From pharmaceutical rep to restaurateur: Madison’s Cafe owner Rob Agee shares his story of success.
For some, the restaurant industry’s fast-paced tempo and characteristic camaraderie imbues itself so deeply it becomes an innate and undeniable part of a person’s being. This certainly holds true for Rob Agee, who has owned Madison’s Cafe in downtown Jefferson City for 38 years. Even in today’s trying times, Rob says, “I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Growing up in St. Louis, Rob attended the University of Missouri-St. Louis, earning a degree in finance and a minor in biology. Working his way through college, Rob waited tables and bartended at local restaurants, including a few on The Hill, St. Louis’s famous Italian neighborhood, learning the ins and outs of the business.
After graduation, Rob soon discovered he was longing for the excitement of the unexpected day-to-day challenges of food service. He said goodbye the nine-to-five life and hasn’t looked back. “I do it because I like to make great memories,” he shares.
In April 1982, Rob began looking for a smaller community where he could open an Italian restaurant. He was drawn to Jefferson City due to its midsized population, increased seasonally by an influx of legislators, and unsaturated market. After purchasing and remodeling 216 Madison St., formerly The State House and Senate Lounge, Madison’s Café opened its doors.
“I wanted the restaurant to have the atmosphere of a European-style cafe. The street on which the building is located is Madison Street, so I called it Madison’s Cafe,” Rob says.
The following spring, Rob purchased the next-door building, once The Brass Rail, and remodeled it, expanding capacity to 7,200 square feet with seating for 200 and two private dining rooms.
Today, Madison’s proudly populates the list of landmark Jefferson City eateries alongside local icons like Central Dairy and Arris’ Pizza. The community-oriented restaurant offers an upscale yet family-friendly atmosphere to its customers, many of whom are fiercely loyal regulars.
But it is not just the customers who keep coming back. “My chef and several of the front-of-the-house staff have been with me for 20 years,” Rob says. “They are seasoned, know what’s going on, and know what I expect. Often our customers know their server by name.”
The eclectic, ever-evolving menu is consistently studded with fresh, made-to-order fare. Rob explains, “The key to this restaurant is that it is not just Italian — there is a broad spectrum of dishes, like the bone-in pork chop with mashed potatoes and asparagus or 10-ounce strip steak.”
Ask any local Jefferson Citian to name their favorite dish and the answer will vary between everything from the burnt sandwich to lobster bisque to baked mostaccioli. “Our menu fits the character of Madison’s,” Rob says. “Creating it took a lot of experimentation — the bread pudding recipe took a year and half to perfect.”
As an active member of the community, Rob has been involved with several local boards over the years, including the Mid Missouri Chapter of the Missouri Restaurant Association and the Jefferson City Convention and Visitors Bureau. Before it finally passed in 1998, Rob battled for 10 years for a city ordinance to allow outside dining in the city. Now, the black and white umbrellas on the patio are one of their most popular and distinctive features of the restaurant.
Madison’s has received numerous prestigious accolades over the past 30 years, including a historic landmark designation in 2019 through the Jefferson City Historic Preservation Commission, the Historic City of Jefferson, and Jefferson City Council.
It was also at Madison’s where Rob, on an off-chance, met his wife, who served 30 years as executive director of a statewide child advocacy organization. She’s also an artist and currently coordinates the marketing and technology side of the business.
Rob says that someday he will retire and pass the restaurant on to someone interested in carrying on the legacy. As for now, he plans to maintain Madison’s as a Jefferson City tradition, continuing to provide a gathering place for family and friends or the setting for a romantic dinner, especially during today’s ever-changing circumstances.
Rob says: “This has been one of the most challenging times ever for restaurants, but it is important that we are here for our customers. You have to adapt to change and be ready to make it work.”
Julie’s Zesty Bowtie Pasta
Yield: 2 large portions or 4 smaller portions
2 six-ounce boneless chicken breasts
6 large mushrooms
1 medium zucchini
Fresh chopped garlic (about 1 teaspoon)
1 medium yellow squash
Salt & pepper to taste
1 red pepper
Crushed red pepper to taste
1 small red onion
1 pound farfalle (bow tie pasta)
4 spears asparagus cooked al dente, then set aside
Optional: 1 tomato, chopped (only when in season!)
Preheat oven to 375. Salt and pepper both sides of the chicken breasts. Bake approximately 30 to 40 minutes, until fully cooked yet still moist. Cut into half-inch pieces and set aside.
Cut zucchini and yellow squash into quarters lengthwise, then slice into quarter-inch pieces. Coarsely chop red pepper, red onion, asparagus, and mushrooms. Combine the vegetables. We use, prefer, and recommend using only fresh vegetables!
To make an individual order: In a large saute skillet, add 2 to 4 ounces of olive oil, 1 large handful of fresh vegetables, and one-quarter of the chicken slices. Saute about 3 to 4 minutes. Add a half tablespoon of fresh garlic, then salt and pepper to taste. Stir ingredients. Cook an additional 1 to 2 minutes; don’t burn the garlic. Blanche off one-quarter of the bowtie pasta (put under hot water for 30 seconds). Add pasta to skillet and a two-finger pinch of crushed red pepper. Stir ingredients. Cook an additional 30 seconds, then plate. Top the dish with fresh parmigiana cheese and a bit of parsley.
NOTES: If you add the garlic too soon, it will burn. If you add the crushed red pepper any earlier, it will permeate the dish’s flavor too much. If you prefer vegetarian, do not include the chicken. If you prefer seafood, use shrimp in lieu of chicken. If you prefer gluten-free, use a rice penne pasta or any gluten-free pasta.
(Bone with a hole)
Recipe for 12 shanks
3 cups olive oil
1 ½ cups flour
12 veal shanks
6 cups medium diced yellow onion
3 cups medium diced carrots
3 cups medium diced celery
6 tablespoons chopped garlic
5 bay leaves
6 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme
3 cups red wine
2 pounds baby red potatoes, quartered and cooked until tender
6 quarts chicken stock
¾ cups chopped fresh parsley
In a large stockpot, add the olive oil. Season the veal shanks with salt and pepper. Dredge the veal shanks in seasoned flour, coating well. When the oil is hot, sear the shanks for two to three minutes on all sides, or until very brown on all sides. Remove the shanks.
Add onions to the pan and sauté for two to three minutes. Add the carrots and celery and continue to sauté. Season the mixture with salt and pepper. Stir in the garlic, bay leaves, and thyme. Add the chicken stock. Bring the liquid to a boil and then reduce to simmer.
Add the shanks and continue to simmer for two hours. Put lid on pot. Baste the shanks every 15 minutes or so. When finished, transfer contents of pot to a four-inch full pan and keep warm in the steam table or warming dish.
To plate, transfer two shanks to a large soup bowl, and top the shanks with the vegetables and stock. Serve with rustic bread.
Business Advice from Rob Agee
- Gain experience and knowledge about all facets of the business that you are trying to start and learn from your mistakes. “I’ve been in the business for so many years, I’ve made every mistake you can make and I’ve learned from every single one.”
- Be enthusiastic about whatever business you are starting. You must be committed and lead by example. Know that you will be working long hours.
- Be flexible and have the ability to adapt to change at a moment’s notice. Recognize when your business model needs to change and implement that change quickly.
- Know your numbers. Cost of goods sold, administrative costs, your break-even point. Also, have a trustworthy attorney in the very beginning to draw up papers and a knowledgeable accountant.
- Have trusted staff who share your passion and purpose.
- Treat every customer (guest) as if they were your first.