Asheville’s food pioneers: An interview with three of the founders of Asheville Independent Restaurants

AIR FORCE: Michel Baudouin was instrumental in organizing local restaurant owners to form Asheville Independent Restaurants. Photos by John Coutlakis

One of the most notable aspects of Asheville’s culinary community is its focus on camaraderie rather than competition. Tangible proof of this phenomenon is the success of Asheville Independent Restaurants, an organization formed in 2002 by a group of local chefs and restaurant owners who joined forces to create a united front for the betterment of Asheville’s food scene.

Since its inception, AIR members have succeeded in helping to establish Asheville as the nation’s first Green Dining Destination and created community-nourishing efforts such as the GO! Kitchen Ready job skills training program and the A-B Tech Chefs of Tomorrow Scholarship Fund. AIR also annually hosts the WNC Culinary Expo, Asheville Small Plate Crawl and Taste of Asheville to promote local food and drink businesses and further the area’s reputation as a dining destination.

Xpress recently spoke with AIR founders Michel Baudouin, Dwight Butner and Eric Scheffer about the genesis of the organization and its influence on Asheville’s food community.

Eric Scheffer, owner of Vinnie's Neighborhood Italian
Eric Scheffer, owner of Vinnie’s Neighborhood Italian

Mountain Xpress: Why was it necessary to organize Asheville Independent Restaurants?

Michel Baudouin, Bouchon:

Of our first two agendas, one was to work collectively, promoting small restaurants in Asheville. While we compete fiercely at work, we knew working together would allow us to do some public relations that we couldn’t afford individually. That’s why now we have the Foodtopia campaign with the Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau, which promotes Asheville as a food destination.

Dwight Butner, Vincenzo’s:

Asheville had a distinct, solid, independent restaurant culture with a lot of good independent restaurants and a strong culinary community, but things were happening in a macro sense. All of a sudden, Asheville was going to be on many major national corporations’ radar, and we agreed our competition wasn’t with each other but with Tunnel Road.

Eric Scheffer, Vinnie’s Neighborhood Italian:

I, like many other people, saw where this town was heading back in 2002-03. I realized that pretty quickly we were going to need to bring ourselves together to speak with one voice. We were all dealing with the same issues, such as chains, legislation and taxation. Our focus was to push back and make sure we didn’t become Anyplace, USA.

Dwight Butner, owner of Vincenzo's Ristorante & Bistro
Dwight Butner, owner of Vincenzo’s Ristorante & Bistro

 

Mountain Xpress: What’s been the impact of AIR on Asheville’s food scene?

Baudouin:

We are one of the largest restaurant associations in the country, with the most green-certified restaurants per capita. Our [Green Opportunities] Kitchen Ready training program was designed to help people who don’t know there’s a job for them there — people who have a resume, but it’s at the police department. A lot of people won’t employ them, so it’s a basic program that helps them get into A-B Tech and find work.

Butner:

As soon as we organized, Asheville wanted to adopt a restaurant food-and-beverage tax to help refurbish the civic center. We opposed that because we didn’t believe that it was our customers’ responsibility to refurbish the civic center. Restaurant patrons in Buncombe County weren’t uniquely responsible for doing that. We were successful in preventing that, and that made our reputation.

Scheffer:

Another great thing is the scholarships AIR has given to A-B Tech to help students and other folks who are just less fortunate to get into the hospitality industry. In that respect, I think we have helped each other grow. Especially at Savoy [Scheffer’s former restaurant], I’d have at least two interns. People all over the country now look at A-B Tech as a place to go to hone your culinary chops. The impact of AIR has been tremendous. It’s started a snowball effect of connecting with other people.

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