Southern migration: White Duck comes to Skyland

CHARACTER MATTERS: Converting a former family home into a restaurant space has presented numerous challenges, says White Duck co-owner Ben Mixson. But part of his business’s long-term plan is to create unique dining venues. “When I first saw this space,” he says, “I knew it was going to work for us.”
CHARACTER MATTERS: Converting a former family home into a restaurant space has presented numerous challenges, says White Duck co-owner Ben Mixson. But part of his business’s long-term plan is to create unique dining venues. “When I first saw this space,” he says, “I knew it was going to work for us.” Photo by Nick Wilson

Since the 1950s, a brick ranch-style house has stood at 16 Miami Circle in the heart of South Asheville. That’s about to change, however, thanks to White Duck Taco Shop co-owners Ben Mixson and Laura Reuss. The former family home is undergoing a complete structural renovation that will turn it into Asheville’s third White Duck location.

Mixson and Reuss have a history of choosing unique spaces to house their operations. “The original Asheville White Duck, in the River Arts District, took over an old chicken hatchery,” notes Mixson. “The downtown location was a pizza restaurant at one point, the Charleston location was a karate dojo, the Johnson City space was an old train station, Columbia was a cotton mill, and the new Greenville location we’re working on used to be some sort of textile factory. So we’re definitely used to unique conversions, and character is important to us.”

That description also fits the South Asheville site. The spacious 1.3-acre property off Long Shoals Road sits next to T.C. Roberson High School and offers views of Lake Julian. Still, says Mixson, “We’ve never converted a residential space into a commercial one. Believe me, it would have been faster and cheaper and a lot easier just to knock the whole thing down and build something new with less character, but it’s part of our long-term strategy to create unique restaurant spaces, and when I first saw this place, I just knew it was going to work for us.”

The extensive renovation is nearly finished now, but it’s taken a major effort. “It’s amazing how much work is required to take an old building and make it commercial but still make it feel like an old building,” he says. “We’ve had to do a complete gut job — redo the subfloors and the entire foundation — to be able to support everything we need to run our business.” For White Duck, that includes being able to accommodate upward of 100 patrons at any given time. Some locations see about 500 customers a day.

The original floor plan and exterior will be largely unchanged, but the roof is being completely replaced. “Steel beams are being put in to support a lofted ceiling that will be 10 feet higher than the original,” Mixson explains. “It’s going to feel much bigger and more open.”

A major draw for the new Skyland shop will be the large, wooded outdoor space behind the restaurant, with lake views, plenty of tables for customers and at least 40-50 parking spaces. Other possible amenities include a play area for kids and lawn games for customers. “Just to be able to hang out outside and actually have space in Asheville is really refreshing,” notes Mixson. “Michel [Baudouin] is kind of doing the same thing with his new Bouchon location in East Asheville — just making a place where people who live here can go and not have to fight for parking.”

Long-term thinking

The new location is also a chance to promote longtime Asheville staff. “That’s really what we’re doing: growing the brand and trying to create permanent positions for our long-term staff,” says Mixson. “When we find good people, we don’t lose them. The guy who’ll be running this location, Marcus Smith, actually went to T.C. Roberson High School and lives just right over there in the neighborhood. I promised him three years ago that we’d find him a long-term home.”

White Duck, he continues, tries “to pay people well and compensate accordingly. This year, for example, we started retirement plans for our staff. Once someone hits three years with us, we contribute 10 percent of their base pay to a retirement plan. We feel it’s just the right thing to do.”

Asked how he feels about the business’s rapid growth since its launch in the spring of 2011, Mixson says, “It’s kind of hard to put it all in perspective because I don’t feel like I’m successful. I’m too busy dealing with the nuts and bolts, and spending a lot of time poking my head up and seeing which way the wind is blowing, rather than just letting the wind carry me, if that makes sense.”

UP IN THE AIR: Although the building’s original floorplan and exterior are largely unaltered, the roof is being completely replaced and raised an additional 10 feet to create a lofted ceiling. Photo by Nick Wilson
UP IN THE AIR: Although the building’s original floorplan and exterior are largely unaltered, the roof is being completely replaced and raised an additional 10 feet to create a lofted ceiling. Photo by Nick Wilson

Still, the restaurant’s impressive track record speaks for itself. When the Skyland and Greenville shops are completed later this spring, Mixson and Reuss will officially be responsible for seven locations and nearly 70 employees. And in light of that, how much further do they want to take the White Duck brand?

“Asheville is growing so fast right now, and it’s not even just Asheville. A bunch of cities are experiencing a lot of growth right now,” notes Mixson. “How much longer do I think it’s going to grow? And how exposed am I willing to be to what I think might happen in the future? And how protected do I want to feel throughout that process? Sure, we could grow, but that’s really the question. … I mean, I can guess, but there are some unknowns.

“I firmly believe in cycles,” he continues. “I feel like we’re either at a peak or getting close to a peak of an economic cycle right now. I don’t know how long it’s going to last, but I feel very lucky to have been a part of it. Laura and I just feel so fortunate that Asheville has been so supportive of the White Duck. If you know the answers, please tell me,” he says, laughing.

The Skyland location will open in May at 16 Miami Circle. It will feature the same menu available at the other White Duck shops. Visit whiteducktacoshop.com for details.

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About Nick Wilson
Nick Wilson is a native of the Midwest who moved to Asheville in September of 2016 after eight years in Los Angeles. When he's not writing for Mountain Xpress, his energies are focused on better understanding himself and the rich wealth of history that the world has to offer.

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