Make It

What Happens When Big-City Chefs Open Small-Town Restaurants

By Hillary Dixler,

"I left the city nine years ago," says chef Ian Boden, speaking on the phone from his restaurant in Staunton, Virginia, about 100 miles outside of Richmond and 150 miles outside Washington, DC.

He still calls New York City "the city," just like a New Yorker, even when reflecting on why he and so many other chefs have decamped for other locations.

"We all left because we wanted to open our own place, and to do that in Manhattan — unless you have investments or your [own] money — is impossible." It's a familiar complaint, and partially what's behind the chef migration away from cities like New York, San Francisco, and Chicago to cities like Minneapolis, St. Louis, and Charleston.

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But Staunton is different. With a population hovering just below 25,000 people, the Virginia city is minuscule compared even to places referred to as "small" in New York City-centric food publications.

JannHuizenga | Getty Images

Take, for example, Bon Appetit's criteria for determining "America's Foodiest Small Towns": In addition to the requisite farmer's markets, restaurants, and artisan community, the magazine defines the "small-town feel" as a place with fewer than 250,000 people. That population cut-off is 10 times bigger than Staunton.

Small cities — even cities below the 100,000-person population level that would put them among the nation's 300 largest — present unique opportunities. Bentonville, Arkansas (pop. roughly 42,000) is famously known as the home base for Walmart, leading to a roughly 18 percent population increase since 2010. For RopeSwing, the Bentonville-based hospitality group "focused on redeveloping downtowns" in the Ozarks, this population boom represented a fabulous customer base. "What [recent transplants] want is [the] high-quality experience that they're used to. A lot of these people are from major urban cores and cities," the group's former creative lead told Eater last year. "They expect and demand a higher quality and caliber of dining and cultural experiences, so we're here to deliver."

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Chef John Shields and his wife Karen Urie Shields, a pastry chef, were doing well in Chicago when they took a leap of faith, moving to Chilhowie, Virginia (pop. approximately 1,800) in 2008 to open a restaurant called Town House. Not satisfied with their relationship to the product in Chicago — "as a cook, as a person, I had zero connection to it," John recalls — the couple went where they could be closer to the source.

"There's a misconception that the only good cooking is being done by people in big cities, and now that's not true anymore," says Shields, as he prepares to open a new restaurant — in Chicago. Town House closed in 2012, because no matter the saved costs and often idyll settings, small-town restaurant ownership comes with its ideological and practical struggles.

Small city ownership is hard — very hard. Keeping a restaurant staffed and the seats full can be a burden even in America's largest cities, let alone in Chilhowie or Staunton. And yet the siren song of small cities continues calling to chefs who are feeling the pinch in places like New York — and for chefs who have already made the move, they're meeting the challenges they face head-on.

The siren song of the small city

In many of America's small cities, downtown spaces are ripe for revival. "A lot of these small towns once had thriving downtown areas. As people moved to larger metropolises, those downtowns suffered," says Vivian Howard, the chef/owner of Chef & the Farmer in Kinston, North Carolina (pop. roughly 21,000), particularly referring to cities in the South. Howard, who "had dreamed of staying in New York" but was "fatigued" by it, took her parents' offer to help her and her future husband return home. "If you've lived in a big city and love these old buildings," Howard says, "you can see the possibility in small towns."

Over in Davidson, North Carolina (pop. about 12,000), that's exactly what happened for Joe and Katy Kindred, the husband-and-wife team behind the hit 2015 opening that bears their shared last name. Having left San Francisco for Charlotte, NC to live closer to Joe's family, the decision to eventually open 20 miles outside Charlotte came from an intuitive feeling that the small city "had the DNA to become a town that could support a restaurant like what [we] wanted to do," Katy recalls. When the couple walked by a large, long-vacant 1914 pharmacy across the street from Davidson College, all they had to do was convince a landlord who had been refusing to rent it for years. "We finally got a meeting with him, and it turns out he really likes food and wine," Katy recalls. The landlord gave the Kindreds "a ridiculous timeline" and told them if they could get the money together, the building was theirs. "We just got to work."

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For many chefs moving to small cities, overhead is the name of the game. The Kindreds might have faced a tight timeline, but they were able to secure a loan from a local bank (extremely rare for restaurant operators, let alone first-time owners) and signed a 15-year lease. "You would make restaurateurs [in New York City] cry at what we're paying in rent," says Katy. Boden, who opened the Shack in 2014, shares a similar sentiment, noting that even 10 years ago, a restaurant he worked for in NYC paid roughly seven times the monthly rent he pays now in Staunton. "Granted, there was a lot of adjustment and culture shock in the biggest way," he says. "I went from living on 125nd and Park in 2005 to living in a town with a population of 25,000 people."

But the advantages — the biggest being affordable space — can make the move worth it. For Kenny Gilbert, chef/owner of Gilbert's Underground Kitchen in the Amelia Island city of Fernandina Beach, Florida (pop. roughly 12,000), the decision to leave the New York metro area was a numbers game. Gilbert's years cooking in Jacksonville and Miami made him a familiar face in Florida's culinary community. (His time as a contestant on season seven of Top Chef also hasn't hurt his visibility.)

Because he already was known to his audience, Gilbert felt confident taking a restaurant space that wasn't in the most foot-trafficked location, a win from the overhead perspective. "We are off the beaten path, but because I have a good solid name, people drive to eat with us all of the time." Gilbert not only ended up with reasonable rent (he didn't even need a loan), but he was able to afford a turn-key property, allowing him to open a mere month after signing the lease.

Staffing is a nightmare

For years, chefs in major dining capitals like New York City and San Francisco have warned of the deficit of cooks willing to work entry-level kitchen positions. But if chefs like David Chang are having trouble finding cooks in a densely populated city like New York, what's a chef in a city with fewer than 50,000 people to do? For both front- and back-of-house roles, the answer is training.

"For the first five years, I taught every cook we had how to hold a knife and dice an onion," says Howard. Katy Kindred budgeted a month to train her front-of-house managers, and an additional two weeks with the servers prior to opening. For the back of house, Joe Kindred was able to pull from his network of cooks around Charlotte, which is also home to culinary schools.

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Keeping these hard-to-come by employees happy becomes paramount. "Even now, when restaurant has this degree of notoriety, we still struggle so hard to find people to work here," says Howard. To make working in Kinston more appealing, Howard began providing housing. "We offer an apartment to anyone who will give us six months. It's important because we need cooks." While this does have an impact on the restaurant's bottom line, "it's worth it to us to pay a little rent and bring in some new talent twice a year," she says. At Kindred, cooks are guaranteed at least two days off a week, since the restaurant is closed Sundays and Mondays, and the pay, says Joe Kindred, is extremely competitive. "Sometimes you can't pay what market rate is. Sometimes you have to pay more."

An alternative is to just stay lean. Boden keeps his staff small at the Shack, which means any new kitchen hire must also be a collaborator, not just a cook. "This kitchen and restaurant aren't big enough just to have somebody who cooks... There's plenty of kids that come and want to learn, but I can't take them. I just don't have the space, I don't have the time," he explains. He has no front-of-house manager, and takes reservations online so he doesn't need someone answering calls during the day. Beyond putting out ads on culinary job boards and "on every Craigslist within 40 miles," Boden jokes that his staffing strategy is "praying."

If you build it, will they come?

No matter how charming or cheap a building is, or how trained the staff, no restaurant can survive without customers. In small cities, especially one where restaurants aren't a major part of the entertainment landscape, operators walk a tight-rope figuring out how to get enough locals and out-of-towners in the door to make the numbers work.

The power of the press to draw "destination diners" is not lost on Boden, who made a name for himself locally with his first Staunton restaurant and later as the executive chef of Glass Haus Kitchen in Charlottesville, Virginia (which has roughly double the population of Staunton). These accolades — including being named a James Beard semifinalist — put Boden in a good position when he set out to open the Shack. But then he got a national spotlight no chef can plan for: an adoring Esquire writeup by the late Josh Ozersky, with a headline declaring the Shack "the Incredible Restaurant in the Middle of Nowhere."

Actually, Boden planned a little. While biding his time to properly open in a space nicer than the self-described "s***-hole" now known as the Shack, Boden had been doing pop-ups when his friend Craig Rogers, of Virginia's Border Springs Farm, called and asked when he'd officially open. Unsatisfied with the answer, Rogers told Bolden to open earlier. "He's like, 'You know Josh Ozersky? He's coming to do a tour of Virginia, and you're one of the restaurants he needs to eat at.' I was like, 'F***.' So basically I pushed the opening date up three weeks so we would have a couple weeks under our belts before he showed up, and then we got killed with a f****ing huge snow storm. We were delayed and opened three days before Ozersky walked in." It's impossible to measure the impact the article had on the restaurant. "As far as a**es in seats right off the bat, I couldn't tell you because we didn't have any history," Boden explains. "I know what it did for getting us in the public eye. All the press we got was awesome. Ninety percent of it was because Ozersky came in."

Like Boden, Joe Kindred spent years working in the area, developing a relationship with local clientele and press that carried over to Kindred's opening. Beyond clips in local publications, Kindred also got some major national attention from Bon Appetit, landing a coveted spot on its Hot 10 list only six months after opening. "You cannot have the 'If I build it, they will come' mentality in a small town," says Katy Kindred. For Shields, it was a 2009 New York Times piece that "opened the floodgates, and really kept the momentum going." Located nearly the entire state away from DC, and over 100 miles from smaller cities like Asheville and Charlotte, Town House relied on this press to keep the dining room full of guests.

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But having some national media buzz ultimately doesn't impact locals. "In a small town, you get roped into [diners] being creatures of habit. There are certain groups that if there's bad weather, they're not going to go out," Gilbert says. "You only have so many people on the island." Howard observes another troubling aspect when it comes to attracting local clientele: "People who live in small towns, their impetus is to travel and spend money in larger cities. At least in [Kinston], they feel like everything that Raleigh offers is better than what we can offer, and so they go to Raleigh. Our competition is not other Kinston restaurants. Our competition is other restaurants in larger communities."

For Howard — even with the major advantage of a successful television show raising her national presence — this has meant she's had to step up her game. "In order for us to stay afloat and keep people coming from Raleigh, Wilmington, and Richmond, people have to feel like it was worth the drive and worth the time," she says. "I feel like to some degree, we have to be even better than the neighborhood spot in those larger cities." While a challenge, Howard won't call that negative pressure: "Is that a con? I don't know. Or is that just trying to be as good as you can be?"

Finding a balance between continually raising the bar, pushing the boundaries of what local diners might be familiar with, and simply giving them what they want can prove profoundly trying. "If you underestimate the potential of your [local] guests, as far as their palate goes, you're shooting yourself in the foot," advises Boden. "Chances are you're going to insult them and you're not going to get repeat business." But aiming high can backfire, too. "We had some locals that came, but for the most part those who did jumped ship because we rocked the boat pretty hard. It wasn't the intention to do that," says Shields.

"The scariest thing was when people didn't get it," Katy Kindred says of the restaurant's first months, recalling a customer who thought the large ice cube in his cocktail (cut like at a serious cocktail bar) meant the bar was trying to take volume out of the drink. "It was horrifying. We were like, 'Oh my god, these people think we're trying to rip them off.'" Joe Kindred also notes the "small plates meant for sharing" ethos hadn't yet hit Davidson, and there were some rocky moments when it came to serving size. Properly training the front-of-house staff has been paramount to smoothing out these moments lost in translation. So has being generous with the food. "We will go above and beyond," says Joe. "If people think it's too small, we'll give them another. If people are still hungry, we'll give them duck fat potatoes on the fly, something quick because we want everybody to walk out happy. Some people just come in so stubborn." The Kindreds also started serving their now-signature Japanese milk bread rolls gratis as a first bite for the table. "It sets down the guard," says Joe. Killing them with kindness seems to be working, and Kindred now has regular local diners.

At its best, a small city restaurant becomes a fixture. "The best part is when I'm unloading my car or firing up my smokers, having people drive by... those that stop and honk their horn, wave, or pull up and say, 'Hey what do you have on the smoker today?'" Gilbert says, with a smile you can hear through the phone. "Just having that small amount of people where they feel like they know you. Once you come into the restaurant, you're hearing 'welcome back,' and it's because they are coming back time and time again. You're treating them with respect and putting out a good product."

And sometimes, the big city beckons after all

There was a lot that John Shields liked about Chilhowie's remoteness. "Stepping away from what's happening out in the rest of the world," he says, "we were allowed to be free and see where it took us." But a few years ago, the Shields started thinking about moving on.

"In the beginning we literally laid out pros and cons, [the pros] were huge lists and the cons were not many. Towards the end we did the same thing and the pros had dwindled down to just a few. That's when we knew it was time to go," recalls Shields. They had a daughter, for whom they wanted a childhood in a more diverse community. And the Shields' goals no longer felt aligned with the small outpost in Chilhowie. "The business was successful, but if I was going to take the next leap, actually grow, and become truly successful, in my mind, then I felt like I needed to move on and do something in an area that was going to reach more people."

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The Shields originally planned on opening in DC after closing Town House, but after two years of work that fell through, they went back to cooking in Chilhowie at a pop-up dinner series, earning money and biding time until the next opportunity. A restaurant partner suggested returning to Chicago as an option. On their first day of searching, the Shields found the space they are now transforming into Smyth & the Loyalist. They're now planning a May opening. Shields says he's most looking forward to "the energy" of the big city. Of course, he has his worries, too. "Are they going to accept us?" he asks. "Even though we had this relationship with Chicago, it's all on us now. We've been gone for a while."

By's Hillary Dixler. Read the original article here.