By Ali McGhee, AVL Watchdog
Restaurateur and chef Meherwan Irani is no stranger to hard times.
He opened Chai Pani Asheville in 2009 in the heart of the Great Recession. “I knew that it would actually work in an economy where people were looking for great food at a good value, something different from what else was out there.”
Now, Irani faces a similar challenge – bringing to life his plans for two new additions to Asheville’s food scene, including the highly anticipated S&W Market and a still-under-wraps concept for the Grove Arcade’s “Restaurant Row.” Both are on hold for now.
The coronavirus pandemic that crippled existing restaurants has caused delays and altered plans for new ones that had been scheduled to open in the spring and summer. The climate is tough for all businesses, let alone projects that were still in development.
Buncombe County lost an estimated $150 million in visitor spending in April, according to Stephanie Pace Brown of the Explore Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau. That number could double by the end of May, she said.
But Irani remains optimistic that both of his projects will open in the coming months.
“I’m usually pretty good at predicting trends,” he said. “You just can’t predict the near future. But when we look at the long term, at what happens once Covid-19 is no longer a health risk, then it’s just an economic condition. And I think Asheville is well-suited to recover from the economic downturn.”
Pandemic ‘not on your radar’
Other Asheville entrepreneurs who have been planning new restaurants share Irani’s cautious optimism and are thankful they had not opened in the months leading up to the lockdown.
All cite Asheville’s reputation as a tourist destination as a reason to continue to think big. Some even see an unexpected silver lining in the delay.
Asheville Proper, a new steakhouse slated for the Grove Arcade, is in its final construction stages and just received tables for the dining room. “It’s kind of funny,” said co-owner Mindy McGlynn, “because of all the things you consider when opening a restaurant, all the details you work out in your head, a global pandemic is definitely not on your radar.”
She and husband/business partner Owen have been making use of the shutdown.
“The social distancing guidelines mean that no groups of six or more can be in the space, so that’s really drawn out the process,” she said. “But it’s also meant that we’ve been able to slow down and make sure the details are perfect when we finally do open.”
Asheville Proper will feature live-fire cooking. “We’re going to wait until we can do full service so people get the full experience,” McGlynn said. “As a new restaurant concept, we need to make sure we’re being true to our brand, and we’re going to be as prepared as possible when it’s safe to open.”
The repercussions of the shutdown on new restaurants vary, depending on how close they were to opening before the county’s stay-home order went into effect in mid-March.
PachaMama5, a new Latin tapas and wine bar, was supposed to open this spring in Polanco’s space downtown at 10 N. Market St. Owners Ricardo Carrasco and Santiago Vargas are prepared to serve customers as soon as it is deemed safe.
In the meantime, PachaMama5 launched an online platform where people can donate or sign up for meals, paying what they can or even picking up food for free. The idea emerged while Vargas and Carrasco were developing their menu.
“We were creating all these dishes and ideas for our new menu, and we thought that if we were going to spend our time making dishes, it would be a waste for no one to try them,” said Vargas. “So, we decided to feed as many people as possible, especially those who need it the most.”
“The reward is being able to help people who have lost their jobs or worse, and seeing the look on their faces when they hear someone has cooked for them and someone else has paid to cover their meal,” he added. “It’s humbling and truly amazing.”
At the same time, they are looking ahead to opening in a different world. “To start, it will be very small,” said co-owner Tori Carrasco. “And we want to be safe and careful; there will be high standards for safety and sanitation. We probably will not open immediately when the orders are lifted.”
When the doors do open, they are planning “very small service, chef’s table-style meals,” Carrasco said. Twenty percent of revenue will go back into funding their ongoing campaign.
The New Normal
Eric Scheffer, proprietor of long-running Asheville favorite Vinnie’s, has a new restaurant, Jettie Rae’s on Charlotte Street, that was originally scheduled to debut in April but is now on track for a summer opening.
“This has actually played into a part of me that has always faced difficult situations as opportunities,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to become a better leader, to create calm, to be creative, and to be a better me – and then to help others, not only within the restaurant but also the greater community of restaurateurs.”
Scheffer is still awaiting government guidance on the physical set-up of his new restaurant.
“What’s it going to look like when people walk in?” he said. “Is everyone going to be wearing masks? Will tables all be set six feet apart?”
Jettie Rae’s plans a soft opening in June with to-go options. “We’ll be there for people living in the new normal,” Scheffer said. “I’ve been staying in close contact with the fishermen and oyster farmers we’ll be using for the restaurant. They’ve been very hard-hit, like cattle and pig farmers, and I can’t wait to bring their food into Jettie Rae’s and be a part of big- picture healing.”
‘A totally different environment’
Jacob Sessoms, founder of Table (restaurant), The Imperial Life (bar), and All Day Darling cafe), signed on last year as a partner with Hatteras Sky, a boutique real estate company based in Atlanta. Sessoms will be running the food and beverage for their projects, including a redevelopment of the Phil Mechanic and Kent buildings in the River Arts District.
The concept and design were already done, but he said the team has slowed down to reassess how they might need to revise plans. They have created two new concepts in the last four weeks, driven by current safety guidelines and restrictions.
“We’ve thought about the way to change our business in order to function and be successful for the next 12 to 18 months in a totally different environment,” Sessoms said. “It was important for us to think of a long-range pivot.”
All Day Darling, designed for casual and curbside service, has provided the model for Sessoms’ new projects, which include a brick and mortar location for Tacos El Gallo, a concept envisioned and headed by local Luis Martinez currently offering #ElGalloToGo outside of Table.
Other restaurants are taking advantage of the longer view. Griff’s Kitchen & Bar, a new eatery founded by Ian Griffin, formerly of All Soul’s Pizza, is planning to open in July or early August in Candler and will likely cater to a more local crowd.
“If we’d opened the month before this all happened, we’d be in a very different situation,” Griffin said. But with the forced slowdown and a baby on the way, he and his wife have been grateful for the extra time.
“We’ve been able to completely change our business plan,” he said, “and we’ve been thinking of this as a work in progress that would take some time from the beginning. The biggest shift for us has been the added emphasis on cleanliness and sanitation. It’s always been very serious, but the pandemic just reinforces that.”
New restaurant round-up; opening dates are estimates
Asheville Proper | 1 Page Ave., Grove Arcade | Opening when full service is allowed
Griff’s Kitchen & Bar | 1390 Sandhill Rd., Ste. 6, Candler | July
Jettie Rae’s Oyster House | 143 Charlotte St. | June
PachaMama5 | 10 N. Market St. | Open now for donated meals
Tacos El Gallo | Brick and mortar announced soon | Pop-up restaurant opens May 9
AVL Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Ali McGhee is an Editor at AVLtoday, a radio host on Asheville FM, and a member of Asheville’s Public Art and Cultural Commission. Contact us at [email protected].