Local restaurateurs share the secret ingredients for award-winning hospitality

SPANISH HOSPITALITY: Diners eat during a busy night at Cúrate, which won the James Beard Foundation’s Award for Outstanding Hospitality in June. Photo by Evan Sung

On June 13, Asheville’s Cúrate won the first James Beard Award for Outstanding Hospitality. After a two-year awards hiatus and overhaul prompted by multiple concerns — including a lack of diversity in nominees and awarding chefs accused of exploiting employees — the culinary arts foundation returned with a new approach. Among the changes, the organization renamed and reframed its former category of Outstanding Service to Outstanding Hospitality to reflect the importance of creating places as pleasant to work for as they are to dine in.

In a statement provided to Xpress, the foundation elaborated on the award’s new focus: “The Outstanding Hospitality award is given each year to a restaurant that demonstrates consistent and excellent hospitality and service to its dining community, while also making efforts to provide a sustainable work culture.”

Félix Meana, the co-founder and chief experience officer of Katie Button Restaurants — the parent group of Cúrate — believes that this change likely played a role in the tapas restaurant winning its first James Beard award after four years of nominations.

“Hospitality starts [by] looking deep inside of us, how we are treating our employees,” he explains. “It’s so important that we needed to create a position to take care of it” — referring to Liese Freund, the company’s customer care and culture manager.

In the Blue Ridge Mountains, “hospitality” may seem incomplete without the word “Southern” attached to it. According to hospitality scholar Kevin D. O’Gorman, however, the practice of welcoming a guest into one’s home is one of humanity’s oldest cultural traditions. Hospitality rules feature in the Old Testament book of Leviticus, while the rage of Achilles that opens Homer’s Iliad stems from the poor hospitality of Greek King Agamemnon. Hospitality, in other words, was a divinely favored act.

In today’s restaurants, creating a welcoming atmosphere is nearly as crucial to a great dining experience as excellent food. But what actually goes into making great restaurant hospitality? Xpress spoke with additional staff at Cúrate, as well as key members of Vinnie’s Neighborhood Italian, a Best Of WNC Hall of Fame restaurant.

Award-winning atmosphere

For the team behind Cúrate, hospitality begins with creating a welcoming environment for its approximately 150 employees. These efforts start even before someone signs on the dotted line. Mary Byers, director of brand marketing, tells Xpress that potential employees spend at least one full paid day observing service or being on the line in the kitchen so that they can decide if it’s the right place for them.

“Whenever somebody is coming into the company … we want them to feel as safe and comfortable as possible,” Freund says.

“It’s a lot of pressure, starting a new job,” Meana adds. “You have to open the door in a way that is not that overwhelming.”

Given the range of operations at Katie Button Restaurants — Cúrate; La Bodega, a market, featuring an upstairs wine bar; Cúrate At Home’s nationwide shipping service; and guided tours in Europe and North Africa — each new employee has a lot of information to process. Besides the company culture, there are extensive primers on Spanish cuisine, ingredients and — yes — hospitality.

“We are people that extend our arms right away [when] we see somebody,” Meana says of his native Spanish culture. While that level of tactile interaction may not be as common in the U.S., the sentiment behind it is. “It’s the passion,” he says.

A unique aspect of the company’s work culture, Meana continues, is stoking that passion in its employees by allowing staff to move among positions within all aspects of the company. Byers notes that Cúrate’s original lead bartender is now director of restaurant operations, and its events and restaurants marketing lead started as a host.

“It’s getting to know each employee and what they want,” says Freund, who herself was assistant manager at Cúrate before becoming culture manager.

“It is a new model of a restaurant,” Meana adds.

Magic happens

Freund also notes that the company runs regular staff surveys that inform subsequent decisions. For example, earlier this year employees expressed a desire for a greater work-life balance. In response, Cúrate switched all assistant managers and sous chefs to a four-day workweek, Byers notes. Other benefits include paid bereavement and dental care, as well as a living wage.

“If I’m a server or a line cook or a dishwasher [and] there is a snowy day, and not a lot of people came out, I’m still going to make that $17.70 an hour and not be scared if I’m going to make my rent,” Freund offers as an example.

She sees the results of this hospitable work culture in the level of care each employee brings to the work. “When making a reservation or when walking in the door, how something is prepared, and then plated, how we’re communicating the menu to the guests … I don’t think I’ve ever been in a restaurant where so many people want to touch the table and really create that [guest] experience,” she says.

Even though many aspects of dining at Cúrate — the food, the plating, the place settings — are designed to be consistent, Meana believes flexibility is central to the restaurant’s outward-facing hospitality.

“The most important thing [is] you have to learn how to read the guest,” he says. That might mean breaking up a minutelong speech about specials into 15-second snippets or giving someone who is clearly having a tough day a wide berth, only checking in when it’s clear the person needs something. Even making sure that glasses are restocked as quietly as possible is a piece of great hospitality.

“In the end of the day, the guest is not noticing anything,” Meana points out. “When all this happens, the magic happens.”

Family-style flavors and feel

If great hospitality were a recipe, what would its ingredients be?

“Gratitude, compassion, attention to detail,” says Eric Scheffer, owner of Vinnie’s Neighborhood Italian. “Appreciation for being in service [to] others. And smiling.”

FAMILY-STYLE HOSPITALITY: Sophia Diaz, manager at Vinnie’s Neighborhood Italian in North Asheville, prepares for the arrival of longtime regulars by setting out their favorite wine. Photo by Sarah Urman

An Xpress Best Of WNC hall of fame winner for Best Service eight years in a row, Vinnie’s recipe appears to be keeping diners coming back.

A welcoming atmosphere was one of Scheffer’s prime goals when opening Vinnie’s in 2010, two years into the Great Recession and 10 years after he had launched his previous restaurant, The Savoy, an award-winning fine dining establishment. “People were going through very hard times,” he remembers.  “I wanted to create a space that was going to bring people into a ‘quote unquote,’ home feeling.”

For Scheffer, that meant the neighborhood Italian restaurants of his Brooklyn youth, where the hospitality is as big as the family-style pasta bowls.

“The owners will come over and give you a big hug,” he says of his childhood stomping grounds. “They’ll take you to a table and sit you down [and] put a meatball on your plate.”

Southern hospitality, he continues, is just as welcoming but more hands-off. The merging of these two styles can be seen in the boisterous “Welcome to Vinnie’s!” that greets most guests on their arrival at the restaurant’s two Asheville locations — a tradition the servers created, Scheffer says.

“Everybody that walks into our restaurants becomes our family,” he adds.

That is especially true of the restaurant’s faithful core of regulars, according to Sophia Diaz, the manager at the original Vinnie’s in North Asheville. At least six parties show up every Monday, when bottles of wine are half off, to sit at the tables marked with nameplates bearing their names. Diaz also keeps a list of locals to call when certain specials return to the menu, knowing those are their favorite dishes.

“We have regulars that bring Christmas gifts for our staff, people who … send money to the back of the house because they know that they don’t collect tips,” she says. These impromptu gifts are on top of the benefits that Vinnie’s offers its employees, including health and dental care for all full-time employees, no double shifts and a sit-down family-style meal together before every shift.

“We extend gratitude to our regulars, and that gratitude is repaid double-fold,” says Diaz.

Hospitality, Scheffer adds, is meaningless without a sense of gratitude for the opportunity to serve others. “People have a choice where they’re going to pull in for dinner that night,” he notes. “To know that now they’re walking through our front door is something we need to honor.”

This idea that the host feels as much gratitude for the opportunity to serve as the guest does to receive that service reflects the reciprocity of hospitality and how practicing it creates a sense of joy in community for everyone involved.

For Scheffer, it’s the piece of the recipe that keeps him motivated and inspired. “I’ve been doing this for 24 years, and I still get up every single morning excited to do what I do and deliver exceptional hospitality.”


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About Sara Murphy
Sara Murphy lives in Leicester. Her work has appeared in 100 Days in Appalachia, Facing South, Polygon, and Lifehacker.

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