Hendersonville culinary entrepreneurs don’t need to move to Asheville. They’ve got their own flavors, a burgeoning food scene and a strong sense of community that’s been dubbed “co-op-etition.”
“I’m a big fan of our small town,” says Jason Reasoner. “I have my pick of the cream of the crop of employees, and no one has to fight crowds and traffic here.”
In November, the 42-year-old Hendersonville native and his wife, Stephanie, opened Postero, a come-casual, eat-fine restaurant on the town’s pedestrian-friendly Main Street. If Postero were located in Asheville, it would be mentioned in the same breath with Cüraté, Rhubarb or Seven Sows, a food critic has told Reasoner.
But Hendersonville is “right at the edge of the umbrella” that marks Asheville’s thriving food scene, says Reasoner. “I have Asheville revenue envy in the dead months, that’s for sure,” he jokes.
Just the same, he’s more than happy running a restaurant in his hometown. In 2008, Reasoner recalls, he wasn’t so sure Hendersonville — home to the annual Apple Festival — was ready for the new American cuisine he dishes.
Now he says, “I do feel that Hendersonville is working really hard to overcome that old reputation of being a conservative retirement community.” And the number of new Hendersonville entrepreneurs focused on artisan products, small-town customer service and a sense of community gives him hope, Reasoner adds.
Southern Appalachian Brewery co-owner Kelly Cubbin agrees, even if Hendersonville is “just a few years behind Asheville.”
Back in 2006, Cubbin and her husband had their sights set on starting a brewery in the region’s biggest town.
“There were four, five, then six breweries in Asheville, then the seventh opened up, and we felt that was it. Asheville was oversaturated for craft-style beer,” says Cubbin.
So they settled on Locust Street instead, although almost 10 years later, the Asheville breweries keep cropping up as if the city’s thirst can’t be sated. But she has no regrets.
“We found Hendersonville to be a very supportive community. We never looked back,” Cubbin says.
Meanwhile, Lisa Hoffman, 51, and Matthew Hickman, 40, started Underground Baking Co. by subletting a kitchen off Main Street in 2009. The two pastry chefs specialized in European-style breads and pastries made with all-organic and local ingredients. Not long after opening, it was clear they were hitting a sweet spot not yet satisfied in Hendersonville.
So the next year, at the crest of the recession and just as anti-gluten sentiments had reached a fever pitch, they opened their own retail bakery on slow-to-revitalize, but historic, Seventh Avenue. City-maintained hanging flower baskets bloom brightly against boarded-up storefronts on Seventh, but the couple wanted to own a business that had integrity, where personal priorities made few concessions to profits.
“I was saved by bread. You can’t fake good bread,” Hickman says. A loaf of Underground’s French sourdough runs $5, made with North Carolina-grown-and-milled flour. And the maple bacon on the soft pretzels comes from humanely raised pigs. Hickman and Hoffman can come a long way from the highly processed, four-digit-price-tag wedding cakes they used to make at upscale resorts.
Hickman says he can feel a growing momentum among Hendersonville entrepreneurs and hopes more will join in, help push Hendersonville’s food scene forward and perhaps breathe new life into Seventh Avenue.
Meanwhile, if Hickman is short on flour, he can call on his friends (and most direct competitors) at the Flat Rock Village Bakery, which uses the same flour. Both Reasoner and Cubbin courted Underground and now serve its products. Reasoner gives fellow restaurateurs and Main Street retailers a 10 percent discount at Postero. Business cards are liberally exchanged and prominently displayed.
“It’s important that we promote each other, especially since we all know how much effort goes into running our businesses,” says Cubbin.
“When you believe in the same values, it is easy to have that relationship,” says Reasoner, who notes there’s interest in forming a Hendersonville restaurant association.
“Here you can not only meet the owners, but know they are preparing your food — it’s an even more personal connection than farm-to-table.” At Postero, bar seats 1 through 3 will put you close to the chef “throwing down on the line,” Reasoner says with a laugh. “I enjoy chatting with my customers and seeing them react to the food served.”
Asheville’s prominence and proximity, along with the influx of beer tourists attracted by Sierra Nevada in Mills River and Oskar Blues in Brevard, are also helping Hendersonville. “Asheville is definitely what draws many younger people to the area, but a lot of them can’t or don’t want to live in the city, and we have DuPont [State Recreational Forest] and excellent schools here,” says Bob Willingford, president of the Henderson County Chamber of Commerce.
“Hendersonville has that small-town feel, where you want to raise a family,” he says.
“We actually have to card people now, because not everyone looks like they are retired anymore,” Cubbin jokes. On weekends with live music, flocks of children give the brewery a decidedly family-friendly flair, and at the bakery, Hickman’s seeing a new type of regular. “It used to be all retirees,” he says. “Now suddenly we have tattoos coming through the door.”
At Postero there is always a good chance that 7-year-old Cole Reasoner (aka “Bean”) is busing tables, filling water glasses and striking up conversations, while bacon believers are adding Underground to their pig-product pilgrimages for a taste of “Croink” (a croissant layered with bacon lard — the recipe and name are trademarked, by the way).
It’s all what Willingford hears referred to as “co-op-etition.”
So sorry, Asheville. Eat your heart out, or better yet, journey to Hendersonville.
Hendersonville happenings and restaurants: historicrichhendersonville.org
Underground Baking Co.: undergroundbaking.com
Southern Appalachian Brewerey: sabrewery.com