How local restaurants keep loyal customers coming back for more
By C.A Carlson | Photos by Erin Adams
Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name… or, even better, where everybody knows how you like your burger cooked. With our region’s booming food scene, it’s possible to eat at a new hot spot nearly every night of the week, but some restaurants thrive because loyal customers keep coming back, over and over again. Three owners share how they make their establishments a home away from home for their regulars.
The Local Joint
“We wanted to be the neighborhood place in Black Mountain which didn’t really exist yet,” says Mike Flanigan as he recalls his decision to open the Trailhead eight years ago. Back then, the little city east of Asheville was just starting to become a destination in its own right, and Flanigan moved there with his family after a stint working in West Asheville at the beloved (and now closed) Lucky Otter. Flanigan, a West Virginia native with a love of rock climbing and hiking, appreciated Black Mountain’s easy access to nature, and he thought that other outdoor enthusiasts and young families like his own needed a restaurant where they could have a great meal in comfortable, low-key surroundings. He says, “Really, I just wanted to open a place where I would like to go.”
It turns out that lots of other folks wanted to go to the Trailhead, too, and the restaurant, located in the same downtown Black Mountain building as My Father’s Pizza (where Flanigan used to work), is packed all year round with both out-of-towners and locals who keep the kitchen busy turning out plates of burgers and fries. The Trailhead goes through 120 pounds of ground beef a day, with every half-pound patty made by hand, and many end up in the restaurant’s signature Trailblazer burger, topped with Carolina slaw, smoked bacon, caramelized onions, and cheddar cheese. The kitchen also cuts its own fries from 180 pounds of potatoes a day. “From the beginning, we decided to do everything the hard way,” says Flanigan. “Everything is made fresh, in house, except the ketchup.”
The Trailhead menu also celebrates local ingredients like trout as well as the years that Flanigan spent in Taos, New Mexico, with three popular taco options. Flanigan gives his kitchen staff the opportunity to experiment with daily specials that he used to post on Facebook. These days, though, he encourages folks just to drop by and see what’s on offer, whether that’s a surprising soup or an under-the-radar bluegrass open mic night. “Time has allowed us to step back from worrying about whether our name is always out there,” he says. “Even as more restaurants have opened in Black Mountain, we’ve found more customers, our lifers and locals who walk here. And the Trailhead is still somewhere that my family and I want to come, too.”
The Industry Hangout
At Storm Rhum Bar & Bistro, the crowd changes throughout the night. Early in the evening, visitors to Asheville’s South Slope might take a break from their brewery tours to have a bite and a flight of high-end rum at the gleaming bar, and residents of nearby condominiums in renovated industrial buildings use Storm as a kind of clubhouse. As other restaurants throughout downtown close their kitchens for the night, though, a different scene unfolds, with chefs, cooks, and servers gathering at Storm for tacos, hot dogs, and drink specials that stretch an evening’s tip money into an end-of-shift celebration.
“I want you to be able to come and get an amazing meal but also be comfortable,” says Jay Medford, who took the helm as Storm’s executive chef and owner last fall. Medford’s approach is more casual and free-wheeling than you might expect from a graduate of the French Culinary Institute who worked in New York fine dining establishments like Daniel and Aureole. When the Asheville native came home a few years ago to raise a family, he knew that he wanted to “have fun with food and not be super-stuffy with it.” He opened the Underground Café on Pack Square with a breakfast and lunch menu reminiscent of NYC bodegas and his own line of DoughP (pronounced “dope,” because “they’re just that good,” jokes Medford) Doughnuts. He was looking for a place where he could really show off his chops, though, and when the eight-year-old Storm Rhum Bar became available last year, he jumped at it.
“Storm probably has the best rum selection in North Carolina, and I’m trying to make cuisine that goes with it,” says Medford. “I’m also bringing in influences from the Asian restaurants where I worked in New York. I don’t like to say fusion. I use some of those ingredients, but you can tell a Southern chef did it. And I like to throw in some trashy ingredients, too.” Case in point: a special of charred octopus served in a SPAM dashi broth and topped with Korean pickled blueberries.
Medford plans to source more and more sustainable seafood, like South Carolina wreckfish, for that kind of high-end experiment, but he’s also fine-tuning fish tacos for his late-night menu. Since many restaurants are closed on Monday, Medford has turned Sunday night into “Sin Night” at Storm, so customers from the industry can kick off their own weekend with a selection of inexpensive beers and cocktails. “We’re a rum bar,” says Medford. “We want to be fun!”
The Not-Just-Pizza Place
At any restaurant, who is the most regular of regulars? The chef. “You smell the food all day, and you’ve had the idea in your head for even longer,” says Brendan Reusing, the man in the kitchen and the co-owner of All Souls Pizza in the River Arts District. “But I get excited about the food I really want to eat, and making that food is very satisfying.”
Most customers end up at All Souls for the first time because of the pizza: seasonal, celebrated by the New York Times and other national publications, and made with extraordinary care. Reusing and his co-owner, baker David Bauer, opened the restaurant in 2013, taking over a space that was once home to the Silver Dollar diner. From the beginning, All Souls has been driven by local ingredients, right down to the flour. Bauer mills it out in Mars Hill as part of his Farm & Sparrow project, which sources Appalachian-grown wheat, corn, and other grains.
At the restaurant, that flour (sometimes supplemented with grain from the Midwest, depending upon what’s available) is turned into dough and formed into thin but substantial crusts that Reusing tops with both familiar classics, like pepperoni and mozzarella, and surprising, seasonal combos. All Souls works with local farms and foragers to serve up options like a wild mushroom pie with a Lissome cheese made by the Boxcarr creamery in Cedar Grove, North Carolina. In cold weather, you might sit at the bar and watch the crew slide your pizza, topped with escarole, housemade bacon, and thinly sliced Yukon Gold potatoes, into an oven fired with locust wood; two or three minutes later, it’s in front of you, along with a pint of beer from an Asheville brewery.
That’s one version of the All Souls experience, and plenty of regulars, especially families, come in just for a pizza night. For other fans of the restaurant, though, the specials are an even bigger draw. Reusing, who worked alongside his sister, Andrea, at the Asian-influenced restaurant Lantern in Chapel Hill before landing in Asheville, will sometimes spend a full day crafting the Vietnamese soup pho—from the aromatic beef broth to noodles made with Farm & Sparrow flour—and then offer it as a Sunday lunch special. His duck and matzoh ball soup might be even more labor-intensive: He breaks down the birds, confits the legs, cures the breasts, prepares a stock, makes dill-flecked matzoh balls, and brings it all together in bowls topped with duck cracklings and scallions.
“Man, I could eat that 24/7,” says Reusing. So could the customers who track the All Souls Instagram to see what other specials he might be serving, from fried smelt to heirloom beans. The specials keep things fresh for the customers as well as the chef, Reusing says. “We definitely have a following, and the only reason we’re in business is because of locals and regulars.” ◊◊
C.A. Carlson plans her Sundays around the All Souls lunch specials. She lives and writes in West Asheville, and she is the features editor of this magazine.