Whether making lemonade of the lemons COVID-19 has been hurling, finding unexpected silver linings amid the unraveling of carefully laid plans or climbing onto the rainbow emerging from the storm, a surprising number of restaurateurs and entrepreneurs have mined the deep well of positive-thinking cliches and forged ahead through the tempest-tossed year 2020.
“Sometimes our team has to say to me, ‘Barry, that’s a great idea, but how the hell does it fit with the Monk brand?’” Barry Bialik, CEO of Thirsty Monk, says with a laugh, explaining how he came to open Tasty Greens. The greens- and grains-focused, fast-casual restaurant shares the same Biltmore Park property occupied by the Thirsty Monk brewery taproom and Monk’s Flask cocktail lounge.
Bialik, a vegetarian since he was 15, had been toying with the idea of opening such a place well before COVID, with an eye on the national success of similar concepts Sweetgreen and Chopt Creative Salad Co. “I couldn’t figure out why it didn’t exist in Asheville. Before COVID, nobody could get their head around the idea. After COVID, it’s like, anything that sticks, we’re in.”
Tasty Greens opened Sept. 2 in the front section of the still-closed Flask space with a menu that started with Bialik’s directive to come up with 30-50 ingredients — greens, proteins and crunchies — for customers to use in building their own salad or bowl. Monk chef Clint Betts created six specialty salads and four bowls, with a choice of rice, quinoa or riced cauliflower base. For more, see avl.mx/89r.
Morsel Cookie Co.
With her recently launched Morsel Cookie Co., Caroline Dockery is aiming for the sweet spot of childhood memory. “People relate to nostalgia for their mom’s cookies or grandma’s cookies,” she says. Dockery’s baking experience began with helping her mother, Tracy Brown, with her Brevard-based wholesale company, Lotsa Loaves. But when it came to personal preferences, cookies were her jam.
Experimenting in her tiny apartment while attending UNC Asheville for an art degree, she came up with a method for creating what she craves when it comes to cookies: “I want thick and pudgy, chewy and gooey, all the way through.”
The first recipe she developed using that formula was peanut butter cup, and she soon added others, such as chocolate chip, sea salt and Nutella, to the pop-up sales she began doing for friends and colleagues. Her mother offered her baking time in her commercial kitchen, and on March 1, Dockery officially claimed the name Morsel Cookie Co. and began planning the venture. When COVID shut many businesses two weeks later, she was laid off from her job at Sauna House, which gave her time to develop more recipes, take product shots and build her website. “It was really kind of a silver lining,” she says.
The business took off more quickly than she anticipated. By the end of June, she was taking online orders and seeking wholesalers. Morsel’s online menu offers seven to eight flavors for customers to choose from in building their own box of six to 12 cookies. Orders are taken Thursday through Sunday for delivery the following Saturday.
Dockery can also be found 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sundays at Haywood Commons’ new Sunday Funday Market at 507 Haywood Road. And Morsel cookies are sold individually at the newly opened Pie.Zaa on the South Slope and at 10th Muse, which recently opened in the former Frostbite Ice Cream location at 1475 Patton Ave. “I’m mentally catching up with how fast I’ve grown,” she says. “Fall and winter are coming, and people love holiday cookies.” For more, see avl.mx/89s.
Leo’s House of Thirst
For almost two years, brown paper has covered the doors, windows and whatever was happening inside the small cinder block building at 1055 Haywood Road that last housed The Artist’s Kitchen. The big reveal on Friday, Sept. 11, was the announcement of the newest hospitality venture from The Admiral and Bull & Beggar owner Drew Wallace: Leo’s House of Thirst, a wine bar with an intriguing no-fire menu by chef Austin Inselmann and pastry chef Erin Hughes.
“I wanted to create a wine-forward establishment with an elevated food program but still be a neighborhood bar,” says Wallace, who lives in West Asheville. He confides that he and his wife, Leila Wallace, kept their eye on the building from the stop sign at the corner of Haywood and Belmont roads for nearly 10 years. Shortly before their first son was born in fall 2018, he found investors and went for it.
Once on-site, the complications of renovating a building classified by the city as Level 1 became painfully clear. “Level 1 took compliance to a level I wasn’t expecting,” he admits. “What we thought would be six months turned into almost two years and triple the budget. Everything in there except the ceiling and stairs to the basement is brand new.”
To free up space on the main floor of the 900-square-foot building, utilities, the prep kitchen, a small wine cellar, dry storage and an office were put in the basement. “When we are able to welcome guests inside, it will be nice and clean in the main room,” Wallace says. For now, seating is on a covered patio and picnic tables in the side yard.
Open evenings Thursday through Monday, plans are for a retail presence during the day, selling bottles of wine and snacky items from the menu. “We’re starting with a list of about 150 wines — everything from a $300 bottle to a $7 glass,” says Wallace. “We wanted to take all the knowledge, training and expectations of the fine-dining experience and present it in a much more comfortable, laid-back atmosphere where you don’t need to remember to make a reservation.” For more, see avl.mx/89t.
No reservations are required at GRIND, Asheville’s first Black-owned coffee shop, which opens Saturday, Sept. 26, in the Pink Dog Creative space at 346 Depot St. But memberships to what will also be a unique coworking space/business center and live performance venue will be available. The effort is a partnership between chef and food truck owner Gene Ettison and entrepreneur and local nonprofit leader J Hackett, who met in 2015 when both were working at Green Opportunities. GRIND will be open 7 a.m.-10 p.m. daily serving Ettison’s Ashe Hole coffee and doughnuts, as well as pastries from Ashley Capps and Geraldine’s Bakery.
While GRIND is a brick-and-mortar space for food and beverage, it’s also a vision and commitment from the partners to fill a gap faced by Black entrepreneurs. “There is a lot of entrepreneurial energy in the Black community right now but a lack of coworking space that serves their needs,” Hackett explains. “Many of them are working day jobs and need a place to work at night. They need a business address to get mail and use for funding applications and access to scanners, copiers and printers.” A monthly membership at GRIND will also provide a dedicated mailbox and access to a reserved meeting room.
Black business history will be celebrated on the walls of GRIND via large, historic black-and-white photographs of local leaders and pioneers such as midwife Tempe Avery, educator Isaac Dickson, Royal Giants baseball team founder E.W. Pearson and Rabbits Motel owner Fred Simpson.
GRIND’s grand opening will also be a birthday party for Hackett with live music and a performance by the Hillcrest High Steppers. Future events include First Fridays with music, art and spoken word; readings from Black literature; and voter registrations. “Our mission is to create a space for future Black business and honor the past,” says Hackett. “We are here today because of what they did.” For more, see avl.mx/89v.
Believe it or not, there’s more still. Next week, look for Part 3, field reports from newly opened Asheville restaurants.