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Innovation a constant at The Nova

Tyrrell and Jana Gaffer are pictured by the sunflower-topped greeting sign at the entrance to the Nova’s outdoor seating area. (Hudson Star-Observer photo by Chuck Nowlen)1 / 3
broader view shows the Nova’s restaurant entrance, patio and northwest parking lot. (Submitted photo)2 / 3
The Nova’s Coulee Road sign is flanked by vintage lighting that recalls the restaurant’s early days as a brewery. (Submitted photo)3 / 3

You’ve seen the 1940s vehicles with the googly-eyes windshields in the parking lot. You’ve seen the massive “8th Wonder” ice wall across the street in the winter. You’ve seen the quirky messages on the sidewalk sign out front.

But if you haven’t been to the Nova Restaurant and Wine Bar in a while, chances are there’s something new there for you –- new, eclectic menu items; new wines; new craft beers; or something else you’ve never seen, experienced or tasted before.

That’s the way owner Jana Gaffer and her son Tyrrell like it.

“The Nova is always changing and evolving,” Tyrrell explains. “We keep up with the changing industry and try to be ahead of the norm. We always want to be on our toes.”

Adds Jana, a one-time Hudson first-grade teacher: “People come here from everywhere. The most exciting part of having the restaurant is the people we’ve met. They come in, and they’re just like, ‘Wow, this place is original. I’ve never seen anything like it.’”

The Nova is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, and while the future is always on the Gaffers’ minds, so is the restaurant’s history. The combination is a big part of what makes the restaurant unique.

The elongated building at 236 Coulee Road was built in 1896 as brewery, and during Prohibition, it was a Coca-Cola bottling plant. After that, it became a beer and liquor distributorship, and, eventually, a liquor store.

“We hear all kinds of stories from people who knew it way back when, and we get different letters about what someone’s great-great grandfather once saw here,” Jana notes. “We have no idea which stories are true.”

Room to grow

When Jana and her husband John, an underground construction-equipment designer, bought the building in 2003, what is now the restaurant area had no windows or doors out front.

“It used to be just a loading dock from when it was a beer distributorship,” Tyrrell recalls. “When I was in college, it was pretty much a hole in the wall. We ripped everything out and started from scratch, right down to the studs and concrete walls. Everything was gutted.”

At first, the Gaffers devoted the entire building to a liquor store, and Casanova Liquor still occupies about half of the space on the southeast side. Then Jana thought of opening a wine bar.

“I like to drink wine, but people didn’t buy much wine at all at the liquor store then,” she says. “The wine bar was a way of encouraging people to try different wines.”

Now Tyrrell ribs his mother a bit: “It used to be a women’s hangout. But it evolved. Now it’s a full clientele –- 25 to 80, all ages.”

Jana and her husband had a restaurant “when Tyrrell was a baby,” so a steadily growing and changing menu wasn’t long in coming.

“We knew what we wanted to do and what we didn’t want to do,” Jana says. “We knew we didn’t want to be open every day, and we knew that we wanted to start small. So we started with dinners only, Wednesday through Saturday. Then we added Tuesdays, then Thursdays.”

Now the restaurant is open for lunches and dinners five days a week -– 10 a.m. to 10 a.m. Tuesday through Thursday, and 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

“We’ve always been closed on Sundays because Sundays are big for the liquor store,” Jana notes. “And Mondays –- well, we wanted to have a full day off. Then Tyrrell graduated from college, so we added a few things.”

Seasonal menu

One key addition was Chef Nate Johnson, who once lived across the street from the Gaffers in Hudson but moved to California to pursue his cooking artistry. He moved back home eight years ago to build the Nova’s “fusion American” menu, which features locally grown foods and changes every four months, along with the wine list.

“Different seasons, different tastes,” Jana explains, adding with a smile: “Plus, we have to eat here every night, so we like to change our menu and wine list every once in a while. Our customers appreciate it too.”

Tyrrell was on top of America’s craft-beer explosion as well. The restaurant operates 12 craft-beer drafts, and, as you might expect, the selection is ever-changing. Along the way, the Nova became a local mecca for craft-beer enthusiasts.

“This morning, there were 100 people in the parking lot waiting for our new beer release,” Tyrrell says. “It started at 3 a.m. Some people slept here overnight to be first in line.”

Growlers –- refillable 64-ounce bottles –- are a popular craft-beer option. “It’s fresher right out of the keg. The price is also better –- you’re not paying for a new can or bottle every time,” Tyrrell notes.

Then there are the Nova’s wine fests, beer fests and other special events, like private weddings, birthday parties, class reunions and other gatherings, many in the man-made cave at the far end of the southeast parking lot. That space is converted into a haunted cave every Halloween.

“It’s really scary too,” Jana says. “We also give the space to different charities every year.”

Where do all the ideas come from? All over the globe.

“Tyrrell goes all over the country contacting people, just to find the next thing,” says Jana. “We also take one or two big trips every year -– 11 countries in Europe, Argentina, Chile, South Africa. The only place we haven’t been is Australia, and it’s on the list.”

Tyrrell sums it all up this way: “We’re learning all the time. … We like to be a leader, not a follower.”

For reservations or other information, call the Nova at (715) 386-5333. The restaurant’s website:

Chuck Nowlen

Chuck Nowlen joined the Star-Observer team as a business, township and general-assignment reporter in April, 2014 after a three-decade career in newspapers and magazines, and as a newsroom-management/business-planning consultant.

(715) 808-8286