What happens when you bring two entrepreneurial couples together, both with a shared vision to restore Swannanoa to its heyday? You get two successful businesses under one roof and a lot of enthusiasm for what’s ahead. Meredith and Brandon Ellison, and Casey and Sarah Watkins recently talked with Xpress about how they met, why they’re doing what they’re doing and how Native Kitchen and Social Club came to be.
Mountain Xpress: How did all of you meet?
Brandon Ellison: Casey and I met at an insurance company where we were both employed in 2001. We decided to go it on our own and launched Symmetry Financial Group, an insurance organization, in 2009. Native followed in 2012.
A financial group and restaurant don’t really have much in common. What was the thought process behind opening Native?
Sarah Watkins: As we were growing Symmetry, Casey and I were renting a small office in this building, and during that time, a lot of restaurants downstairs had come and gone. So when that space became available, I kind of said to everyone, “Hey, let’s open a restaurant,” and that’s kind of how the idea came about. I said we could bring in really good locally sourced food and beer. We also needed a place to eat. We all work long hours, and there’s really no place nearby, without having to go into Black Mountain, to grab some good food. We also thought that our employees from Symmetry would be happy about it, too. They can grab lunch to go, stop in after work and have a drink and just enjoy the place.
Casey: Yeah. Before Native, there was a Mexican restaurant downstairs that wasn’t doing that great. There were also parking issues with Symmetry, so we decided it made sense to take it over and lease the whole building.
Tell me a little about the food and who runs Native?
Brandon: Marlene Mechanic is kind of the GM, and Jake Whitman is the kitchen manager. They work really well together. From a food and leadership standpoint, the creativity is finally where we want it to be. They’ve taken ownership of the restaurant and share our vision. Jake came from Copper Crown, and Marlene came from The Bywater but has been in the business for a long time. The restaurant is doing better than it’s ever done. We’re booking parties and weddings, have an event space that holds about 25. There’s also a patio that’s been there about a year, and we have a great backyard that we are expanding into.
Where is the food sourced from?
Sarah: Everything is local. We use Hickory Nut Gap, Brasstown Beef, Ashland Farms, Inland Seafood, various farmers markets, and we have our own gardens out back, too. We also have 12 beers on tap. We also have an amazing pastry chef, Amanda Burke, who makes all the breads and desserts. For example, she’s done a pork whiskey cheesecake and makes lemon brioche.
You seem very active in the community.
Meredith Ellison: Yes. Right now we’re training for the Trailblaze Challenge that benefits the Make-A-Wish Foundation. It’s a 28.3-mile, one-day hike. We support that group on a monthly basis. We do 10 to 20 percent off school nights where the proceeds will go to local schools. Last year, we gave back $90,000-plus to the community. That’s one of the main reasons we keep Native going — to have a place where the community can gather, learn from each other, support each other and enjoy good food. We also just started working with Bounty & Soul. They are fantastic.
Casey: We try to stay flexible for the needs of the community, too. For example, if a family is in need, we are here to help. Native is really all about that.
You mentioned that you are hoping to bring back the old Swannanoa. Why did it fall on hard times to begin with?
Casey: There used to be a big mill that closed down — Beacon plant. My grandparents used to work there. In fact, most of the people who lived in the area worked there. If you drive down the road, you’ll see all these homes that were mill houses. It used to be a really thriving village. We just want to do something positive for Swannanoa.
Where did the name Native come from?
Sarah: After we all agreed that we were going to do the restaurant, we just tried to think of a name that encompassed everything local — people, food, community. I said, “Native,” and Casey said, “social pub,” because half of the space is more social with a stage, music and bar, and half is more dining-oriented.
What are some of your popular menu items?
Casey: Our burgers. The meat is unbelievable. The fried chicken sandwich is a big seller, and so are the chicken and waffle sliders It’s hard to categorize our food. We also have selections like rabbit and duck on the menu. It’s very eclectic, and the food has a lot of detail. Our seafood Saturdays have really taken off, too. We do lobster rolls and oysters while they last.
What have been your greatest challenges to date?
Brandon: Probably struggling to create an identity that the community would accept has been the greatest challenge and getting it to a point where it was self-sustaining.
Casey: We’re different than many other restaurant models in this area. We’re not owner-operated, so it took a while to get a team in place that really worked and that we really trusted. I think we’re there. Everyone around here is ready for us now.