When Gabriel Stulman BA2003 faced a crabby customer who was throwing a tantrum over the wait for a table in one of his New York City restaurants, he spontaneously hugged her. Not only did the gesture soothe the impatient woman, but it also inspired Stulman’s staff to start a contest to see who could offer the most hugs.
That Midwestern hospitality is just one of the reasons why New Yorkers flock to Stulman’s five restaurants. In fact, his restaurant group was originally named Little Wisco because of the strong contingent of Wisconsinites he’d hired, though he later adopted the name Happy Cooking Hospitality as his operation grew.
He quickly made a name for himself in the most competitive dining scene in the nation, opening more than half a dozen restaurants in five years and earning serious accolades along the way: he was named Restaurateur of the Year by Esquire magazine in 2012 and was included in the 2011 40 Under 40 list for Crain’s New York Business. His restaurants — which include Joseph Leonard, Jeffrey’s Grocery, and Perla Cafe — have attracted glowing coverage from Bon Appétit magazine, the New York Times, and others.
This early success gained Stulman a 2015 Wisconsin Alumni Association’s Forward under 40 award, which honors young alumni for significant achievement. The history major had fallen in love with the restaurant business when he took a job bartending at Madison’s Café Montmartre to work his way through school, but he credits his UW education with instilling in him the values of time management, hard work, and follow-through.
As soon as he graduated, Stulman headed for New York. As he began opening restaurants, he says, “our places immediately became hubs for others from Wisconsin … drawn by the sense of fun and warm welcome that our restaurants radiated. This was ultimately what I learned at the UW. It was where I found my path, and even if I ended up in a very different place than where I’d planned, it was where I found myself.”