Historic flavor: The Broadway Street building that now houses Mellow Mushroom was once home to Stone Soup. North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Library, Asheville, North Carolina
Dick Gilbert remembers a time when there were eight restaurants in downtown Asheville, and that figure included the concession stand in the court house. It was 1975. “Downtown was flat on its back,” Gilbert says. “I would say 60 percent of the storefronts were empty.”
That same year, Gilbert and his wife, Mary, helped found the Stone Soup restaurant, a cooperative that fed Asheville for almost 30 years in its various incarnations (one of which took place at Blue Moon Bakery in the early 2000s).
Today, with dozens of eateries downtown and new ones opening each week, The Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County will host an event to remember the food scene's humble beginnings. The group has organized a panel discussion with members of the Stone Soup collective, followed by lunch in the dining room of the Manor Inn on Charlotte Street. That’s where the restaurant was located in the late '70s and early '80s until it moved downtown to the building on Broadway Street currently occupied by Mellow Mushroom.
“In light of the socially conscious community that we have today, I think it's pretty easy for one to see that the efforts of Stone Soup really helped establish this region as an area that is socially conscious,” says Jack Thomson, executive director of the preservation society.
Stone Soup was founded by a group of social-services providers who had been working at Allen High School, an African-American girls' school funded by the Methodist Church. When the school closed in 1974 after desegregation, the Gilberts and their colleagues started Stone Soup in the school cafeteria as a funding source for community-building endeavors. After a break with the Methodist Church, the restaurant relocated to the dining room of the Manor Inn, even though the building as a whole was in disrepair.
Gilbert remembers Stone Soup as a place where the entire town came together over light lunch fare, mostly soups, salads, sandwiches and pie. “One of the things that I really valued about the whole experience was that our customer base was very,very broad and diverse, and that continued to be right up to the end,” Gilbert says. “We would have people from downtown professional offices and people from off the street.”
After a devastating freeze in 1984 compromised the Manor Inn's plumbing, the restaurant left that facility for the Broadway Street location and, eventually, a second location on Wall Street. A few years later, the preservation society stepped in to save the 1898 hotel. Thomson sees the Stone Soup reunion event as a chance to celebrate both the roots of Asheville's restaurant industry and the historic character of the Manor Inn.
The presentation and lunch take place on Saturday, Nov. 3, in the dining room of the Manor Inn, 265 Charlotte St. The panel discussion begins at 11 a.m., and a lunch of Stone Soup-inspired fare commences at 12:30 p.m. There is no cost to attend the event, but donations will be accepted for the preservation society. The organizers recommend that attendees RSVP by Oct. 30 at 254-2324 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about the event, visit The Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County and Stone Soup on Facebook.
The event is sponsored in part by Leslie and Associates, the company that manages the apartments at the Manor Inn, and Asheville.com.