Hidden behind an unassuming exterior along West 78th Street in Chanhassen is a long-time member of that community’s culinary history. Originally opened as an American Legion Club outpost, the location eventually morphed into the more upscale Riviera, which operated as an old-school supper club. But around the turn of the most recent century, that location became Axels, a contemporary supper club. It was the second location for a small, local chain owned by the Nath family, which also owns the Bonfire Wood Fire Cooking restaurants across the Twin Cities.
How has Axels not only survived, but thrived in Chanhassen, given that it’s part of an industry that’s highly volatile? General manager Chuck Bower has some thoughts. “Partly, it’s the demographics,” he says. “Axels brings in a niche of fine-dining restaurants, and there really wasn’t anything else like that here, other than the (Chanhassen Dinner Theatres). But as a stand-alone, we stand apart, and we’ve really been able to capitalize on that.”
Its longevity is due, in no small part, to its popular menu. “We have amazing steaks, prime rib to filet,” Bower says. “Our most popular appetizer is our Cajun bull bites, which are prime rib tips sautéed in a blackening skillet with Cajun seasoning, then served with house-made Bearnaise and creamy horseradish sauces. We sell about 100 pounds of those every week.”
But that doesn’t mean the menu is static. Head chef Franco Ambrosio has been with the Axels group for seven years, but he was promoted from sous chef and moved to the Chanhassen location in late 2015. The restaurant group does not believe in a rigid menu, meaning chef Ambrosio has the ability to create his own daily specials that can be different from what the other Axels are offering. “He’s done some specials that ended up becoming regular menu items across the chain,” Bower says. “He’s incredibly driven to make sure that everything is perfect every day. He has such dedication and aspirations to be a leader in food quality.”
The chef also has latitude to go out three or four times a week to the restaurant’s seafood purveyors and choose the fish he deems to be the best quality that day, then bring it back to Axels to create an entrée around it. That freedom of choice could explain why Axels is known not only for its beef dishes, but for its fish dishes, as well.
As anyone who has eaten at restaurants knows, excellent food is a draw, but if the service is lacking, the meal can be ruined. Bower understands this. He was brought into Axels in mid-2016 from the Macaroni Grill chain, and sees creating and maintaining a high level of service as an important part of his role. “It’s important for us to create traditions and memories for diners, because that’s what they’re looking for today,” he says. “People are not coming here for mediocre food and substandard service. We need to rise to what they want.”
To forward that goal, Bower is highly present, both for customers and staff. “I get out there in public. I talk to staff daily,” he says. “I learn so much just from talking to people. We have regulars, who come every week for dinner or every happy hour. We want to keep those people coming and bringing their friends.”
He notes that since June 2016, shortly after he was brought on board, sales have increased every month over the previous year’s sales. “I attribute that to the chef and myself,” Bower says. “We’ve really brought our service and the quality of our food to what it needs to be. The service staff is really stepping up their game, and they’re enjoying it as much as the customers do. We all take pride in what we’re doing here.”