First, the good news: On May 27, Michelle Edwards and Joel Boggs completed the transition of The Trashy Vegan from food truck to brick and mortar, with its new space in West Asheville, 697 Haywood Road, Unit E.
“It was pure chaos,” says Edwards happily. “It felt like every customer came in at the same time. It wasn’t like being on the truck, and we had no idea what we were doing.”
For over a year, Edwards and Boggs had been seeking a permanent location before they signed their lease in March. “Thankfully, it was pretty much ready to go,” says Edwards. “We did a new paint job and added some shelves on the wall. We bought used equipment for the kitchen, got some used tables and chairs, and we were ready.”
Now for the bad news: While The Trashy Vegan celebrated a speedy launch, for other first-time and established restaurateurs, the current market and supply chain issues continue to create ongoing challenges for new projects. For some local chefs, the result has meant pushing back start dates while depending ever more on the ambiguous promise of “Opening Soon.”
“There is no kit for opening a restaurant, especially for independents,” says Kim Murray, former executive director of Asheville Independent Restaurant Association and co-owner of Creekside Taphouse. “A long checklist of things must be done that are unique to the restaurant business, particularly when it comes to permits, building and health inspections, licenses, equipment and staffing.”
The pandemic, she continues, has only further complicated the process, adding more uncertainty, greater costs and longer waits for construction projects to begin.
Such has been the case for chef Silver Cousler, who uses the pronoun they. In January 2021, they signed a lease at 704 Haywood Road with intentions of opening their Filipino restaurant, Neng Jr.’s, by January 2022. Instead, Cousler has intermittently offered to-go dishes through a quick-serve window on the side of the building while scrambling to raise funds for a budget that continues to climb.
Unexpected inflation has tripled the cost of everything they had budgeted for.
“My original buildout estimate was $60,000, which seemed manageable,” Cousler says. “That number has become so much larger that if I had known then what I know now, I think realistically I would have said it’s not the right time [to launch the restaurant].”
Meanwhile, shortages in lumber and building supplies as well as delays in shipping have created additional hurdles atop an already depleted labor pool. “The construction business seems like one of the only businesses in Asheville that increased during COVID,” Cousler observes. “My contractor’s labor crew is spread so thin, and there have been so many unexpected challenges.”
To raise the additional funds, Cousler has taken a personal loan, sold tickets to multiple pop-up dinners and launched a GoFundMe campaign. Despite these proactive steps, Cousler continues to lose sleep over the shifting bottom line.
Launching Neng Jr.’s has been a humbling process, continues Cousler. “Looking back on all the things I ever thought when I was working in restaurants, I have found that nothing will take you faster out of that perspective than opening a restaurant yourself.”
Fingers crossed, Cousler will get even greater perspective when Neng Jr.’s opens Friday, June 24.
The current hardships are not exclusive to new owners. Standing amid a construction zone inside the former Green Sage, 70 Westgate Parkway, Anthony Cerrato considers his latest project Gemelli — an Italian restaurant that continues to experience delays.
A longtime fixture in Asheville’s food scene, Cerrato launched Strada Italiano in 2012.
More recently, in August, he signed a lease taking over the entirety of 70 Westgate Parkway. Initially, he and his crew had intended to use the space as a commissary kitchen to increase production for Strada, but ultimately the location inspired a new restaurant concept. The name, Gemelli, means twins in Italian, and honors both Cerrato’s Gemini wife, Jennie, and the couple’s twin daughters.
“We decided we want to do an Italian coffeehouse by day with counter service for coffee, espresso, brunchy things and authentic, fresh Italian pastries like maritozzi and bombolone,” he explains. “Then we’ll shift to lunch items like soup, salad and sandwiches for midday. And dinner will be full service with Sicilian-style pizza and fresh pasta unique to Gemelli.”
A wine bar, he adds, will introduce to diners a self-serve Cruvinet system to taste and pour their own glasses, along with bottle service and cocktails on draft.
“We gutted the entire dining room, and then it took over three months to get the permits for a little bit of electrical work and some carpentry,” Cerrato says with some frustration. “Then, there’s the labor shortage in the construction industry and supply chain issues for materials. It’s been delay after delay after delay.”
Cerrato says he had hoped to open in late March. That plan got pushed back to early May. Then further delays postponed things until mid-June. The current goal is mid-July.
Despite uncertainties and troubles, local restaurateurs remain committed and optimistic.
“We ordered a new fourth fryer for Creekside six weeks ago and we won’t get it until September, maybe,” says Murray. “[Co-owner] Anthony [Dorage] suggested we take the sweet potato fries off the menu, and I said absolutely not! Our regulars would revolt. Restaurants are a crazy business, but it’s what I’ve done my whole life, and it’s my crazy comfort zone.”
While waiting for the interior of Gemelli to be completed, Cerrato recently flew to Denver to help his oldest son, chef Gabriel Cerrato, move back to Asheville and join the team. “Restaurants are in our family,” Anthony says proudly. “I went to work for my father when I was a teenager, and Gabe came to work for me when he was a teenager. Now he’s coming back. It’s in the blood.”
Amid their grueling 18-month endurance marathon, Cousler, newly married to Cherry Icovazzi, has also found reasons to smile. Overseeing the interior design was a delight, they say. “[Neng Jr.’s] is very colorful because I wanted the space to be a reflection of me, something I might wear. I had so much fun picking the paint colors. I look around and can’t believe I did this.”
And with the opening date finally near, Cousler also can’t help but anticipate cooking in the restaurant’s kitchen. “Filipinx food is not something a lot of people know or understand,” Cousler says. “It has not hit the mainstream avenue yet, but it has been climbing the last six or seven years, so I would say the moment is now. Ultimately, all the hard times could turn out to be really good timing.”
Meanwhile, back at The Trashy Vegan, good news continues. On June 1, the restaurant received its state Alcohol Beverage Control license. Edwards and Boggs say when they’re ready, they will add cocktails to the shop’s wine and beer selection. Along with more drink options, the two say they’ve worked out many of the kinks that come with operating a brick-and-mortar.
And while The Trashy Vegan is at the far back of the narrow strip shopping center, the storefront is not hard to spot. A large cartoon rat, which the pair has named Rowdy, is stenciled on the window.
“A friend who does digital art designed the logo for the truck, and we just think the rat is so cute,” Edwards says. “Customers have brought us so many little toy rats, I’m looking for a shadowbox to display them in.”