Successful Asheville restaurants write their own recipes for out-of-state expansion

GROWTH EXPERIENCE: Biscuit Head owners Carolyn and Jason Roy say their expansion choices — the eatery now has three Asheville locations and one in Greenville, S.C. — come down to sustainability for their staff. “The profit margin in independent restaurants is very small,” says Jason. “With just one restaurant, there’s not enough profit to share, grow careers or offer benefits.” Photo by Cindy Kunst

Stephen Frabitore knows risk. At Florida State University, he was a member of the FSU Flying High Circus, walking the high wire in the Wallenda Seven Man Pyramid. His successful corporate career was followed by several entrepreneurial ventures. So, his total lack of restaurant experience when he purchased the original Tupelo Honey Café in downtown Asheville in 2008 did not faze him.

“My wife and I were moving to Asheville from West Palm Beach,” he recalls. “I was looking for a business to buy, possibly a restaurant tied to tourism. I ate at Tupelo Honey and it resonated with me immediately.”

The popular eatery that had opened in 2000 was not for sale — a road-bump resolved with a phone call and an offer. Then, badabing, badaboom, Frabitore was in the restaurant business. Though at first he didn’t actually see it that way.

“When I bought Tupelo Honey, I very much thought of it as a retirement project, not an expansion project,” he says with a laugh.

His Saturday night stints at the host station put the wheels in motion to take Tupelo Honey on the road. “On their way out, customers would plead for a Tupelo Honey in their town.”

He took the idea on a test run close to home, opening a second location in South Asheville in 2010. In 2014 he crossed the state line, opening Tupelo Honey Knoxville. “I didn’t want to drive more than four hours one way to get to a store,” he says. “That thinking has evolved over time.”

Tupelo Honey Hospitality Corporation now has 14 locations in seven states, including Colorado and Texas; this year they will open one in Boise, Idaho, and a second one in Charlotte, with four planned for the Midwest in 2020. “Through first expanding close by, we learned a lot about commercial real estate,” Frabitore says. “Then we did research and thought our style of Southern food and service would do extremely well in places that don’t have anything like it.  Millions of people visit Asheville from all over the country and already know and love us.”

The franchise model

Jason Roy and Ben Mixson spent most of their working lives in the restaurant business, and both started their individual concepts from scratch.

Mixson and his partner, Laura Reuss, wanted to do casual and affordable. “I wanted to create a place you could go a couple times a week, not worry about how much it costs,” says Mixson. “Tacos was Laura’s idea.”

In 2011, the partners opened White Duck Taco on Roberts Street in the River Arts District, then White Duck Taco downtown in 2014. The quirky concept attracted not just droves of diners, but investors hungry for a new business to tap. “We’ve always gotten lots of interest outside of Asheville,” Mixson says. “We wanted to figure out a way for the brand to grow but not give us any more day-to-day responsibility. To respond to the persistent interest in White Duck, keep our management staff small and figure out a life-work balance, we went the franchise route.”

Via that model, the Johnson City, Tenn., White Duck Taco opened in 2015, and the same family group is opening White Duck Taco in Nashville’s tourist-driven downtown. The White Duck group in Greenville, S.C., is at work on its second location, and another franchisee has claimed Charlotte.

Meanwhile, back on the ranch, in 2017 Mixson and Reuss opened the third local White Duck in South Asheville, and last year moved the original White Duck into a Quonset hut on 3 acres along the French Broad River, hatching Henrietta’s Poultry Shoppe in the Roberts Street spot.

“We always continue to do what is in the best interest of our organization,” says Mixson. “We want to provide stable income and good-paying jobs. With our three Asheville stores and Henrietta’s, we employ over 100 people. We struggled with how to grow beyond that. If someone wants to help, who are we to say no? It’s just a different way of looking at things outside of the Asheville bubble. There’s a big world out there.”

Staff sustainability

On opening day of Biscuit Head in West Asheville in 2013, the world showed up at Carolyn and Jason Roy’s doorstep on Haywood.

“We wanted to open a small, mom-and-pop kind of biscuit restaurant that was manageable, [where] people didn’t have to work crazy hours and we could spend time with our kid,” says Jason Roy. “We thought breakfast, fast-casual. We had a shoestring budget and not even a dishwasher.”

On day one, there was a line out the door, and after feeding 350 people, they ran out of food. They ran out the second day as well. Over time, they learned to manage ordering for the first store, two additional Asheville locations and one in Greenville — and how to manage growth they are comfortable with.

“For us, growth comes down to sustainability of our staff,” Roy explains. “The profit margin in independent restaurants is very small. With just one restaurant, there’s not enough profit to share, grow careers or offer benefits. We can do all of that with growth that makes sense and takes care of the people we have. Greenville made sense because it’s close, it’s a growing city, and Main Street fits us.”

If all roads lead to Greenville, Dobra Tea is joining the caravan. Joe Passalaqua, a long-time patron of both Asheville locations, has purchased a franchise and will move to Greenville in May to begin the renovation of an old brick building in West Greenville. He is being trained by Asheville owner Andrew Snavely and says he’s “excited to bring the whole Dobra experience to Greenville.”

Merherwan Irani opened Chai Pani in downtown Asheville in 2009 to make Indian food for everybody. “The mission of Chai Pani has always been to make Indian food approachable and accessible,” he says. “Street food was the conduit to that. Chai Pani is a combination of authenticity, tradition and storytelling that’s also modern, hip and culturally accessible.”

It was also small, with just 39 seats.  “We were packed from the start, but restricted by price point and size. No matter how busy we were, we couldn’t make the numbers work. We knew we needed a larger space and more volume.”

A family friend in Decatur, Ga., found a spot he thought would work, and offered to be point person to make sure of it. “That’s how we ended up with Chai Pani Decatur in 2013,” Irani recalls. “A 125-seat restaurant changed everything. We did not have plans to grow beyond that, but at that point four years in, we had this amazing group of people who had been with us since day one and were eager for the next step. I didn’t want to lose this team, and the only way to keep them was to grow.”

Launching Buxton Hall Barbecue in 2015 seemed an odd detour, but to Irani, it was same story, different food. “Elliott Moss [his partner and the executive chef at Buxton Hall] had a passion to go back to his roots in barbecue and tell his story, which was similar to mine. The main reason I jumped in was for our team to stay with the company.”

Leap of faith

Irani’s most ambitious expansion is also born of Indian street food but pivoting to a more meatcentric menu, based on India’s late-night kebab grills. The first Botiwalla opened in Atlanta’s Ponce City Market Food Hall in 2017 and, like Chai Pani, was an instant hit. The second will open in suburban Alpharetta.

The regional combo is the first iteration of the Chai Pani Restaurant Group’s hub-and-spoke model for growth, with Asheville serving as the main hub. “We plan to stay within a four-hour drive of Asheville. In each city, we’ll first open an urban “hub” downtown, and once that is established open a “spoke” in a suburban environment,” Irani explains. “We will be opening soon in Optimist Hall in Charlotte’s urban core and then seek a more suburban spot. In 2020, we’re looking at Greenville, and in 2021, probably Charleston, possibly Nashville.”

So far, Green Sage Café has expanded solely within Asheville. But with the recent opening of its fourth and largest location on Merrimon Avenue, which included the hiring of its first full-time human resources, marketing and finance positions, partners Randy Talley and Roger Derrough intend to use this year — and their years of experience running Earth Fare markets — to formulate a business plan for further expansion.

They are investigating markets that already have Whole Foods and Earth Fare stores and where distribution companies will supply local brands such as Smiling Hara Tempeh and Hickory Nut Gap Farms meats, allowing them to stick to their menu and mission. Cities under consideration have included Raleigh-Durham, Chapel Hill and Greenville, S.C.

“Green Sage is part of a greater mission to provide American culture with a health, wellness and environmentally sustainable business,” says Talley. “We think the time is right.”

But not everyone is seeking green pastures outside of Asheville. While Cristina and Jesson Gil have been busy since moving to Asheville from Texas three years ago — they bought The Blackbird restaurant downtown, bought Early Girl Eatery on Wall Street in 2018, then flipped King Daddy’s Chicken & Waffle in West Asheville to a second Early Girl, sold The Blackbird and will shortly open their third Early Girl in North Asheville — they’re taking a breather.

“We have been pitched on Greenville,” Jesson reports. “But Early Girl is just my wife and me, and we have six kids. We love Asheville and for now we’re sticking close to home.”

Irani and his fellow restaurateurs believe the birthplace of their businesses has much to do with their success. “Asheville is the kind of town that inspires people to say, ‘I’m going to take a leap of faith and try something I may not have had the courage to do in a bigger city or place that is less supportive of new ideas,'” says Irani. “This is a community [where people] support each other in a remarkable way. All of us who have been able to expand out into the world have benefited from starting in Asheville.”

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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.

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