“If there are enough immigrants from any country settling in a new city, eventually a restaurant of that country will open,” says Ethiopian immigrant Neeraj Kebede, who, with his American wife, Vicki Schomer, opened Addissae Ethiopian restaurant on Commerce Street in 2014.
The couple, seated at a table in the back of the restaurant in the lull between lunch and dinner, look at each other and laugh. “There have been very few Ethiopians here in Asheville,” says Schomer. “Maybe six, besides me,” Kebede confirms. “Not all of them have stayed.”
The restaurant, however, does have staying power, celebrating its fifth anniversary in December. Its customer base is largely local — folks who voted repeatedly for years that a business serving Ethiopian food was one of the top three “Restaurants Still Needed in Asheville” in the Mountain Xpress Best of WNC poll; residents who crave the exotic dishes unique to that cuisine, such as wat and tibs, served atop the traditional injera sourdough flatbread.
Despite the fact that they had no previous restaurant experience, Kebede and Schomer decided they would fill Asheville’s Ethiopian restaurant void and went to Mountain BizWorks for help creating a business plan. When they stumbled upon an available space while meeting a friend downtown for dinner at Chai Pani, they say, they ran to the landlord’s office and claimed it.
Barely eight months later, they opened Addissae to a line of customers waiting outside the door. “Every new restaurant, especially if it offers something unique, has that big bump the first couple of months,” says Schomer. “Then it dies down, and you see who your people are. Partly because we are not in the heart of the tourist district, we really rely on regulars and locals.”
That is an assessment spoken in multiple languages in Western North Carolina, which, despite a paucity of ethnic and racial diversity demographically, boasts global culinary representation. Thailand, France, Vietnam, Japan, Mexico, El Salvador, Lebanon, India, Argentina, Italy, Spain, China, Cuba, Greece, Peru, Jamaica, Colombia and Israel could plant their flags on a local restaurant map, and nearly all of those businesses are locally owned and operated.
From Bangkok to Asheville
At 4:50 p.m. on a rain-soaked weekday, 10 people huddle on the small covered landing outside Little Bee Thai restaurant on South French Broad Avenue. When the neon “open” sign lights up at 5 and the door is unlocked, they make a beeline to the counter to order the dishes made fresh daily from scratch by chef/owner Took Charemwong. She learned to cook from her mother and grandmother who made street food in Bangkok.
“It is always like this,” says Charemwong’s husband and business partner Rick Corcoran, who built out a corner inside a gas station on Sweeten Creek Road in 2008 for the first iteration of Little Bee Thai. The couple later converted a Little Debbie’s delivery truck into a mobile eatery that they rolled around town before opening in their current location, in the same building as Grail Moviehouse. (Grail owners Davida Horwitz and Steve White were Little Bee customers who found the space they turned into a movie theater through Corcoran.)
“We started small and have stayed small,” says Corcoran. “Took’s food is so unique. We have no freezer, no microwave and no walk-in cooler. She cooks everything fresh, like she did on the street. We worked really hard to build our following. Our clientele is regulars and locals who don’t mind waiting for that and appreciate that we are local, independent and a bit out of the way of the downtown craziness.”
The French-Argentinian connection
Lexington Avenue was more than a bit out of the way when Cecilia Marchesini and her then-husband, Stephane Diaz, opened Café Soleil in 2003. “There was nothing but Heiwa Shokudu and us on Lexington back then,” she remembers. “There was no tourist traffic. Everyone told us we were crazy, that no one would go on that street at night. But Café Soleil was a magical place, and thanks to locals, it was successful.”
The restaurant’s main concept was French crepes, with occasional specials like coq au vin and beef Bourguignon. Though Diaz, from France, was a trained chef, he ran the front of the house and left the cooking to Marchesini, who had moved from Argentina to Asheville in 1998 to attend college and get her business degree.
“I am not a chef, I’m a cook,” she says emphatically. “I learned to cook in my family, at home, and everything was fresh from the trees and my grandfather’s yard.” To Café Soleil’s French fare Marchesini added Argentinian empanadas, which were so well received by diners that when the marriage ended and the restaurant closed, she continued making them at food festivals, adding tamales and a Cuban sandwich when she launched her first food truck, Ceci’s Culinary Tour.
Marchesini’s mobile business was brisk in warm weather, soon expanding to two trucks, but she needed a brick-and-mortar spot to make it through the slower winter months. In 2012, she opened Cecilia’s Kitchen with the same menu, 16 seats and a small patio on Merrimon Avenue.
Two years later, she reunited — professionally and quite briefly — with Diaz to bring back the old Café Soleil magic in Black Mountain. The cozy, 40-seat La Guinguette opened in November 2014 with a similar culture-crossing menu of French crepes and Argentinian empanadas and tamales. “Black Mountain is beautiful, but there was some education involved,” she says. “We had to teach people how to say crepes — not craps. And one man told me he loved the empanadas, but I should serve them with gravy. I said, ‘Thank you for your input, but no gravy on my empanadas!’”
Michel Baudouin was on the receiving end of the education when he opened his first Asheville restaurant on Pack Square in 2001. “The Grape Escape was a wine bar with small plates because we did not have a full-sized kitchen,” he says. “We had 100 wines by the glass and 25 flights. We were popular with visitors from bigger cities, but many locals were turned off; they thought the wine choices were too big and the food too small.”
Raised on a farm outside Lyon, France, Baudouin first cooked in Paris, then in his half-brother’s French restaurant in Dallas, Texas, before opening and running his own eatery for 20 years in nearby Fort Worth. Seeking a change of both culture and climate, he transplanted to Asheville with his wife, Vonciel, and struggled for four years to make The Grape Escape work through the “tourist famine” months of January-March, before hearing of a space on Lexington Avenue recently vacated by … Café Soleil.
Baudouin opened Bouchon in 2005, and while it took some time to overcome the locals’ wariness of that street, eventually he won them over with the classic French bistro concept: comfort food a la francaise. Y’all say biscuits, nous disons baguettes.
“We always wanted to appeal to locals,” Baudouin says. “At first it was a struggle, but in the economic downturn of 2007 and 2008, we actually grew by 30% a year. We were perceived as unpretentious, comfortable food and a good value, which is what a bistro is. We marketed ourselves as the quickest trip to France.”
Last year, in response to longtime customer concerns that the downtown restaurant was too crowded, he opened RendezVous — with the same menu and bistro ambiance as Bouchon — in East Asheville. “I told the new staff in training that when we opened, the customers would know the menu better than [the staff] would, and I was right,” says Baudouin.
“People ask me sometimes if I would move back to France, and I say no because I would be a foreigner again,” he muses. “This is my home, and I am happy to bring France here.”