Lab and The Pasta Bar, which are sections on the menu and can also be found as a pair of virtual “ghost restaurants” on EatStreet. Instead of the robust kitchen staff he’d imagined, he handled all the cooking himself — until recently when he was able to hire on a couple cooks.

He added more pastas, swapped arugula (which holds up better than other lettuces) into the salads on the appetizer menu and focused on easily preserved ingredients. Luckily, that didn’t affect dishes such as Mergen’s spaghetti cacio e pepe, an Italian staple driven by two simple ingredients (pecorino cheese and black pepper).

“The ragus I make are all Old World sauces from Italy that would last if something went wrong,” says Mergen. One of these pandemic additions was a wild boar ragu for The Pasta Bar menu. “Basically, it’s been learning how to buy so you don’t end up throwing things out.” He also added the sharp cheddar-laden Old Fashioned Burger.

Old Fashioned Burger

Old Fashioned Burger (Photo by Sunny Frantz)

Camaraderie among his fellow business owners and his customers has made a big difference. When Mergen opted for his upper State Street location, he didn’t expect to be working, largely solo, in the heart of a landscape with boarded-up windows.

Still, plenty of things have fueled his optimism. In the early months, his landlord gave him two rent-free months and later negotiated a deal to keep him as a tenant until the pandemic passes, which helped keep the restaurant alive. One of his customers ordered $200 worth of food and gave Mergen a check for $500. Another bought a stack of gift cards, and then postdated them into 2021 to ease the hit to Mergen’s budget.

“The people who know what we do continue to support us now,” Mergen says. “I have a guy who routinely orders two pastas a week, and he’s kept that going. And that’s important, because we’re all one big cooler repair away from not being able to do it.”

Cacio e pepe

Cacio e pepe (Photo by Sunny Frantz)

Mergen says 107 State is currently making only about 15% to 30% of the revenue it needs to make to continue, but he knows that with vaccines and warmer weather on the way, the light at the end of the tunnel may be closer than it appears. He has been seeing upward growth.

“I try to stay in the present, focus on what I can control and challenge myself to be better,” Mergen says. “That’s all you can do right now.”

Aaron R. Conklin is a contributor to Madison Magazine.

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