The breaking wave: Is Asheville’s restaurant market oversaturated?

LOCAL LOVE: Asheville’s restaurant scene may be centered downtown, but a growing trend is to open new businesses on the outskirts of the city. Michel Baudouin, owner of downtown landmarks Bouchon and Creperie Bouchon, is poised to open a new Bouchon in East Asheville where locals can take advantage of abundant parking and the spacious building promises shorter wait times. “The purpose of the second location is to keep our locals: I don’t want to lose the people who allow us to be where we are today,” he says.
LOCAL LOVE: Asheville’s restaurant scene may be centered downtown, but a growing trend is to open new businesses on the outskirts of the city. Michel Baudouin, owner of downtown landmarks Bouchon and Creperie Bouchon, is poised to open a new Bouchon in East Asheville where locals can take advantage of abundant parking and the spacious building promises shorter wait times. “The purpose of the second location is to keep our locals: I don’t want to lose the people who allow us to be where we are today,” he says. Photo by Cindy Kunst

“With the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.” — Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

It’s a drizzly Friday night in winter. A couple huddle under the awning of a busy restaurant, scrutinizing the display menu while the red, yellow and green of the traffic light flickers through the bubbles of rain that have gathered on the fogged windowpanes. Inside, the tables are full, and a line butts up to the door; even outside, you can hear the muffled chatter within. The couple move on.

On an average night in tourist season, Asheville looks slammed. There are lines at many of the more than 100 downtown eateries, and places like Cúrate and Cucina 24 may have reservations booked months in advance. But as the restaurant scene continues to balloon, it begs some questions: When do we reach the peak? When does the market become so saturated that it simply can’t hold any more? When do those tables begin to sit empty? Is the bubble is about to burst?

Numbers game

On a national level, statistics show that certain sectors of the restaurant industry are in decline. A 2016 study by the NPD Group reports that the total number of independent restaurants in the U.S. fell 2 percent that year, with the steepest downturns in the full-service and quick-service categories. But is Asheville, with its booming tourist trade and tight-knit community of restaurateurs, following that trend?

“I do feel as though Asheville is a very special market, and it has truly achieved heights that I have always wanted to see it reach,” says Vijay Shastri, whose Flying Frog Café, a downtown anchor for over a decade, shuttered in 2011. Since then, the city’s restaurant scene has blossomed from a handful of reputable chefs to an onslaught of James Beard Award nominations and top ranking after top ranking. Everyone from Frommer’s to National Geographic Explorer to Bon Appétit has sung the city’s praises.

“The real issue with Asheville is the sheer amount of places,” Shastri continues. “There are way too many restaurants for the amount of people there are. The amount of tables that are available year-round does not match the amount of feet that are available year-round.”

THE MORE THE MERRIER: Charlotte Fahy, who manages the Chai Pani Restaurant Group’s five eateries, says there’s plenty of room at the table in Asheville’s restaurant scene. “Our feeling has always been the more restaurants, the more good press for Asheville — and the better for us,” she says. Photo by Cindy Kunst
THE MORE THE MERRIER: Charlotte Fahy, who manages the Chai Pani Restaurant Group’s five eateries, says there’s plenty of room at the table in Asheville’s restaurant scene. “Our feeling has always been the more restaurants, the more good press for Asheville — and the better for us,” she says. Photo by Cindy Kunst

After the Flying Frog’s demise, Shastri tried his hand at another local venture: Mr. Frog’s, on South Market Street. But a year later, he left town to launch a consulting career in Highlands; he now has clients all over the country. And more often than not, Shastri’s advice to entrepreneurs looking to invest in restaurants here is don’t do it.

“It’s less risky to do business in a place like New York City than it is in a place like Asheville,” he observes. People who lack the initial capital, Shastri maintains, “are drawn to places like Asheville where, as restaurants come and go, it can be relatively easy to pick up a restaurant for a fairly small amount of money. The setup cost is small, but the return is not good.”

Cream rises to the top

Other local restaurateurs take the opposite view.

“Our feeling has always been the more restaurants, the more good press for Asheville — and the better for us,” says Charlotte Fahy, who manages all five restaurants in Chai Pani’s mini-empire. From its initial 13-table eatery downtown, the Chai Pani Restaurant Group has grown to include MG Road, Buxton Hall Barbecue and two Atlanta outposts. “The more Cúrates and Limoneses and Rhubarbs that open where people are having these nice dinners, they have to eat somewhere the next day,” she points out. “So with our fast-casual model and lower price point, we’ve always felt pretty positive about that.”

Amber Arthur, who founded Izzy’s and BattleCat Coffee Bar as well as PennyCup Coffee, takes a similar view. Asked if Asheville’s dining scene is maxed out, she says, “No, absolutely not. More restaurants will just weed out the sh**ty ones. The great restaurants are always packed when I go. We’re evolving. … The best will survive, hopefully, and we’ll soon become a culinary destination.”

Most owners of local food and drink establishments seem to echo Arthur and Fahy, saying the restaurant boom is a good way to separate the gems from the grit, and citing full tables as a benchmark for how the market is trending.

Spread thin

But in a city like Asheville, market saturation can be hard to gauge, notes Tom Tveidt of SYNEVA Economics. “Saturation is not an exact science, and the tourism market would make it hard to compare the number of Buncombe restaurants to the ‘average county,’” he explains.

Crunch a few numbers from the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, however, and you realize that there’s now about one restaurant for every 122 people in the 28801 ZIP code. In an industry that ebbs and flows with the waves of tourists washing up in the mountains (or not), a slow week or month can take a major toll on a business and its staff — and God forbid we should see an entire slow season.

Which leads us to another complicating factor: By the time the problem starts showing symptoms like empty restaurant seats or meager reservation lists, the hitch in the giddyup will already be in full swing. But long before those things become evident, the first warning signs will come from within.

“It’s definitely started to have an effect on the ability of good places to staff themselves with good cooks,” says downtown line cook Katrin Dohse, who formerly worked at the James Beard-nominated Knife & Fork. “There are not enough cooks.”

A-B Tech’s culinary arts curriculum and the GO Kitchen Ready program are training more chefs, but that’s addressing only part of the problem, notes Dohse. “Asheville no longer has the affordable housing necessary to house cooks, and restaurants rarely have the means to pay employees an Asheville living wage,” she points out. “On top of that, the parking and public transportation infrastructure in town seem to be built around tourism and not downtown employees, so add that fee on to those already just scraping by.”

Judging by my informal inquiries, most line cooks in Asheville seem to start out earning about $10 an hour, with the average rate somewhere around $12 to $13. That doesn’t go far in an area where the median monthly rent is about $1,044, according to a report by the consulting firm Bowen National Research. Statistics from the Chamber of Commerce show that Asheville’s hospitality industry employed 26,760 people last year, up 0.8 percent from 2015. That’s a significant chunk of the city’s population (88,512, according to the chamber), and there’s still a demand for more workers. But a burst of the hospitality bubble, due either to oversaturation or a dip back into recession, would hit those folks hard. Even one slow month can be devastating to someone who’s relying on tips, particularly when the local customer base is already spread so thin.

Labor pains

“Why do I think we’ve already reached oversaturation?” continues Dohse. “Because I see the best restaurants in Asheville advertising for cooks every summer. And, call me old-fashioned, but I feel like there should be so many aspiring chefs banging on the back door of these restaurants asking for a job that staffing is never an issue.”

And on this point at least, Fahy agrees. “I think if we’ve noticed any real oversaturation, it would be the labor pool in Asheville,” she says. “On one level, it’s a good problem to have: It drives employers to really examine their pay rates and benefits and try to be the best employers they can be. But it’s harder to find employees, and a lot harder to keep employees, than it was three years ago.”

One of the biggest challenges in retaining talented staff, she observes, has been the flood of new openings, which encourages workers to keep moving on to the next big thing after only a few months on the job.

Bartender Scott Dagenhart sounds a similar complaint. After working at Nightbell, the Corner Kitchen and Chestnut, he headed for Chicago’s greener pastures before winding up back in his hometown, New Orleans. In both Asheville and New Orleans, says Dagenhart, “The real problem I ran into is staffing. There’s also a dearth of bottom-level kitchen talent in Asheville: plenty of good chefs, but not anyone who wants to do the grunt work.”

The Big Easy, though, has the population to sustain its industry better than Asheville can: Even in a seasonal lull, there will still be enough full tables to make it through the heat of summer.

On the fringe

Meanwhile, Asheville’s dining scene isn’t limited to downtown. “There’s close to 700 to 800 restaurants in the Asheville/Buncombe area,” says Shastri, who’s been tracking the numbers for decades. “The way I always look at this is that you want to be in a scenario where, worst case, there’s at least 1.75 to two people per seat.” And most Asheville residents, he points out, don’t live in the city center. “So you might have that draw, but it’s not there all the time: They have places to eat near their own neighborhoods too. So it’s a question of getting those people to come downtown.”

The trend, however, seems to be going the other way. In East Asheville, for example, you have the East Village Grille, Filo and the Post 70 Indulgence Bar. Zambra’s Adam Bannasch opened the Copper Crown there in October 2015, and Post 70 just opened another branch, Post 25, in South Asheville.

Even Bouchon, a downtown fixture, plans to open an east-end operation targeting locals rather than tourists. “The purpose of the second location is to keep our locals: I don’t want to lose the people who allow us to be where we are today,” says Michel Baudouin, who owns Bouchon and Crêperie Bouchon and also founded the short-lived Lafayette. “For me, when I opened downtown 11 years ago, our clientele were the locals. Asheville was not what it is today. But now a large number of locals are staying away from downtown because it has gotten to be too busy. Parking is also an issue. If it takes you 10 to 20 minutes to find a parking space and then you come to the door and we ask you to wait an hour for a table … when you’re on vacation, that can be one thing, but when it’s a school day, you’re not going to be able to do it. Our new location will have 47 parking spaces, and it’s really directed toward the locals. I’m not even going to put up a sign.”

Asked if he’s concerned that drawing all the locals to his east side location will take business away from his downtown restaurants, Baudouin replies, “I’ve given it a lot of thought. If we didn’t have 2,000 hotel rooms opening within the next year or two, I would be a little bit worried about it. But Bouchon is only 50 or 60 seats. So even if we lose a little bit of business, if our wait time goes down from an hour and a half to 30 minutes, we’re not going to lose anything.”

A fluctuating game

The shift to the outskirts might help those downtown restaurants that choose to open outlying branches. But if easy parking and shorter wait times lure more locals to those outposts, it will only further dilute the pool of potential patrons in the city center, leaving other downtown eateries high and dry. Almost like a saturation through sprawl, or as Tolkien put it, “stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”

“I am absolutely the biggest cheerleader for the city of Asheville,” says Shastri, who still maintains a home here even though he now spends most of his time traveling for work. “I’ve seen it go from one extreme to where it is now. But when you really do your homework, Asheville is a really hard place to make money in an industry that’s already incredibly difficult to make money in. When you couple low margin with saturation … low margin and low volume is a definition of a dangerous investment.

“I think Asheville is in another transitional period, and it’s just going to be precarious for a while. I truly believe that once things start to stabilize, Asheville will have to lose 15 to 20 percent of the restaurants — above what normally closes and opens — to have any stability,” he continues. “The good people will always do well, and the bad people will always go out of business, but unfortunately, the people on top still suffer. It’s always a fluctuating game, and it just fluctuates too much when there are too many choices.”

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About Jonathan Ammons
Native Asheville writer, eater, drinker, bartender and musician. Proprietor of www.dirty-spoon.com

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22 thoughts on “The breaking wave: Is Asheville’s restaurant market oversaturated?

  1. hauntedheadnc

    I think a good indicator of oversaturation is the way that we get multiple copies of the same kinds of restaurants. It’s like the only things anyone in this town knows how to cook are pizza and tacos. And, should someone do something daring and open up something we actually don’t already have sixty of, immediately a group of people will want to open clones of that new thing. I remember, for example, when the Brazilian steakhouse was coming to downtown there was a plan for another one in South Asheville.

    There often seems to be very little actual creativity or innovation in Asheville’s dining scene… We get clones of things we already have to the point that it becomes a joke (seriously, how many f-ing taco places does one city need?) and we get restaurants whose main schtick is to come up with pretentious ways of jacking up the price without actually adding anything of interest or value.

    • Andrew

      Really good point. So many taco establishments, I do feel some are priced fairly and are very delicious. One new and exciting idea was Pete’s Pies, I have yet to try it but it looks good. What do you think the next new restaurant should feature?

      • hauntedheadnc

        What should a new restaurant feature?

        Ideally, some kind of cuisine that we don’t have at all or at least that we don’t have a really good example of.

        As far as the restaurants we’ve already got go, I’d like to see more people really supporting the gems out there, like Addissae and Koreana and Asheville Sushi and Hibachi, just to name a few.

        • luther blissett

          “Ideally, some kind of cuisine that we don’t have at all or at least that we don’t have a really good example of.”

          I mostly disagree with this: price and execution and location matter more than filling a particular food niche, and thinking up what’s missing can take you off on flights of fancy. Jonathan’s piece from last summer on the “death of fine dining” talked about the transition away from splurgy formal restaurants, and you see places like Rhubarb and Copper Crown doing that well, under the broad familiar category of Modern American. There are also things where the margins just won’t pay downtown rent unless you’re operating out of a truck. You might want (for instance) a good cheap banh mi place, but there’s a reason why the best banh mi usually come from nondescript strip malls on a drag.

          Whatever you think about Yet Another Taco Joint, it’s saying that the overall trend is for cheap and fast, with manageable portion sizes. And since tacos are sandwiches in disguise, it’s a reminder that old-school delis are thin on the ground downtown: Roman’s is good; J**** J**** doesn’t count.

          (Also, the center of gravity in Asheville’s restaurant map seems to have shifted in recent years, dictated to some degree by the itineraries of beer tourism. Wall Street feels a lot more hidden than it used to be.)

          • hauntedheadnc

            I don’t really care if a restaurant is downtown. The best Thai in the area comes from gas stations in South Asheville and Fletcher. The best Korean is in a dreary strip mall on Airport Road. The best sushi is in a Walmart shopping center, and the best pho is in a strip mall on Hendersonville Road. I just care that the option is there.

          • luther blissett

            Well, yeah. But the article is focused on downtown, and there are definitely signs of change there among places that established themselves through a combination of tourism and local regulars.

          • WestAVL

            For the record, I think that “best” Thai in a gas station in South Asheville is now open as a legit restaurant on French Broad, just up from The Grail moviehouse… and it’s still awesome.

          • luther blissett

            One reasonable argument for me-too restaurants is as “overspill” for landmark places. Sunny Point isn’t downtown, but it’s bumping against capacity most mornings and lunchtimes, and if someone’s offered a half-hour wait on a cold day, they’re more likely to seek out a nearby alternative with a family resemblance (King Daddy’s, Biscuit Head, etc.) than something very different. If you’re visiting downtown and Tupelo Honey is packed out (shrug) then you’ll likely end up in Mayfel’s instead of schlepping to Homegrown: tourists want their Southern cooking somewhere. I’m not sure that applies with tacos, though.

      • The Real World

        I know many here who feel that we do not have good Chinese food options. Also, a fast-casual format serving Vietnamese would be an awesome addition.

      • Deplorable Infidel

        how bout a kale restaurant? … ;) nuttin but kale ….fixed 100 ways…

    • luther blissett

      “I think a good indicator of oversaturation is the way that we get multiple copies of the same kinds of restaurants.”

      There’s certainly a sense of me-too-ism in some of the new openings, and in some of the more short-lived restaurants of the past few years.

      That’s different from when a successful establishment expands. In Portland — which is much bigger, of course — opening another location in a different quadrant of the city is a way to satisfy demand, promote from within and retain talent. On the other hand, brand-driven expansion can affect quality: I’m sure most locals have cooled on Tupelo Honey since its transformation into a regional mini-chain.

      Anyway, this is another good article, with plenty to chew on. The key issue that I think Shastri rightly identifies is the “nobody goes there, it’s too crowded” effect on downtown, where the perception that everything will be slammed creates disincentives for locals to head in, even at lunchtime. (The new normal for friends in the industry is unpredictable spikes and lulls in downtown business, which isn’t good for staff retention.) Baudoin and others are betting on outposts, but that’s easier if you have a reputation to carry over and the staff to replicate what you do at the mothership.

      • The Real World

        “the “nobody goes there, it’s too crowded” effect on downtown, where the perception that everything will be slammed creates disincentives for locals to head in” — this is a good point.

        I rarely go downtown on weekends b/c it’s so busy with visitors. I prefer to go on weeknights but the thing is…..a local can get accustomed to just not going downtown to dine. Here’s a thought: that interested restaurants offer something like a, “Local Tues Night” where diners with a WNC address on their drivers license get 10 or 20% off the bill on that day. I’m guessing they’d pull in a nice bit of business they wouldn’t otherwise get on a slower night of the week.

        • luther blissett

          There’s already Go Local and the AIR passport — not free, but worth their respective prices if you like eating at the participating restaurants. And there’s Restaurant Week next week, which is timed to get locals into places they might normally think too busy or out of their price range. I’m ambivalent about the fixed-price menus typically offered during the week: sometimes they’re a bargain showcase for the best of a restaurant’s offerings; sometimes they’re going through the motions. But you can usually judge which approach they’re taking before you sit down.

          I think a weekly or even monthly downtown promo might be valuable — combine it with stores staying open later — but slow nights and slow weeks have become harder to predict. You can show up downtown on a random Tuesday night and for some reason everything’s slammed, while the next Tuesday is the dead zone.

          • luther blissett

            Just for reference, we had a few back-and-forths about downtown and talked about the idea of a “first Tuesday” retail promo back last summer:

            https://mountainx.com/news/land-of-the-sky-high-rentals/

            Combine it with a restaurant promo and a dollar to park in the city decks, and I think there’s the bones of a good idea. (AIR and Unchain Asheville: you get this one for free.)

  2. Deplorable Infidel

    I cannot imagine any other cuisines not already available here…we are doing our winter hibernation, not eating out but do enjoy takeout from HarrisTweeter and Earf Fare. After shelling out $8,000 for REAL property TAXES last week we be broke.
    Oriental food is just not very filling in the wintertime.

    • hauntedheadnc

      If you can’t imagine cuisines we don’t have, then you need to broaden your horizons. We’re very lacking in Latin food beyond Mexican, for example — we lost our good Cuban place and we don’t have Peruvian or Ecuadorian or this, that, or the other. The world is full of food we can’t eat here in Asheville, and that is a shame.

      • luther blissett

        Losing Havana and Tomato Cocina Latina is a pity, but ultimately restaurants depend on the people running them and sufficient custom to support them. As much as I’d like a Georgian place in town serving khachapuri and ajapsandali, or a Persian restaurant that does reshteh polow, I know it’s not likely to happen. It takes bigger cities to support them, and Asheville’s already punching above its weight.

        (Out of the Blue does Peruvian.)

  3. boatrocker

    As with many things, Asheville’s bubbles look good right now, but no bubble lasts forever, no matter how much press they receive from rose colored glasses rags who cater to the tourists.
    Hotels, restaurants. breweries being the best examples.

    When those bubbles break ( and I honestly look forward to seeing that happen), the quality of tourists who visit here will improve, as they might spend a long weekend in WNC you know, hiking, boating, backpacking, soaking in what’s left of our history.
    Nature and the mountains has always been here, and will always continue to be here.

    That said. before the restaurant bubble breaks, howz about a Vietnamese, Ethiopian or West African eatery?
    Tacos-boring. BBQ that treats it as a verb instead of a noun? Yuck.
    I might also get behind a restaurant that uses a MAMA like helicopter to fly in fresh seafood, though yeah the price.

    • Hauntedheadnc

      We already have good Ethiopian at Addissae downtown, and good, if limited, Vietnamese at Blue Ginger in Skyland.

  4. Lan Sluder

    I suspect that Asheville indeed is reaching saturation, but then that’s true of almost any city. However, the well-run, well-priced, well-located restaurants with superior food will almost always do well anywhere.

    I would add that I used to consult with upscale restaurant chains myself, and if you want a place where it’s tough to do business, that’s New York City. You have to deal with unbelievably high rental prices, not to mention the extreme bureaucracy of permitting, construction, public utilities, health and safety, not to mention the unions and organized crime. You can make big money in New York, but it’s not a place for amateurs.

  5. Deplorable Infidel

    Nine Mile and Zia Taqueria offer distinct culturally diverse foods. Both great dining choices. Nine Mile great for lunch, less expensive than dinner. The Bison burger at the UJ is hard to beat.

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