Common Ground: Bringing People Together

Photo by Eric Tadsen

“Common Ground is in the business of bringing people together.” A simple, yet impressive mission by Adrienne Hulburt-Stroud when she envisioned her restaurant and community event space nestled between nature and neighborhood on a bustling corner in Middleton. The backbone of Common Ground will always be to build and support the community through a variety of activities, classes, workshops, and events to create unique ways for individuals of all stripes and ages to find common ground among each other. It’s a noble aim that makes sense to Adrienne, but was initially a little difficult to sell to the bank.

A work-from-home mother and former preschool educator, Adrienne missed the connections she got through work and social settings. She lived inside a community, but wasn’t really part of it. She’d see neighbors, give them a polite nod or hello, but she had no real connection. Being a mother of two small children and having a husband with his own business led her to try to find time for herself and her daydream of a utopian space.

“Event hosting was a hobby,” says Adrienne. “I had themed parties and invited friends over, as well as hosted community events here and there. The hobby grew into wanting to do it all the time. I liked seeing people brought together, and watching them interact and form relationships that weren’t there before.”

Photograph by Eric Tadsen

A year before she got the building, Adrienne worked on a business plan, scoured local commercial properties, met with a business consultant, talked with local restaurant owners, attended bank meetings, corralled event hosts, and did a ton of research all while at home with her one- and four-year old.

“[For] Five years I was a stay-at-home mom, and I was stagnating. I thought I was done learning and trying new things—it was way harder than I ever imagined. Then I had an epiphany…it doesn’t have to be like that. I can figure out how to be involved in things and have kids. And, of course, find ways to incorporate kids into the community as well.…Especially with social media and the internet, it can be hard to find real-life places to meet people and make meaningful connections.”

After many months of property hunting, Adrienne acquired the building at 2644 Branch Street on December 1, 2017, and then quickly renovated and opened her business on January 22, 2018. Having separate meeting rooms, space to host larger events, ample parking, and neighboring the Pheasant Branch Conservancy, the property was the perfect match for what Adrienne had envisioned.

The building needed a lot of work and updating—it was dark and closed in. Now it’s a warm welcoming space with wood flooring, white tile ceiling, and local artwork for viewing and purchase. There’s a full sound stage for bluegrass, New Orleans and modern jazz, open mic, and a live radio show on Saturday night. The large upstairs space transforms into what’s needed, even hosting a UW-Madison Continuing Studies course that started this fall. Outdoor areas offer a quiet place to relax, while kids can let loose in both inside and outside play areas. People come and go with an ease of knowing it’s their community space.

Photograph by Eric Tadsen

Initially, Adrienne envisioned only serving coffee and light café items, but the building had a full kitchen, so it made sense to branch out with a full menu. She brought in head chef Cory Topel to help craft the breakfast, lunch, and dinner menus, including Friday fish fry and Sunday brunch. The menus provide changing and diverse options seasonally while keeping year-round staples, like the beet salad, sweet potato fries, caprese grilled cheese, and house-made bakery.

Being allergy friendly was very important because Adrienne’s son is allergic to nuts. They decided to be a peanut-free, gluten-friendly restaurant accommodating those with allergies as much as possible. Only rice flour is used in house, and any wheat-based breads are from Monona Bakery and other local vendors. The bakery cases are separated and labeled for the convenience of those with allergies.

I tried Adrienne and chef Cory’s collaborative creation: Apple Cheddar Grilled Cheese with cheddar, fresh apple slices, candied walnuts, and garlic aioli on a cheddar-crusted sourdough. It was well worth my time, and I look forward to trying other entreés.

In addition, Adrienne wanted “really good coffee,” so they worked with local Madison roaster Just Coffee Cooperative to pick the perfect house blends. Equally important was creating a great pancake recipe from ingredients that aren’t just flour and sugar. “We want to provide a healthier breakfast that tastes deceptively delicious.” The kitchen staff took months to perfect the Common Ground Pancake recipe, which uses rice flour, chia, flax, and oats to create a filling pancake that is flavorful enough to eat without syrup.

Photograph by Eric Tadsen

Common Ground prides itself on being one of many dementia-friendly businesses in Middleton. Staff are trained on how to best serve those with cognitive loss. In collaboration with Heidi Forney, they host a Memory Café the second Tuesday morning of the month, which offers a comfortable environment for those with Alzheimer’s to gather for refreshments and activities. The Alzheimer’s Association holds Coffee with Caregivers meetings in the upstairs space the second Monday of the month to support Alzheimer’s and dementia caregivers.

A neutral place within a vibrant community, Common Ground supports and contributes to cultural dialogue. Adrienne says, “People like consistency with events—that’s how you form a community. I was always looking for something to do. And there would be a one-time event, but then you’d never see those people again. I wanted recurring events so there’d always be a community to return to and connect with.”

Adrienne is proud of what her daydreams have become, and she’s not slowing down. In the works is an outdoor Little Free Pantry of nonperishable items and converting the detached garage into an outdoor art studio. The long-term plan is to find a location for phase two: Common Ground Farm. Not a traditional agricultural farm, but a larger venue for outdoor art, music, various classes, and retreats.

Common Ground doesn’t fit an easy definition—community event space isn’t enough. It opens minds, hearts, and experiences to the everyday and extraordinary. Adrienne appreciates being a part of people’s moments of connections and sharing. People come to learn, listen, discuss, participate, organize, and taste something desperately needed—a place to exist and support one another.

Photograph by Barbara Wilson

Krystle Engh Naab is a freelance writer and copy editor for Madison Essentials.