The transformation of the three-floor space that once housed the French Broad Chocolate Lounge to Rhubarb owner John Fleer’s newest project, The Rhu Bakery, Café and Pantry, is not yet complete. But even amid the din of power tools, it is easy to imagine it filled with Fleer’s planned displays of locally sourced cheeses, meats and bread, and with tables ready for customers to plug in their laptops and settle down with a coffee and pastry. The target opening is in late December.
Fleer, who launched Rhubarb in 2013 after a 15-year run as executive chef at Tennessee’s celebrated Blackberry Farm, says he had known about French Broad Chocolate Lounge’s plans to move long before a public announcement was made. At first, he had an interest in renting only the top level of the space, which is conveniently located in the same building as Rhubarb. “The initial spur to do it was because we had so many requests for private events, and Rhubarb is just not set up to do that,” says Fleer.
“So the original thought was, ‘Hey, well, I’ll just talk to the landlord, and see if we can take the third floor, and let someone else do whatever they want with the bottom two.’ And then that rolled into taking the bottom two floors,” he adds with a chuckle.
The top floor of the building, which used to house French Broad Chocolates’ baking kitchen and offices, was the first level to be renovated. The Rhubarb staff is already using the large kitchen to bake breads and pastries for the restaurant. This floor also features a bright, comfortable dining room that can accommodate up to 90 guests, with a room divider for smaller, cozier get-togethers.
The restaurant has already hosted holiday parties and anniversary and birthday gatherings in the space, but Fleer says this is just phase one. He hopes to someday offer it to the local food community for cooking demonstrations and talks. “All the retail that we’re going to do downstairs is focused on local artisanal food products and related products,” says Fleer. “So if one of the cheesemakers wants to come in and do a demonstration, or one of the farmers wants to come in and do ‘How to Cook Your CSA’ [workshop] … it would be a part-time community center for the artisanal food community in town.”
The current focus, however, is on completing the renovations on the other two floors. The second level will be used for seating, and the bottom level will boast a retail area stocked with deli meats, local cheeses and other locally sourced food products, as well as pastries, fresh-baked breads, sandwiches, salads and more.
Rhubarb has always baked its own bread, but The Rhu will offer a wider variety on a more consistent basis. Fleer adds that many of the brunch items, including doughnuts and Rhubarb’s signature cruffin (a cross between a croissant and a muffin), will show up on The Rhu menu. “A lot of the things that people have seen over the last six, eight months [at Rhubarb] as a one-off will now be a more regular production,” says Fleer.
Fleer seems particularly excited about the retail space. In addition to providing another downtown option for to-go lunches and snacks, it will allow him to sell popular ingredients used on the Rhubarb menu directly to customers. “We do get a lot of requests for access to the products that we use,” says Fleer. “We sell so many cheese plates using all the cheeses made locally. … So that’s really how the retail part of it started — as a way to give people access to those cheeses, to bacon or sea salt from North Carolina or peanut butter from Durham, all of that stuff.”
Cheeses made by Spinning Spider Creamery of Madison County and Looking Glass Creamery of Fairview are two popular local cheeses that will definitely be featured, although Fleer says he plans to offer as many cheeses “as can fit in the case.”
While both Rhubarb and The Rhu will maintain the local focus that has become Rhubarb’s signature, Fleer says Rhu will definitely have a brighter, more casual, coffee shop feel. “For us, it’s a different face of Rhubarb and what we do,” says Fleer. “Although I think our food and our restaurant are very approachable, I think this is just a different avenue to celebrate the best of what this area has to offer.”
Rhu Bakery, Café and Pantry is scheduled to open near the end of December at 10 S. Lexington Ave. For details, visit rhubarbasheville.com.