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Asheville restaurants bring concept to other cities

By: Mackensy Lunsford, Asheville Citizen-Times


Michael Files and Meherwan Irani in the kitchen of their downtown restaurant Chai Pani. / Bill Sanders /

Michael Files and Meherwan Irani in the kitchen of their downtown restaurant Chai Pani. / Bill Sanders

Asheville's restaurant scene is becoming so popular that it's spilling into other cities.

Tupelo Honey Cafe led the charge. Besides its two restaurants in Asheville, Tupelo also has locations in Knoxville, Greenville, S.C., and Chattanooga, Tenn. A Charlotte location will open in December, and a Johnson City, Tenn., eatery is slated to open next spring.

Chai Pani has recently gotten into the expansion game. The restaurant opened a location in Decatur, Ga., this spring and plans are in place for a second Atlanta restaurant, which owner Meherwan Irani said might happen by next summer or fall.

White Duck Taco Shop, which opened in the River Arts District just three years ago, will open another location outside of Charleston, S.C., on James Island's Folly Road by early next year. And there are plans for further expansion.

What's the common thread among all of these entrepreneurs? The owners of both Chai Pani and White Duck say a good staff is everything -- and a fistful of national press doesn't hurt, either.

From Asheville to Atlanta Irani, who opened the first location of Chai Pani in downtown Asheville in 2009, said the reaction in Atlanta to his street-food style Indian restaurant has been "everything one could hope for, and then some more."

When targeting Atlanta for expansion, Irani said that Chai Pani's -- and Asheville's -- reputation preceded him.

"We were fortunate that we had a good amount of national press at Chai Pani," he said. "But the press wasn't just about us, it was about Asheville, and we were kind of profiled as one of the cool places there."

The New York Times and GQ Magazine both covered Chai Pani, and New York Magazine called the restaurant "a star in downtown's dining scene." The Huffington Post put Chai Pani on a "Top 10 Cheap Eats in the U.S." list. Since opening in Decatur, Chai Pani has been named by Atlanta Magazine as one of the 10 best new restaurants in the city.

"We were able to leverage both our brand and also, in no small means, leverage the fact that Asheville's a cool brand, too," Irani said.

As many as 700 people file into Chai Pani Decatur on a busy day. That's a lot of people to keep happy, particularly when the owner can't always be present. Irani said that a well-oiled restaurant machine is dependent on something much more boring than panache and big, TV-worthy personalities.

In the four years Chai Pani has been open, Irani has learned it's all about effectively creating systems while avoiding a corporatemindset.

"The cliche is that you need a good team and good people and, to take it a step further, you need a good system so people can work within a framework," he said. "I think we've found a happy medium by creating protocols and checklists and standardizing a lot of our recipes -- not in the McDonald's way but in the way that people want consistency and want everything to taste amazing every time."

Do the duck Just three years after opening what became a wildly popular restaurant in a previously abandoned building in the River Arts District, Ben Mixson started dropping the F-bomb.

"Franchise" is a word Mixson, who with his wife Laura owns the White Duck Taco Shop and Pizza Pura, is reluctant to use. But that's exactly what's happening. The first franchise location will be owned by Andrew Pannell, who lives in Charleston. According to Mixson, there are others in development -- and he might might not be done growing the business in Asheville, either.

"Asheville's been very supportive of the White Duck," said Mixson. "It's literally unbelievable how much the business has grown year over year."

National press has been kind to White Duck, too. For Garden and Gun Magazine, food writer John T. Edge called the what the taco shop serves "a better brand of fusion." Southern Living magazine said the duck taco with mole at the restaurant was one of Asheville's "Best Bites." Martha Stewart Living, Amex Departures and Bon Appetit magazines have all profiled the eatery.

Though "franchise" is the technically correct term for White Duck's expansion, Mixson chafes at the word -- or rather the reaction it tends to provoke in locally focused Asheville.

"The White Duck is a different thing," he said. "It's not like we want to set up in a 6,000-square-foot space and have $6 million in sales and run a huge army of employees around. It's me and Laura. That's what we're talking about here."

And according to Mixson, there are plenty of offers on the table to facilitate faster expansion. But rapid growth isn't exactly in the cards.

"We get all kinds of offers -- it's not uncommon for a restaurant group to grow at all," he said. "The question is what's the right way to do it? Do you have a restaurant group with partners all over the place and just travel all over the place? That's not really what we're interested in."

According to Mixson, his current pet project is developing his people. And he makes it abundantly clear that he and his wife are more than aware of the role his employees play in keeping a restaurant afloat -- especially one that can see as many as 1,000 people on a peak-season day.

"These are the people who have helped make Laura and my success possible," he said. "And we know it and see it. And I know how hard it is to work at the White Duck Taco Shop."

Which is why Mixson claims his passion for expansion is rooted in his desire to provide a leg up for the people working for him.

"In the restaurant industry, as a cook it's so hard to get ahead (both) career-wise and financially in Asheville," he said. "A big part of what we're doing is trying to create career opportunities and growth opportunities."

Sharing is caring Mixson's no slouch in the world of business. From start-up to franchise in three quick years is uncommonly quick. And behind his meteoric rise, at least in the restaurant world, is human capital.

The secret to success? "You have to genuinely care," said Mixson. And your employees do, too. But according to Mixson, you can't force caring -- not even with rent money.

"Some people just genuinely care about quality and consistency and customer experience," he said. "And some people just want a job. And we find out eventually if our employees care or not. It usually takes two rent cycles to find out."

But turning genuinely caring staff into a business model is a tall order, especially with a business that's targeting for expansion places that are too far away for daily personal monitoring. But that's precisely why Mixson isn't hurriedly opening dozens of White Ducks in the wake of demand.

"(The franchisee) has to be someone there who cares about food, who understands food, and cares about and understands people," he said. "If you don't have that, that person is not the right fit of our system. To get into our system, you have to have a bunch of traits and characteristics. And a bunch of money isn't one of them -- well, it's probably one of five."

That White Duck will expand beyond Asheville and Charleston, is "certain" said Mixson. He also revealed that another restaurant in Asheville is in the works -- and this one isn't a White Duck. "We live here and we want to add to the variety here," Mixson said.

But Asheville is going to have to wait.

"Growth is great and all," said Mixson, "But it's hard, and it takes a lot out of you. That's another reason why it's so important to develop our people, is to kind of relieve some of that for us."

On Files Michael Files is one restaurant worker who has benefited from his bosses' interest in employee development.

In 2009, Files, fresh from India where he was working in an art gallery in Mumbai, ran into Meherwan and Molly Irani, who were in need of help pulling Chai Pani Asheville together.

In the early days of Chai Pani, Files helped the Iranis clean and renovate the Asheville space, then waited tables when the restaurant opened. Now he's a partner, creative director and the ownership presence on the ground in Decatur.

Few people go into the restaurant business to scrape paint and haul furniture for $10 an hour, expecting some day to become a partner.

"When I jumped in, it was just making $10 an hour, having fun and helping some friends as they put something together," Files said.

But the Iranis knew a good thing when they saw one.

"Meherwan realized he didn't want me to go and that I was valuable to the brand and to just what we were doing, so he offered me a partnership share in the business where I could earn equity," Files said.

Now, Files is still doing many of the things he started out doing in the beginning. "Anything and everything that needs to be done," he said. "But now it's more that I'm invested in this business and I have my heart in it with them and we're growing together."

Files thinks that one of the Iranis' strengths as founders of Chai Pani is their talent for finding good people and their habits of rewarding employees who "take ownership" of the eatery with profit sharing and opportunities for personal growth.

Files thinks that nurturing relationships in that way helps businesses do better in the long run.

"That's what attracted my to Meherwan and Molly's whole approach from the very beginning," he said. "(They're) creating a local environment and really connecting with Asheville -- and now Decatur."

"Meherwan has a vision of bringing awesome street food to the masses; there's definitely a vision for growth there. It takes the spirit of Asheville, that spirit of community -- we'd just like to do that in multiple places."


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