Could a Charlotte Chef Win a James Beard Award in the Next Five Years?

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At a gathering of Charlotte food and beverage professionals, most agree that Charlotte’s culinary scene is in a good place to win a James Beard Award in the near future, and overall has become more highly respected.

Social Ape Marketing hosted its second edition of Thrive Talks to focus on the growth of the restaurant industry on June 13th. The discussion series, which launched in March, on the topic of social media influencers, aims to gather individuals from various industries to discuss the impact on Charlotte and the marketing strategies used within.

This discussion was moderated by Sarah Crosland, an established book author and food writer, and sat the following guests:

-      Kristen Wile, founder of Unpretentious Palate (a subscription-based restaurant reviews and news platform)

-      Remy Thurston, marketing manager of FS Food Group (home to Yafo Kitchen, Mama Ricotta’s, Paco’s Tacos, Midwood Smokehouse, Plate Perfect Catering)

-      Kara Taddeo, co-found of VGBG and 8.2.0 (two popular bars/restaurants separated by a parking lot)

-      Nikki Wolfe, Yelp Charlotte community manager (who throws 60+ events a year for Yelp Elite members)

-      Andrew Wilen, co-owner of Chef Alyssa’s Kitchen (home to cooking classes with his wife, Chef Alyssa, plus catering and Saturday brunch)

The conversation flowed as Crosland asked questions about challenges in the restaurant industry, lessons learned, and the future of the food and beverage scene.

Taddeo, who opened VGBG Beer Hall and Garden almost 10 years ago with her husband, mentioned that the “restaurant business is not kind, patient, or loving.” She believes that surrounding yourself with intelligent people and caring about your employees are two keys to success.

Thurston spoke about the challenges of making changes in restaurants. He mentioned that menu changes often result in a slew of angry emails from passionate patrons, but he reminded us that the changes are never meant to upset customers, but to make improvements, either for the kitchen, dining experience, or both.

In a rapidly-growing city such as Charlotte, prices are guaranteed to be a complication, and Wilen agrees. He said price increases for ingredients, tools, and rent make it difficult to do necessary tasks, like raise employee salaries. Wilen and his wife Alyssa recently dealt with the challenges and costs of relocating, as well.

But the number one topic of concern of the night was staffing. Several panelists spoke about the difficulties of recruiting, hiring, and retaining. A key point of advice was to support your staff in any way you can, create a positive company culture, and find competent management (as problems can often start from the top down, many said.)

But at the end of the night, most panelists agreed that despite challenges in Charlotte and in the restaurant industry in general, the future in the Queen City appears bright. In the aftermath of three James Beard Award semi-semi-finalist nods this year, but not one moving on to become a nominee, Wolfe still believes that the city’s chefs are worthy and that we will be home to a winner in the next five years. Wile said she believes in due time Charlotte will become a respected food scene.

For more information on Thrive Talks, check out Social Ape’s website.

Heather Sinyard