Restaurant groups help owners manage growth

MOM & POP OPERATION: Creating the Chai Pani Restaurant Group as a management umbrella over all of their restaurant and product operations was a turning point for Molly and Meherwan Irani as they grew their businesses locally and regionally. Photo by Molly Milroy

Charlie Hodge has a property problem. His irresistible attraction to small, quirky buildings and locations led him first to open Sovereign Remedies in 2014, then Ole Shakey’s (now The Getaway River Bar) in 2015, followed by The Make Space in 2018 and Asheville Beauty Academy in 2019.

He vehemently denies having a master plan. “It was my own insanity,” he confesses with a laugh. “Give me a whiff of a dreamy space and magical location, and I’m all in.”

But it soon became clear that he needed a cohesive strategy for managing these various businesses. Thus was born Hodgepitality, a centralized management group headquartered in The Make Space. “We’ve moved six key players — executive chef, beverage manager, operations person, financial/HR person, marketing person and me — into one operation, and now these six people can do their jobs for four places through one company,” Hodge explains.

An increasingly popular national model, hospitality and restaurant groups typically invest in and support chefs or restaurateurs with big dreams and small budgets in opening new concepts or growing an original location into multiple stores.

In Asheville, restaurant groups have emerged as independent restaurateurs who are seeking growth have recognized the efficiency and structure supported by the creation of a single umbrella company to manage multiple businesses. These groups also provide opportunities for employees of individual restaurants to rise into new roles and grow professionally, strengthening the company by retaining valued team members committed to its mission.

Turning points

Molly Irani, who opened Chai Pani restaurant in 2009 with her husband, chef Meherwan Irani, says the Chai Pani Restaurant Group happened organically. As the couple launched new ventures, including Chai Pani in Decatur, Ga., in 2013 and Buxton Hall BBQ with chef Elliot Moss in 2017, they sought to create a business structure that would allow their staff members opportunities for career growth.

CPRG currently includes the original three businesses, plus Spicewalla, Botiwalla locations in Atlanta and Charlotte, Nani’s Rotisserie Chicken and the upcoming Buxton Chicken Palace in the soon-to-open S&W Food Hall. Forming CPRG in 2015, when there were still just three properties to manage, was a turning point for all operations, says Molly, director of hospitality.

“Having that structure and placing people who started in our restaurants on the CPRG executive team allowed us to continue to add more restaurants and concepts in a more thoughtful and organized way,” she explains.

Vinnie’s Neighborhood Italian and Jettie Rae’s Oyster House owner Eric Scheffer has been a successful restaurateur in Asheville since he operated the now-closed Savoy more than 20 years ago. He formed The Scheffer Group in early 2021 to better manage his future projects, including Vinnie’s South, which opens this summer, as well as his newly created catering company, Cielo, and other concepts still in the planning stages.

Aside from CEO Scheffer and brand manager Wilder Shaw, The Scheffer Group’s other key positions include CFO/controller, culinary director, catering director and director of operations. Until it opened dedicated office space on Haywood Street in late March, the leadership team held its meetings at Jettie Rae’s or Vinnie’s.

“To have all the concepts under one group and the management team under one roof helps maintain consistent hospitality goals and our core values,” Shaw says.

Controlling the chaos

Chef Jacob Sessoms, owner of All Day Darling, El Gallo, Imperiál, Table and next door the Right There bar, says he gave his new hospitality group the name Perfectly Ad Hoc because it sounded more professional than the other choice: Controlled Chaos.

“I am actually more uncontrolled chaos,” he admits. “By the end of spring, we will operate five concepts under various ownership structures, so it makes sense for the core management team to work for a separate hospitality group.”

Sessoms credits Marisa Croce, PAH’s general manager of operations, with controlling the chaos, succinctly describing her responsibilities as “everything.” “I do everything for the group that a restaurant manager does — day-to-day operations, financials, staffing, bill paying, scheduling, direct management of employees,” Croce agrees. “I keep the moving parts organized.”

For now, PAH is tiny but mighty; once all five concepts are operational and generating revenue (Table and Right There are scheduled to open in late April), the group will add key positions such as financial controller and marketing and social media manager. “I’m under development on two new restaurants, a new coffee shop and at least one bar,” Sessoms says. “PAH will become even more vital to managing that growth.”

Looking back on the worst year to hit the hospitality industry in decades, Molly Irani reflects on how CPRG helped the group’s restaurants hold on and hold it together. “It’s kind of terrifying to think about if it had been just Meherwan and me,” she says. “But everyone on the team immediately went to their skill sets — unemployment, PPP (Paycheck Protection Program), safety and sanitation — and into a furious phase of figuring out how to take care of our people and get through this. Now we’re in full look-ahead mode and excited to lay the table with love and intention to gather together again.”

Hodge is also looking to the future with optimism. “We have some hefty goals to get high-functioning systems in place so that when we want to absorb another project, we have a model for it,” he says. “Even more, my hope is that members of this team have the opportunity to buy into future projects, and we all continue to grow together.”


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About Kay West
Kay West began her writing career in NYC, then was a freelance journalist in Nashville for more than 30 years, including contributing writer for the Nashville Scene, Nashville correspondent for People magazine, author of five books and mother of two happily launched grown-up kids. In 2019 she moved to Asheville and continued writing (minus Red Carpet coverage) with a focus on food, farming and hospitality. She is a die-hard NY Yankees fan.

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