There’s no doubt that Asheville has evolved into a restaurant town. In keeping with a national trend, the city’s dining scene has exploded in the past decade, with nearly a dozen new spots opening this year alone.
It seems to naturally follow that in Western North Carolina, where farm-to-table dining is almost ubiquitous and support for local businesses and environmental responsibility is strong, that trend would translate to success for folks who go out of their way to keep their footprint small and their operations sustainable. But the term “sustainable” has myriad interpretations.
Sure, a restaurant can do its best to operate in an environmentally sustainable way, but what about its sustainability as a business and the longevity of the area’s hospitality industry overall?
According to studies by Ohio State University, 80 percent of restaurants close within their first five years. And the markup in the industry is notoriously meager — the National Restaurant Association calculates that overall profit margins often sink as low as 5 percent, even among businesses we tend to think of as successful.
Margins can be even thinner for restaurants that prioritize environmental sustainability because the products they buy — from the pasture-raised meat right down to the compostable straws — tend to cost more than what the competing chain eateries are using. This is one explanation for why farm-to-table prices are often so much steeper than those at the average meat-and-three.
When Rebecca Hanser and Mitchell Marecki moved to Asheville from Germany with plans to open a Turkish döner kebab shop, they were hard-pressed to find a space that would mimic the tiny takeout restaurants that appear on nearly every street corner in German cities. Most of the available downtown square footage was sprawling, and the rents were far too high for a concept focused on a cheap, easy eat like döner kebabs.
So instead, they wound up with a booth in the Asheville Mall food court, where they vie for business with chains like Chick-fil-A. Marecki says there’s no way his shop, The Döner, could sustain itself competing against chain restaurants if it switched to an entirely farm-to-table system, but he does the best he can.
“Anything we can get here, we try to get here,” he says. The Döner uses entirely hormone-free and antibiotic-free meats. “Even that is hard. In quick-service restaurants, the margin is just too small. We are lucky to get a 7 percent profit margin right now.”
Being primarily a takeout location adds another dimension of challenge. The business saw its profit margin shrink from 7 to 5 percent when it tried using paper cups, so it has shifted back to using Styrofoam. The restaurant still uses ecofriendly to-go boxes, but they cost a hefty 35 cents a piece.
“Thirty-five cents on top of something that only sells for $7 really makes a difference,” says Marecki. “But because these big chains buy millions of those boxes, they could get them for 15 cents, but they still buy the styrofoam.” Marecki calculates that it costs the restaurant nearly a dollar to equip just one to-go order doner kebab with the appropriate wrappings and trappings — straws, napkins, a bag, disposable fork, etc. — expected by the customer.
Marecki also observes that the mall doesn’t have recycling receptacles, which further disincentivizes corporate restaurants and their customers from doing the right thing. When asked for comment, representatives from the Asheville Mall said, “We are currently working with our center’s partners to expand our current recycling program at Asheville Mall.” When asked if they would ever require restaurants in their food court to use ecofriendly packaging, they had no comment.
Having higher prices than competitors — even if the difference is slight — can adversely affect business. “When someone is standing in our line and they can see, ‘OK, this is $8, and next door it is $7,’ it takes three steps to get to the next cash register, so they will do it,” says Marecki.
“Now if customers at the mall said, ‘I’m not going to go to Chick-fil-A because their entire model isn’t sustainable’ or started bringing their own cups, only then can it move. That change is doable, but it has to be united,” he says. The Döner has begun offering discounted drinks for people who bring their own cups.
The bigger picture
Xpress has reported at length about the challenges posed to the restaurant industry by its own market, how labor shortages — perhaps partially caused by oversaturation — can burden kitchens and how the loss of demand for fine dining has reduced margins, making it hard to pay workers what they are worth. All of this turbulence begs the question: Is the local restaurant industry actually sustainable?
“There are a lot of subcolumns in that question, but based off of my experience with Salt & Smoke, I would say yes,” says Josiah McGaughey, co-owner of Vivian and Salt & Smoke. “You do what you can, you buy local, you buy sustainable products, and then, to make it cost-effective, you have to bend other ways.”
McGaughey and his wife, Shannon, who each have logged nearly 20 years in the restaurant industry, have built two very different models for slinging farm-fresh cuisine. Salt & Smoke, a food truck permanently planted outside Burial Beer Co. on the South Slope, tends to keep prices on the lower side, serving a limited yet creative menu on paper plates.
But at their River Arts District eatery, Vivian, there’s the added bonus of alcohol sales. This pads the budget enough for them to make fewer compromises, allowing them to play with higher-priced cuts of meat and serve a fine-dining menu.
The overarching theme among chefs who aim to build sustainable businesses that are also ecofriendly — in fine-dining establishments and quick-service venues alike — is that the restaurant business is a game of constant compromise. And the rules are largely dictated by the customer.
“You’ve got to think about it like you are going to feed your family,” says McGaughey. “You’ve got to feed your family the best thing that you can afford to feed them, and that’s what you should be doing. You should also be taking that approach when you are cooking for people and expecting them to buy your food. You want to be able to say at the end of the day that I have done the best job I can do to give you the best quality food that I can give you.
“In the grand scheme of things, you want to have a good conscience about it,” he continues. “And I know that that makes it more expensive for people, and we try to watch that here. But the cost is the cost, and I’m not just trying to pull a couple extra dollars.”
Some see Asheville’s economic reliance on tourists as a potential threat to the restaurant industry’s long-term sustainability. “I’m a farmer on food stamps, man; I can’t even afford to eat at most of these places,” says Severian Simmons, owner of Free Orbit Farm, which vends to 18 restaurants in town, including Vivian. Simmons views tourism as both a blessing and a curse to Foodtopia.
“They are coming, so we might as well build it,” he says. “But it’s a Catch-22, because the more tourists come to town, the more real estate gets sold and rental rates go up, [but] there isn’t enough work outside of the service sector to be able to sustain that, and the people working those jobs can’t afford to work there anymore, and that’s really what I see as the most unsustainable part of it all.”
But he also points out that local restaurants sustain a breed of farmer that would otherwise not be in business. Simmons left the tailgate market game a few years ago when he sensed it was becoming oversaturated, opting instead to partner with chefs directly.
“I do believe that in a lot of ways that alliance can transcend conventional economic norms creating a closed loop,” he says. “Farmers in that category aren’t trying to carry the torch of old-school farmers that are monocropping soy or corn, and they are taking on the less-is-more approach, encouraging biodiversity.”
He notes that support of this brand of agriculture isn’t just good for the environment, it can be good for the farmer’s wallet as well. “People that shop at a co-op or farmers market don’t have the same purse that a restaurant has,” he explains. “So when The Market Place takes 50-75 pounds of heirloom tomatoes twice a week, they are not just paying for a product, they are paying for a methodology that the farmer is employing. My farm wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for restaurants.”