“It’s sold, and it will be theirs on Wednesday,” says Joel Hartzler, owner of The Southern Kitchen and Bar, confirming rumors that his downtown restaurant and cocktail lounge will soon be under new ownership. A stalwart of the Asheville bar scene, the stone patio of the space at 41 N. Lexington Ave. has been packed on a daily basis since the bar opened in 2010. The Southern’s Sunday bloody marys and Yacht Rock Brunch have been a staple for those in the service industry, as the bar has always appealed as much to locals as to tourists.
But fear not, The Southern won’t change much — at least for the moment, according to its buyer, George Hempenstall of Knoxville, Tenn., who will run the restaurant with his parents, Peter and Susie Hempenstall. “Right now, we’re just going to leave it the same,” says George, who cut his teeth in the industry working with Lee’s Hoagie House in Philadelphia but has spent much of his life in Western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee.
His mother is also a veteran of the restaurant world, having operated a family restaurant in Knoxville, Tenn. George says his intention in buying The Southern is to “spend some time working with my family and give back to the community of Asheville.”
Most of the current staff will remain after the changeover, says George. “Everyone seems to work really well together,” he says. “We wouldn’t want to change that.” But chef Joe Marple says he plans to leave The Southern. “The place is sold, and it’s not something I’m excited about,” says Marple, who has been with the business for a total of five-and-a-half years, serving the past 18 months as head chef. He adds that he’s unsure of his next step. “I’m going to take a break for awhile, put my feelers up and see what’s out there,” he says.
Hartzler also owns the Rankin Vault cocktail bar. Although rumors abound that it’s also about to change hands, Hartzler declines to comment on its status. “For now, we’re just slinging burgers and pouring beer,” he says.