Henry Doane pushes forward at Tempest Oyster Bar and Tornado Room Steak House
Henry Doane always felt more comfortable in the kitchen than in the dining room.
Henry Doane has worked in restaurants most of his life. It was always a ready occupation more than an ambition. His first job was as a dishwasher at the age of 15. Doane always felt more comfortable in the kitchen than in the dining room. “The stress levels are high for both the front of the house and the back, but it’s really about being onstage or being in the orchestra pit,” he says.
While working as a line cook at the Fess Hotel, a fabled upscale Madison eatery during the 1970s and ’80s, Doane met Chris Berge. Together with another partner, Jack Williams, they opened the Blue Marlin in 1990; it closed in 2015. Six years after opening the Blue Marlin, Doane set out on his own and opened Tornado Room Steak House, still one of the city’s stalwart restaurants. A second venture, Tempest Oyster Bar, followed in 2011. “I am passionate about what I do and food is a big part of it, [but] I consider myself more of a maker of environments,” Doane says. He believes a unique and quality dining experience is more important than following food fads.
Doane couldn’t have foreseen that his two restaurants — named for cataclysms — would be threatened by another storm. Making it in the service industry is always a challenge, but the pandemic squeezed already tight profit margins.
When businesses shut down in March 2020, Doane initially saw it as an opportunity to do a long-needed kitchen upgrade at Tornado, assuming the crisis would soon pass. When it didn’t, he began to rethink his business plan. When he was finally allowed to reopen, at first it was carryout only — something neither of his restaurants had ever done. Steaks and top-notch seafood were placed in to-go boxes as the steakhouse experience was brought home.
When indoor dining returned at 25% capacity, he felt fortunate that both his venues boasted relatively large dining rooms. Tornado added limited outdoor dining on Main Street as part of the city’s “Streatery” program. It also used the courtyard on Hamilton Street, which was a small patio space prior to COVID-19.
At Tempest, the adjacent parking lot was shut down, creating a large patio. Doane, however, observed that his clientele at Tornado still preferred dining inside.
He considers himself lucky that at the end of 2020, sales were still half of what they had been the previous year. He credits his dedicated employees, loyal customers and the fact that he doesn’t have investors to satisfy.
Doane says a Paycheck Protection Program loan helped him keep much of his staff and pay some bills. Along with a long-term loan and other grants from the state, city and county, this assistance kept his doors open. He’s optimistic about the future, but he’s not sure when — if ever — things will return to the way they once were. “I expect some people will still be uncomfortable in a place as crowded as the Tornado bar is on Friday night,” he says.
Regardless, he speculates recovery will probably take longer than he would like, but he’s confident that Tornado and Tempest will survive. “I think we will come out of this calamity better and stronger.”
Dan Curd has written for Madison Magazine for more than 20 years.
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