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Updated: January 6, 2020 2020 WBJ Best of Business Awards

2020 Best of Business Awards: Food & Drink

Photo | Courtesy of The Sole Proprietor A sampling of the food offered at The Sole Proprietor

Best Restaurant for Business Lunch

  • The Sole Proprietor*
  • Location: Worcester
  • Website:
  • Top executives: Owners Robb & Madeleine Ahlquist & General Manager Eric Andreoli
  • Founded: 1979
  • Employees: 107
  • Notable runners-up: VIA Italian Table, 110 Grill, Armsby Abbey, BirchTree Bread Co., deadhorse hill, Sonoma, Volturno Pizza Napoletana

It could have turned out a lot differently for Robb Ahlquist, co-owner of The Sole Proprietor.

Instead of celebrating his 40th year at the landmark seafood restaurant on Highland Street in December, the Shrewsbury resident might have been admiring four decades as a doctor.

“I was pre-med at Syracuse University,” Ahlquist said.

As a student at the upstate New York school, Ahlquist, now 69, took a slight detour. The biophysics major took a 15-hour-a-week job in the school’s food service department. Within a short time, he was managing the dining hall, earning free room and board.

With his love for the restaurant and hospitality trade born as an undergraduate, he said, instead of pursuing medicine after his graduation in 1972, Ahlquist took a job at The Walter White Tavern in Syracuse.

One of the things he remembered most about the experience was the New York eatery got its fish from Foley Fish of Boston. That supplier, founded in 1906, is still operating. Ahlquist said Foley has set the standard for the freshest, most flavorful seafood available.

By 1979, Ahlquist and his wife, Madeleine, were ready to return to Massachusetts. That year, the couple bought the former Shannon’s, a diner and pub, and prepared a seafood menu.

“Back then there wasn’t a single seafood restaurant in Worcester,” he said. “Restaurants served seafood dishes, but none had seafood exclusively on their menu. But I knew I had a supplier of high quality seafood.”

Ahlquist then called Frank Foley to open an account. Today, the restaurant still gets most of its seafood from Foley.

A Sole secret for success, he said, is the restaurant has refused to follow a the trend where everything is a la carte.

“When we started, a salad or soup, a vegetable and a starch were part of the meal,” he said. “Our customers like it that way, and we’ve kept it because it’s worked for 40 years.”

Another secret, he said, is a staff with longevity.

“Some of my people have been with us for 20 and 30 years,” Ahlquist said. “That says something.”

Best Locally Owned Place to Meet for Coffee

  • BirchTree Bread Co.*
    BirchTree Bread Co.
  • Location: Worcester
  • Website:
  • Top executives: Co-owners Robert Fecteau & Avra Hoffman
  • Founded: November 2014
  • Employees: 36

With live music and rotating local art pieces in a large vibrant space, BirchTree offers an eclectic atmosphere to enjoy coffee, with enough room to spread out for quick business meetings. Beyond its coffee, BirchTree has expanded its specialized events from its beer dinners to wine dinners and cheese dinners.

  • Notable runners-up: Fuel America, Brew on the Grid, Acoustic Java

Best Restaurant for Business Dinner

  • One Eleven Chop House*
    One Eleven Chop House
  • Location: Worcester
  • Website:
  • Top executives: Co-owners Robb & Madeleine Ahlquist & General Manager Aaron Francisco
  • Founded: 1999
  • Employees: 87

In keeping with its mantra of offering the big-city steakhouse experience without the prices, One Eleven has introduced a weekday promotion offering a prime cut steak and a lobster tail for $25.99, which has expanded its customer base. Its steaks are hand selected and certified prime-grade, and its wine list has received Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence annually since 2001.

  • Notable runners-up: The Sole Proprietor, VIA Italian Table, Arturo’s Ristorante, Lock 50, Worcester Club

Best Caterer for a Corporate Event

  • Peppers Artful Events*
    Peppers Artful Events has been purchased by Gourmet Catering in Boston.
  • Location: Northborough
  • Website:
  • Top executives: Co-owners Susan & John Lawrence
  • Founded: 1987
  • Employees: 20-30 full time & 100-150 part-time

Peppers continues to approach every event in a unique way, offering clients a personable experience, while focusing on providing good-tasting food presented in appetizing ways. This past year, Peppers began hosting events at its Northborough location – ranging from chef-curated wine dinners to hands-on cooking classes – and converted a van into a food truck, making appearances at local breweries.

  • Notable runner-up: Struck Catering

Best Blackstone Valley After-Work Bar

  • Reunion Tap & Table*
    Reunion Tap & Table
  • Location: North Grafton
  • Website:
  • Top executives: Co-owners Sargon Hanna, Shawn Briggs & Josh Briggs & General Manager Gary Benacquista
  • Founded: 2018
  • Employees: 50

Reunion offers scratch-cooked food, rare craft beers, a modern dining room, a spacious bar, and a private dining room. The restaurant is open for lunch, dinner and Sunday Brunch and has catering services.

Best North County After-Work Bar

  • Slattery's Restaurant & Bar
  • Location: Fitchburg
  • Website:
  • Top executive: Chef & Owner Dave Celuzza
  • Founded: 1934

Founded as a working man’s bar in 1934, Celuzza has been transformed Slattery’s over the past 30 years into a full-service hospitality venue. The eatery tries to source local food whenever possible.

Best Metrowest After-Work Bar

  • Tavern In The Square Northborough*
    Tavern In The Square
  • Website:
  • Top executive: CEO Stephen Desousa
  • Founded: 2004
  • Employees: 60

While touting a neighborhood vibe, Tavern in the Square offers a craft cocktail selection and a diverse list of 50 beers changing with the seasons. The scratch-food menu is updated seasonally.

Best Worcester After-Work Bar

  • Worcester Beer Garden & Pavilion
    Worcester Beer Garden & Pavillion
  • Website:
  • Founded: 2017
  • Employees: 30

The Beer Garden offers 36 craft beers on tap, food, a heated year-round pavilion for live music and a terrace filled with games. This winter, the bar added six heated igloos for free on the terrace.

  • Notable runners-up: Armsby Abbey, Nick’s Bar & Restaurant

Best Central Mass. South After-Work Bar

  • Cedar Street Grille* from the Table 3 Restaurant Group
    Cedar Street Grille
  • Location: Sturbridge
  • Website:
  • Top executive: Restaurant Manager Patrick O’Brien
  • Founded: 2011
  • Employees: 40

Offering a neighborhood atmosphere, the restaurant includes a full bar with cocktails prepared by a passionate staff. Cedar Street has redone its chef structure to provide more creative food, with a mix of small plates, seasonal entrees, and house-made desserts.

Best Local Brewery

  • Wormtown Brewery*
    Wormtown Brewery
  • Location: Worcester
  • Website:
  • Top executive: Managing Partner David Fields
  • Founded: 2010
  • Employees: 35 full time and 15 part time

This year, Wormtown had its largest rollout to date, with its Don’t Worry IPA as a partner to its flagship Be Hoppy IPA. The brewery opened its second location in Patriot Place in Foxborough, and it continued its commitment to local ingredients to follow its tagline “A piece of Mass. in every glass.”

  • Notable runners-up: Tree Housing Brewing Co., Greater Good Imperial Brewing Co., Wachusett Brewing Co., and Redemption Rock Brewing Co.

*Repeat winner

Read up on the other 2020 Best of Business winners by clicking on the links below.


  • Best Accounting Firm: Bollus Lynch, LLP Certified Public Accountants & Consultants*
  • Best Credit Union: DCU – Digital Federal Credit Union*
  • Best Forensic Accountant: McLaren & Associates CPAs, PC*
  • Best Law Firm: Mirick O’Connell*
  • Best Woman-owned Business: PENTA Communications, Inc.*
  • Best Minority-owned Business: Resource Management, Inc.*
  • Best Business Insurance Agency: Sullivan Insurance Group*
  • Best Bank: UniBank*
  • Best Chamber of Commerce: Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce*


  • Best Health Insurance Provider: Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts*
  • Best Professional Training Company: MindsetGo
  • Best College for Business Education: Nichols College*
  • Best Financial Planning/Investment Services Firm: Provo Wealth Management Group*
  • Best Employee Benefits Consultant: Sullivan Benefits*
  • Best Staffing Agency: The DAVIS Cos.*
  • Best Luxury Automobile Dealership: Mercedes-Benz of Shrewsbury*
  • Best Exercise Facility/Fitness Center: Worcester Fitness*
  • Best Young Professionals Network: YPWA (Young Professional Women’s Association) of Worcester*


  • Best Commercial Landscaper: Cheaper Than The Kid Next Door Landscaping*
  • Best Coworking Space: Clearly Coworking*
  • Best Waste Removal: E.L. Harvey*
  • Best Office Cleaning: Eagle Cleaning Corp.*
  • Best Logistics Company: Euro-American Worldwide Logistics*
  • Best Coffee Service: Good As Gold Coffee*
  • Best Plumber/HVAC Contractor: J.J. Bafaro, Inc.*
  • Best Commercial Real Estate Brokerage: Kelleher & Sadowsky
  • Best Limousine Service: Knight’s Airport Limousine Service Inc.*


  • Best New Real Estate Development: 145 Front Street
  • Best Venue for a Corporate Event: Apex Center of New England
  • Best Venue for an Employee Outing: Apex Entertainment*
  • Best Hotel for Business Clients: Beechwood Hotel*
  • Best Venue for a Business Meeting: Beechwood Hotel*
  • Best Public Golf Course: Green Hill Municipal Golf Course*
  • Best Nonprofit Fundraiser Event: March of Dimes Signature Chefs Auction*
  • Best Golf Club for Corporate Outing: Worcester Country Club
  • Best Private Golf Course: Worcester Country Club*


  • Best IT Services provider: Cinch IT, Inc.*
  • Best Commercial Printer: Curry Printing*
  • Best Awards & Promotional Products: Engraveables
  • Best Video Production: Pagano Media*
  • Best Advertising Agency: PENTA Communications, Inc.*
  • Best Internet Service Provider: Spectrum Enterprise*
  • Best Sign Company: Sunshine Sign Co., Inc.*
  • Best Web Design Firm: Worcester Interactive

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