A look at the challenges local chefs and restaurateurs face.
It’s no secret that Raleigh’s become a Mecca for dining out.
In addition to a deep bench of diverse, innovative restaurants, a foodie community that’s collaborative and supportive and a booming population that can sustain concepts both established and fresh, we’ve also got the nation’s reigning James Beard Award winner for outstanding chef in Ashley Christensen.
But still, the job of a restaurateur in this city—a relatively small market without the tourism muscle of places like Charleston, Washington, D.C. or New Orleans—isn’t easy. Bureaucratic red tape, staffing challenges, marketing pressures and rising food and real estate costs can put a strain on even the most seasoned restaurateur. That’s not even to mention the budgeting considerations inherent in paying for a new restaurant space or financing up-fitting for a second generation one, long working hours and the inability to, at least initially, offer benefits or other perks to employees that all new, independent restaurant owners have to deal with.
For our annual Best Restaurants issue, Raleigh Magazine spoke with eight local chefs and restaurant owners about the struggles they face in their line of work. Whether they’re opening a new concept or working to keep bringing customers through their doors night after night or lunch shift after lunch shift, the challenges they face here are real.
Red Tape from the City, County and State
When Scott Crawford’s second restaurant Jolie opens this month (see our story on page 42), it will be six months later—and to the tune of around $750,000 in lost revenues—than Crawford had hoped. The delay, he explains, had to do with an unexpected zoning issue around changing the use of the space in the Person Street building from retail—a long-since-closed shoe shop— to a restaurant.
“Because it is a change of use, it opened a gigantic can of worms for the whole property,” Crawford says. “The whole property had to be brought into 100 percent compliance with every single issue on site. It’s an unrealistic burden for a small business owner who’s trying to improve a neglected spot. And the city is making that almost impossible.”
Crawford says if he didn’t already have his already-successful restaurant Crawford and Son, he may not have been in a position to see Jolie through.
And it’s not just the City restaurateurs have to contend with.
Chef Jason Smith, owner of the 18 Restaurant Group (including 18 Seaboard, which closed this summer) recalls paying thousands of dollars to replace shelving at his venerable restaurant at the direction of county health inspectors. And Tom Cuomo, who recently opened the Italian-Japanese fusion concept Papa Shogun in a second generation space in Seaboard Station, had to deal with yet another bureaucratic hurdle, this time from the state’s ABC Commission, a board that’s legendary in its difficulty to do business with. To obtain a mixed beverage license, Cuomo learned that, to be considered a restaurant, he needed to have 36 seats (Papa Shogun has 28).
“I was baffled by that idea,” Cuomo says. “Who decided 36 seats is the number to be considered a restaurant [rather than a private club]?” Cuomo decided against the expense of petitioning the ABC board for an exception; Papa Shogun serves beer and wine.
“The absolute number one challenge for a chef in this county right now is finding solid line cooks,” says Drew Smith, the executive chef at Cary’s ko•an, which will open this month with owner Sean Degnan and the teams behind Raleigh’s (now-closed) bu•ku and so•ca in Cameron Village. “[Line cooks] are just not here and I don’t know where they are. I’ve had an ad out for a week and a half and I’ve gotten zero candidates.”
Kristen Baughman Taber, owner and founder of Tabletop Media Group which helps several local restaurants and bars with their marketing strategies, says hiring is what she sees her clients struggle with most across the board.
“Sometimes the quality of the candidate might not be right for the restaurant,” Taber says. “Or you think you’re opening in August and it gets pushed back to October. You don’t want to hire too soon and the timing has to be just right for cash flow purposes.”
Raleigh restaurants, especially for front-of-house positions, tend to draw from a pool of college students who aren’t necessarily looking for careers in food service whereas in larger markets—think New York City and Chicago—there are more career professionals to choose from.
But Taber gives props to Wake Tech and its culinary program and groups like the NC Restaurant and Lodging Association that encourage young people to make careers out of cooking and hospitality by pairing them with mentors or helping them to secure internships. And chefs such as Crawford and Christensen, and establishments including Trophy Brewing, A Place at the Table, Carroll’s Kitchen and others, are finding non-traditional ways to find, hire and train staff—by taking them on as volunteers initially, for instance, and working with local nonprofits such as Healing Transitions.
“We’re creating new avenues,” says so-ca/ko-an owner Sean Degnan. “But it’s going to take a lot of effort to encourage kids going to Wake Tech to find higher end restaurant jobs.”
“But we’re always open to teaching,” adds Anh-Tuan Tran, who starts this month as chef de cuisine at ko•an. “We’re looking for people who have that motivation and drive to learn.”
Cash is King
In 2006, when Jason Smith opened 18 Seaboard (which became famous for its seafood), salmon cost less than $4 a pound. Now, it can ring in at just under $8 a pound. Though the price of the product has doubled, Smith says, salmon hasn’t gone from $17 a portion to $35 on the menu; it’s increased by just a few dollars, because that is what Raleigh diners will pay for.
“For high-end restaurants in Raleigh, that’s a hurdle,” Smith says. Another hurdle? Real estate.
“The cost of starting a restaurant now is so astronomical, compared to when I started out,” Smith says. “The idea of paying $35-$40 a square foot, you really have to have some big sales numbers to make that work.”
Drew Smith of ko•an says that, though it’s ideal in many cases, it can be challenging to balance buying locally as much as possible with buying affordably.
“Strip steak from Iowa is half the cost of steak from North Carolina, but that portion has to be the same for people to think they’re getting the value,” he says. “Vegetables are the same way. We have amazing local produce here but it’s twice the cost as grown in other places.”
And now, with the rise of social media, most local restaurants have to find room in their budgets to hire someone to do their marketing for them or risk being left behind.
“Most places are working with somebody or have a designated person in-house,” says Tabletop’s Taber. “Even if they’re just running social media, it is important to have someone doing that for you. Especially where the market is quite saturated like in downtown Raleigh, it is so important to have that marketing component.”
“PR is as important as paying your water bill,” says ko•an’s Drew Smith. “You have to do it but none of us have time to sit on our phones and computers and do all this stuff.”
But it’s no replacement for in-person interaction, says 18 Restaurant Group’s Jason Smith.
“The phone and the restaurant business are very integrated, social media, how’s that dish going to look,” 18’s Smith says. “But the part I love the most, greeting and talking to the customers, that’s so important. And in order to be a chef, to be good at it, you have to enjoy it.”
A Culture of Collaboration
Despite the challenges, local restaurateurs we spoke to all say they have a common source of support they draw upon, one that’s unique to Raleigh and likely doesn’t exist to the same extent in larger markets where the industry can be more cutthroat: the benefit of each other.
“Tons of people are so creative, left and right,” says Amanda Haisley, the former executive chef at bu•ku and pastry chef at upcoming ko•an. “It’s been cool talking to people from other restaurants. It’s a lot less egotistical and competitive and much more of a community vibe these days.”
“[The amount of talent in Raleigh] is an advantage for everyone,” says Taber. “What I love about Raleigh and the Triangle in general is how collaborative it is. We’re always doing charity dinners, raising money for nonprofits, hurricane benefit dinners. It’s amazing how our culinary community comes together to do some really phenomenal things.”