Restaurateurs battered by the pandemic keep their dreams alive

LOVIN' FROM THE OVEN: Chef Laura Smith has turned Baba Nahm's indoor dining area into the Suladan Bake Shop, making pastries, candy, sweets and cookie bags to order online. Photo courtesy of Baba Nahm

With apologies to the Irish and all who celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 2020, will be forever remembered as a dark moment in the history of Asheville’s bar and restaurant industry. At 5 p.m. on that date, the sector’s hustle and bustle came to a screeching halt as Gov. Roy Cooper‘s executive order prohibiting indoor drinking and dining went into effect as part of COVID-19 quarantine measures.

In the ensuing year, despite heroic efforts to hold on, navigating takeout models, outdoor dining, reduced-capacity indoor seating and alcohol curfews, more than 20 Asheville businesses were ultimately tossed off the COVID roller coaster that upended the hospitality sector, particularly local and independently owned businesses.

Some of those shuttered buildings and storefronts remain vacant and in states of deconstruction, such as Over Easy Cafe on Broadway and Golden Fleece in Grovewood Village. Some have been flipped: Katie Button and Felix Meana turned Button & Co. Bagels into La Bodega by Cúrate; Miyako House sushi and pan-Asian restaurant debuted in the old Korean House space on Feb. 20; Broth Lab’s River Arts District site (the original home of White Duck Taco) is set to become Bull & Beggar’s burger joint, Baby Bull, this spring; and before long, 68 N. Lexington Ave. — home for nearly three years to AUX Bar — will see the opening of Water Street, a new concept from Rosetta’s Kitchen owner Rosetta Buan.

Closing a restaurant is complicated, costly and emotional, say three restaurateurs who all made that difficult decision in 2020 and are still navigating the after-effects and determining what’s next.

The party’s over

On March 13, 2020, Rustic Grape Wine Bar celebrated its two-year anniversary with a little party. “We were just starting to break even,” remembers co-owner and sommelier Melissa Ward, who opened the cozy spot on Aston Street just off Biltmore Avenue with partner Patty Wright. “We had survived our second winter and were having fun. We felt like 2020 would be the year we found our footing.”

Instead, four days later the party was over. In compliance with state orders, Rustic Grape locked the door and corked the wines. Because Rustic Grape was classified as a bar and not a restaurant, it didn’t have the option to resume operations with limited capacity when quarantine restrictions were loosened at the end of May. At that point, even though their landlord worked with them, Ward and Wright felt they had no choice but to put the business up for sale.

With the food and beverage industry in an uncertain place, the pair received no offers for months. “We took out loans to build out the space from a shell and are still dealing with the financial fallout,” says Ward. “We don’t know if the (U.S. Small Business Administration) will forgive any or part of our loan. This is happening to so many small, heart-and-soul projects that did not fail because of decisions we made, but because COVID took it away.”

Ironically, after closing Rustic Grape, it was a job Ward took working the farming side of the operation at Marked Tree Vineyard that led to a new tenant for the location. Since December, the 700-square-foot corner space has served as a satellite tasting room for the Flat Rock winery.

“I tried working in the downtown tasting room, but I’m still pretty raw and couldn’t do it,” she says. “I’m so glad it stayed a wine concept and local, and it’s a good outcome for them and the landlord. But it’s not a happy ending for me.”

Still, Ward keeps her nose in the wine glass through hosting virtual tastings through Sips With a Somm, which she launched last year. And she intends to bring back her popular monthly networking group, Women & Wine, in person when allowed.

The Bar is closed

Brown butcher paper is taped to the windows of 68 N. Lexington Ave. The glass door still bears the bold logo and red block letters announcing AUX Bar, but a man standing on the brick-paved patio bereft of tables confirms that work is being done inside the building. After opening with a bang in February 2018, AUX Bar served a gastropub-type menu and quirky cocktails for lunch, dinner and late-night revelry from partners Samantha and chef Steve Goff and Marlene and chef Mike Moore. But on Sept. 13, 2020, the kitchen sent out its last duck wings, hot catfish sandwiches and pickled eggs.

Steve Goff says that thanks to the partners’ agreement with the separate limited liability corporation they operated under, closing AUX was fairly simple once the decision was made — and he felt relief to no longer be managing 21 shifts a week. “I could have worked 24-hour days to keep it going, but looking into winter, I knew it was time,” he says. “When I turned over the keys in September, I went home and slept until about December. Since 2013, I have opened five restaurants, a food truck and a butcher shop. It was the most amazing thing on earth to take a rest.”

The brightest silver lining, he adds, was spending time with his daughter and his wife, who is a preschool teacher. In January, the chef started teaching in A-B Tech’s culinary program and is enjoying cooking for his family, though he admits it took some time to learn to downsize from preparing for a crowd to a party of three. “I surf the internet for dishes and think, ‘That looks stupid, I’ll try it!’”

Goff does not anticipate diving into another restaurant project until more normalcy returns to the industry, which he thinks may be as far off as early 2022. For now, he’s fine with taking time to ponder what type of restaurant he wants. “I’d like one with dinner service seven nights a week, not 21 shifts a week,” he says. “I like the aesthetic of what AUX Bar had, but something more upscale that still has a funky feel to it. I sit at the table at home and write menus for fun. I’m not done with that at all.”

End of an era

On the penultimate week of February 2021, the narrow glass cases on either side of Rezaz’s main entrance that once held the Mediterranean restaurant’s menus are empty. The host stand remains just inside the front door as if awaiting diners, but there are no tables or chairs in the dining rooms, no stools pulled up to the marble-topped bar, no wine bottles behind it ready to be opened and poured.

The last day of service — takeout only — of the nearly 20-year-old mainstay of Historic Biltmore Village was June 4, COVID Year 2020. Owners since 2015, when they bought the business from founder Reza Setayesh, chefs Laura and Brian Smith went out with panache, boxing up chicken and chorizo paella, shrimp tagine, osso buco with merguez and rice, summer salad of peaches and goat cheese, coconut cake with lemon curd and chocolate ganache torte.

They found the tasks and logistics of closing daunting and complex. “There’s a ton to do; it’s very expensive and nearly as complicated as opening a restaurant,” says Laura Smith. “It’s shocking.”

On top of paperwork and number crunching, the personal loss is severe. “It was very emotional not to go into Rezaz every day,” Smith remembers. “Brian and I met there, it’s where our families met for the first time, it’s where we had our wedding feast and the first restaurant we owned together. It was our dream restaurant. The sadness still creeps up on us.”

But the Smiths still had Baba Nahm. In early fall 2019, the couple had bought out Setayesh’s share of the downtown fast-casual Middle Eastern eatery they had opened together in 2017. Because Baba Nahm already had a steady takeout business, it was able to remain operational in the early weeks of the pandemic shutdown. In May, the Smiths closed it while they started the process of shuttering Rezaz. Then, after some cleaning and reorganizing, they reopened it in June with just two employees: themselves.

“COVID allowed us to restart Baba Nahm,” Laura says. “We were always afraid to touch that menu, but we scratched everything and started over. We tried several concepts but have settled on six different family meals — including some things from Rezaz, like the lamb shank — and brought back lunch.”

The classically trained pastry chef is finding her happy place using what used to be Baba Nahm’s indoor dining space for her Suladan Bake Shop, named after herself and siblings Susan and Dan. “It’s my outlet to still be creative and have fun,” she says. The desserts and pastries are listed on Baba Nahm’s online menu.

But memories of Rezaz abide. In a storage facility in Asheville, the Smiths keep treasured items, décor and furnishings they salvaged from the space, such as the sofra — family dining table — they commissioned from local woodworker Danny Schwalje.

“We are holding onto those things for the future,” Laura explains. “You still have to plan, and you still have to dream. Once you’re in the restaurant business, it stays with you forever. Brian and I have new adventures to come.”


Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

About Kay West
Kay West was a freelance journalist in Nashville for more than 30 years, contributing writer for the Nashville Scene, StyleBlueprint Nashville, Nashville correspondent for People magazine, author of five books and mother of two happily launched grown-up kids. To kick off 2019 she put Tennessee in her rear view mirror, drove into the mountains of WNC, settled in West Asheville and appreciates that writing offers the opportunity to explore and learn her new home. She looks forward to hiking trails, biking greenways, canoeing rivers, sampling local beer and cheering the Asheville Tourists.

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.