It has been four years since Matt Connolly passed away, but his legacy lives on at a new eatery in Eden Prairie. Late last year, Wingman Matt quietly opened its doors in the Anderson Lakes Center at the northwest corner of Anderson Lakes Parkway and Flying Cloud Drive.
It is now in full swing, with a take-out menu of broasted chicken wings, chicken fingers and a selection of sub sandwiches, as well as a mission to give back to families facing mounting medical bills due to cancer.
John Connolly (Matt’s dad) and Bill Evanoff are the co-owners of Wingman Matt. They met working at Ebenezer Ridges Care Center in Burnsville and found common ground in their culinary backgrounds.
“John and I are both chefs,” said Evanoff.
For years, the two had tossed around the idea of starting a restaurant, but with the risk and money involved, they wanted a sound concept before they took the leap. Evanoff started experimenting with broasted chicken wings. He bought a commercial pressure fryer and put it in his garage in Northeast Minneapolis where he spent a year working like a “mad scientist” to perfect the seasoning blend for his marinade.
“It took me a year or so to arrive at a recipe I liked,” he explained.
Winner, winner chicken dinner
When he found a winner, Evanoff opened his garage doors and started handing out wings to his neighbors. Then he took them to local bartenders. “If there was one resounding truth, it was that people said I should sell these,” he said.
With the support and encouragement they needed, Evanoff and John started looking into buying a food truck. It took about two years to get their truck. Almost immediately they began searching for a catering kitchen to support food truck operations and offer take-out. A broker showed them the Anderson Lakes Center site and they quickly signed on the dotted line.
Wingman Matt started offering wings at opening last year. Slowly, they’ve added chicken fingers and, most recently, sub sandwiches. “We’re building the menu as we go,” said Evanoff.
They’re also building a following. “Eden Prairie seems genuinely excited about us,” said Evanoff.
And as word gets out about their food, they get closer to making their mission a success and helping families with mounting cancer bills.
“It drives me to continue to raise the bar to make this thing a success,” said John. “For Matt.”
Matt was an active, joyful 9-year-old when he suddenly started waking up each morning and vomiting. After being tested for various viral and bacterial infections, a scan revealed an aggressive tumor on his cerebellum that was pressing on his brain stem and causing a buildup of brain fluid when he slept.
The tumor was surgically removed and over the subsequent year, Matt endured 30 rounds of chemotherapy. “That was a tough year for him,” said John.
They were optimistic about Matt’s prognosis as scan after scan came up clean for nearly five years. “He was not afraid to talk about it,” said John. “But he tried to focus on being a normal kid.”
Then, after five years of seemingly clear scans, Matt’s last scan revealed three tumors, John recalled. “He was disappointed, but his whole goal was to beat this.”
“The kid had great focus,” John added, noting that despite illness, Matt graduated from Dakota County Technical College with a degree in architectural technology. “He was working on redesigns for McDonald’s restaurants and was involved in the Special Olympics as a coach,” offered John.
Experimental treatments at Masonic Children’s followed, including expensive medications and a procedure that infused chemotherapy directly into the blood surrounding his brain.
Then, on a family trip to Hawaii, Matt found he was lethargic and had no energy. Blood tests revealed an abnormal number of blast cells, a precursor to leukemia. John said Matt’s only option was a risky stem cell transplant.
Despite their best efforts, the treatments began to affect Matt’s organs and he spent several weeks in the hospital in early 2018. On January 18, Matt came home on hospice. He passed away on January 26.
Now, Matt’s spirit lives on with Wingman Matt’s mission to give back directly to families struggling with medical bills due to pediatric cancer. John said he and his wife were fortunate to have the flexibility to be with Matt when he was undergoing treatment, but they know not all families have that ability.
John said that he and Matt often talked about the kids in the pediatric cancer wards that didn’t have loved ones with them. It made Matt sad to see children endure cancer treatments alone.
“We wanted to create a business that we could give back to pediatric cancer patients and their families,” said John.
John and Evanoff are currently working to identify families in need of assistance and they hope to hold a grand opening celebration soon with all of the profits from that day dedicated to the mission. Evanoff noted that future plans also include raising money through the sale of Wingman Matt merchandise.
John said he talked to Matt about their business plans before he passed away. And, even in spirit, the conversation continues. “I talk to him every day,” said John. “The good and the bad. I tell him everything.”
“Matt, he’s our wingman,” said Evanoff. “We’re carrying on his legacy with these wings.”