When Laurey Masterton passed away in February 2014, Asheville’s bustling restaurant community was shaken. The chef, activist, community organizer and author had served as a kind of patron saint for the Asheville food scene since opening her restaurant and catering business, Laurey’s, in 1990.
At the reception after her memorial service, the buzz was all about her good works. John Atwater, owner of Mamacita’s, told stories crediting Masterton with personally cleaning up the once notoriously crime-ridden Eagle Street by serving free breakfast and lunch on the street. And Eberhardt Heide, the founder of the Asheville Wine Market, explained that he would never have opened a business downtown if it hadn’t been for Masterton’s coaxing.
Then there were Emily and Adam Thome, the couple who ran most of the operations at Laurey’s Catering and Gourmet for 15 years. The pair talked about how the insurance and living wage Masterton provided for her employees allowed them to afford the multiple bone marrow transplants and blood transfusions at Duke University required by their then-9-month-old son who was diagnosed with cartilage-hair hypoplasia, a rare form of dwarfism that affects the immune system.
Beyond quality treatment of the staff, Laurey’s was known for delicate, deftly made sandwiches, soups and salads, which drew lines out the front door for over a decade. So when the Masterton family announced the closing of Laurey’s in March, the distress of loyal patrons was well-warranted. Fortunately, the Thomes stepped in to open their own café and catering company, 67 Biltmore, in the same space and with mostly the same staff.
Emily Thome says their intention was to keep most things — including the name of the business — the same. “It’s always more complicated than it seems like it should be,” she said quietly when asked about the switch to using 67 Biltmore. “But that’s really all I can say about it. Our hope was to keep the name, but that’s not how it ended up. In some ways that’s OK. It is kind of nice to start fresh.”
Although the name is different, the spirit of Masterton’s activism and progressive ideals live on in the new venture. Thome says she and her husband run 67 Biltmore under the same five guiding principles that Masterton used to make her business successful: Take care of each other, take care of your customers, take care of the earth, run a profitable business and make great food.
“If you run by those, you can’t really mess up,” she says. “We all believe in those things and the fact that 90 percent of our staff came back to work with us is a testament to those principles.” And it was never just the giant sandwiches, homemade soup stocks or locally sourced ingredients that set this small café apart from others. It was that ethic, that mentality that the staff wasn’t just there to feed you: They were also there to nourish you.
“One particular customer who has always come in almost every day, walked in the door when we opened back up and burst into tears,” Thome recalls. “She and her husband used to eat here a couple of times a week, but he passed away. And she would still come here all the time to have lunch and eat with us, because this is like family for her now.”
In the office, a large portrait of Masterton and her dog hangs above the desk. “We miss Laurey every day,” says Thome. “We constantly ask ourselves if we did the right thing, and we’re constantly trying to figure things out. But the other day, someone came in with a notebook that they’d found in Laurey’s desk. … I opened the notebook and on the first page, in her handwriting, was a note. All it said was, ‘Sure you will, it’s just determination.'” It was a welcome whisper of encouragement from the couple’s late mentor.
“We hope that we can honor her by running this place the way she wanted … and wanting it to be run in the way that she would have done things,” says Adam Thome. “She helped us realize that you could actually run a business this way and be successful.”
Walking into the newly reopened space, one could be forgiven for not immediately detecting any change at all. The counters, deli fridge and kitchen are still mostly the same, as are the tables and chairs. Some details customers would remember from the previous business are gone — including Masterton’s cookbooks and knick-knacks and the ubiquitous stickers bearing her mantra, “Don’t postpone joy.” But the menu still sports many items that longtime Laurey’s customers would recognize as staples, and the food is as good as ever.
Despite the name change, 67 Biltmore is still just as busy and retains the same character as it did under Masterton’s ownership. It’s run by honest, hardworking people dedicated to taking care of one another and their community, proving that it takes more than a name to make a legacy.