Asheville, North Carolina is the tale of a sleepy mountain town that became one of the country’s top restaurant cities. But back in 1784 when the Davidson family settled the area, the terrain was far from navigable. Asheville eventually became the namesake for North Carolina governor Samuel Ashe and, as was the case in so many mountain communities, railroads gave way to tourists awestruck by the mighty mountains. So lovely wrapped in stunning vistas of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Asheville even captured the imagination of visionary George W. Vanderbilt, who commissioned landscape genius Frederick Law Olmsted and master architect Richard Morris Hunt to erect The Biltmore Estate, America’s largest private residence.
Fast forward, and contemporary Asheville has won accolade after accolade for excellence in dining. According to Explore Asheville, nearly 30,000 people visit Buncombe County daily, many lured by the city’s food and beverage culture. The growth was exponential, leading four restaurant owners to found what is now Asheville Independent Restaurants, or AIR. The moniker works, since to eat is to breathe in Asheville.
Michel Baudouin was one of those founders who led the way toward collaborative maneuvers among independently owned Asheville restaurants. The initial goals included being able to afford better advertising and offer health insurance to their employees.
“The membership started to grow, allowing us to offer education to members and to our employees,” says Baudouin, owner of the cozy French bistro Bouchon, who credits the tireless efforts of AIR executive director Jane Anderson for helping expand AIR’s reach. “We work on being the best employers we can be and while everyone has different ideas of what that is, when you raise the quality of a restaurant it creates quality overall, so we compete hard against each other for diners, but [are] helping each other.”
Armed with everything from AIR’s job board and listing of current inspection requirements to permitting guides and restaurant community resources, members forge ahead much faster versus going it alone. Baudouin says the bottom line for him is working together to form a community. AIR is a non-profit organization and, as such, its members understand the importance of giving back.
“As small as we are as a city, we generate more money for charity than some large cities,” he says, referencing a recent event that sold out in four days to the tune of $150 per ticket.
The more media awareness Asheville’s travel and tourism arm generated, the more restaurant industry insiders were drawn to the area, including Elizabeth Liddell Button, who began attending AIR meetings before opening Spanish tapas restaurant Cúrate along with her daughter Katie Button in 2011.
“I wanted to join because by nature I am a collaborator and little bit of a community organizer, so I found it so beneficial to receive and share information as I learned the ropes of what was going on in Asheville,” says Button, who also owns American small plates eatery Nightbell with her daughter.
Button says she sees restaurants which aren’t AIR members and ponders how much those establishments miss monetarily, in handling regulations and education.
“Another good thing about AIR is that we are not afraid of competition – what we want is for everyone to be as successful as they want to be,” she says. “That might include helping someone understand signing a lease or helping share resources for credit card processing, because in this business, low profit margins can take someone down.”
The service element in Asheville has come a long way since only one or two restaurants dotted the downtown landscape. In modern Asheville, serving and bartending are savvy career choices.
“Servers make a lot of money here and through AIR we do a lot of training for staff, mainly managers on how to be better, so everyone is being held accountable,” Button says. “It’s as much about developing the community as it is about your restaurant being successful.”
Corner Kitchen bistro is located in Biltmore Village, where George W. Vanderbilt constructed housing for the hundreds of workers working on his estate. Today it is one of Asheville’s most desirable neighborhoods. Kevin Westmoreland has been an AIR board member for 14 years and has served in various leadership roles. He is an Asheville native who lived in Denver before he and his wife moved back to western North Carolina, where he met his business partner and chef Joe Scully. The two men, with Scully in the kitchen and Westmoreland handling the business side, launched Corner Kitchen together. It has since become one of the city’s most celebrated restaurants along with their other endeavor, New American bar and restaurant Chestnut, both in old buildings Westmoreland and Scully refurbished.
“The success of AIR is that there is cooperating and being able to ask each other questions, like how someone’s weekend was, or new health department concerns,” says Westmoreland, who understands how anywhere else, Asheville’s resurgence could make it more difficult to compete given the staggering quantity of restaurants – 120 of them in AIR and nearly 800 on TripAdvisor. “Despite those numbers, we are still a small city with neighborhoods and subsets like South Slope, West Asheville, Downtown Asheville.”
Given the saturated market, there is a safety-in-numbers mentality that helps AIR members overcome challenges. Westmoreland says from ideas on how to handle tips to ABC Board issues, independent restaurant managers and owners, especially at newly opened businesses, have the same concerns. For AIR members, the group serves as a stand-in for human resource departments.
“We have a human resources person and bookkeeper in our restaurant group, but in the beginning of our business I did all that myself since independent restaurants don’t always have the resources to hire those positions,” says Westmoreland. “We have a labor lawyer on the AIR board who is a great resource for our members.”
“Asheville is fortunate to have a collaborative and passionate culinary community with wonderful grassroots momentum.” – Dodie Stephens, director of communications for Explore Asheville
While a concentration of so many indie eateries breeds competition, it’s also a big part of why Asheville has become a worldwide destination for gastronomes. The insight and advice AIR members share with one another includes preserving the integrity of independent restaurants.
“You still have to be good and have a quality product but there are enough diners to go around, so for us, it’s about keeping it authentic,” he says.
They are onto something. Numerous resort communities have tried to emulate AIR. But Asheville is the ultimate example of the often copied, never duplicated rule. No one knows that better than Dodie Stephens, director of communications for Explore Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau, whose goals have included aligning their tourism marketing efforts with the resources of entities like AIR.
“Asheville is fortunate to have a collaborative and passionate culinary community with wonderful grassroots momentum,” says Stephens. “We all want to nurture and celebrate the best of this destination and we do that better when we work together.”
The nickname Foodtopia, an apt description of food life in Asheville, is one of Explore Asheville’s destination branding campaigns for the local culinary scene.
“The Foodtopia campaign has been active for ten years and supported by significant marketing resources, which includes deep insight into Asheville’s food culture to help visitors plan culinary adventures,” says Stephens.
So often in less cohesive cities, independent restaurants miss out on the benefits of piggy-backing on tourism efforts. Explore Asheville’s calendar of events including dates and details for Asheville’s 17 tailgate markets, for example, is jam packed with culinary events.
“Event listings on our website are the tip of the iceberg and an effective way to ensure culinary programming is top of mind as travelers make their plans,” says Stephens. “Our team also leverages the trends and partner content from Asheville events to inform national advertising, media relations, web content, group sales and social media efforts, as we work to extend the reach of our partners and promote the destination as a whole.”
In another boon for diners on the culinary hunt in Asheville, the AIR Passport is a buy-one-get-one ticket to participating independent restaurant members. AIR’s BOGO entails a free item of equal or lesser value item, with a max of $15. Consider it an invitation to squeeze even one more dish out of your trip.