Get to Know French Hen Cafe
A roving flower cart + a love of New Orleans = a 40-year family affair enjoying new life as a beloved breakfast institution.
Written by: Mecca Bos
Maddie Rivard’s baby bassinet: a floral box. She’s got the baby pictures to prove it. And while her mother Robin’s roving flower cart, which she pushed up and down Grand Avenue before Maddie “was even a twinkle in her mother’s eye,” forty years later, the flower business, and the adjacent restaurant still stand, though the business model has flip-flopped, and her mother’s dream for her daughter to go into the family business took an unexpected turn: “I don’t even have houseplants,” says Maddie. “Everything at the restaurant is my problem-- except for the plants.”
“She just thought they were pretty,” says Maddie, though her mom’s mom was an avid gardener. The love of gardening and the roving flower cart turned into a storefront, Fleur de Lis, where Maddie grew up with her mom and a tight-knit group of women flower designers.
“It was a great environment for a young girl to grow up in.”
Since the building happened to have a functional kitchen and cafe space within, the family decided to have a go at the restaurant business, with Maddie’s dad running it with breakfast, lunch, dinner, and pizza. But with two kids in diapers, it proved to be too much for the young family, so they began a series of leases to other chefs and restaurateurs.
Alexander Dixon, famously of Zander Cafe ran his Z Cafe out of the space, a very classic kitchen, where Maddie got a glimpse of how “serious” pro cooking could be. A Greek family ran a place called Medusa’s, where a tiny Maddie got to belly up for buttered peas at lunchtime.
“Peas are still one of my favorite foods.”
But eventually, “we just had too much literal blood, sweat, and tears into the place,” says Maddie, recalling peeling glue off of her body in an attempt to remove carpet that had been glued to the floor by one tenant.
Flavors of The Big Easy
While the years of flitting around the edges of all of those restaurants-- plus her mother and grandmother’s impressive gardening and culinary stylings-- gave Maddie a keen interest in cooking, she says she was content with her “cushy catering job.” But someone was going to have to step up and run the restaurant side of her family business. The chef at her cushy catering job encouraged her to go for it.
So she went for it.
“Every time I try to plan a trip, I always skip along to New Orleans anyway,’ she says. “It seems like everything is easier there, which is funny, because everything is actually harder.”
It’s an apt metaphor for the restaurant business itself-- but the ease of eating, drinking, and deep community can make the medicine of the hard parts go down a little more smoothly.
But figuring out how to do it was not always easy. So finally, she took the path of least resistance, and took the Big Easy route: lean into the things that the family loved-- New Orleans, Julia Child, breakfast at all times of day, being “daytime people,” and their French-Canadian roots. And of course, flowers. Lots and lots of flowers.
They insist that the restaurant is not French-- just Creole around the edges. “We lean into the hen,” says Maddie.
The French Hen was born
Known for spot-on eggs and heavily seasoned (but still Minnesota-friendly) food that appeases even the most discerning lover of Southern cuisine, biscuits with house Andouille Sausage Gravy, a veggie-forward Creole Market Hash, and a Banh Mi Benedict with Sriracha Hollandaise are beloved dishes at The French Hen.
“The Holy Trinity (onions, bell peppers and celery) is in everything we cook because we want that flavor in everything. It just seems natural.”
While the flower shop is now operated by longtime employees of Fleur de Lis, and has been named Ergo Floral, the two spaces still operate symbiotically-- small wedding parties are hosted jointly by the two, flower workshops are held inside of The Hen, and you can see the unity in the lush verdancy of the cafe. Guests enter through the flower shop for a blast of springtime before tucking into a catfish po boy.
Coming up on ten years of ownership, Maddie says she feels simultaneously “pinch me” and afraid. “It was always really scary, and it’s still really scary.” But making it through the pandemic, after 40 years of collective family business is a major point of pride. The large majority of the staff has been with the Rivards for over six years, and everyone gets input on everything from menu to barware. Decisions are made as a team, and guests can feel the camaraderie.
“Our staff is invested in the business in a way that it isn’t fair to expect from people.” But they got there the honest way-- through mutual respect and community.
Plus a lot of good eating and drinking-- the Big Easy way.
Maddie Rivard’s Saint Paul Insider Tips
Favorite spot to take guests: A walk along River Road in the summer, Como Conservatory in the winter
Fave St. Paul neighborhood: Has to be Cathedral Hill as it is home, having lived here my adult life and spent much of my childhood in the flower shop.
Fave spot to eat: Trieu Chau for Pho all the time, my ultimate comfort food, no matter the weather. Drinks would be Sweeney’s.
Fave breakfast spot: Cornbread pancakes and over medium eggs at Neighborhood Cafe.