Vinnie’s Neighborhood Italian
Longtime local restaurateur Eric Scheffer shares his reasons for pivoting over the years, from fine dining at the Savoy to Vinnie’s comfort food, and from dining-in to ramping up to-go options during COVID-19.
Q: Tell us a little about your business.
E.S.: Vinnie’s Neighborhood Italian Restaurant has been an iconic Asheville restaurant for more than ten years. I’ve been a restaurateur in Asheville for 21 years and one of the original founders of the Asheville Independent Restaurant Association
Q: When did you get started, and why did you open your restaurant?
E.S.:I started in the restaurant business in 2000. I was a former Hollywood TV commercial and film producer, and I moved to Asheville, North Carolina, in 1995 to pursue my great passions: food, wine, and people. I am a self-trained chef with some culinary training in schools in Italy, New York, and Los Angeles. I opened my first restaurant in 2000 in Asheville, the Savoy. The Savoy was an instant success and widely recognized as one of the nation’s premier fine dining restaurants. In 2009, during the financial crisis, I decided that fine dining was not appropriate for the economic landscape in Asheville and decided to create a restaurant concept that would speak to people’s need for comfort, reasonable prices, spending time with family and friends, and good times. Vinnie’s was a way for me to pay homage to my youth and the great neighborhood Italian restaurants of Brooklyn, Long Island, and the Northeast where I am from. In addition, I am currently still moving forward with my seafood concept, Jettie Rae’s Oyster House, an authentic coastal seafood restaurant honoring the seafood from Maine to the Gulf Coast and at times beyond.
Photos courtesy Vinnie’s Neighborhood Italian. Left and center by Liat Samson, right by John Warner of Warner Photography
Q: What makes your restaurant unique and successful?
E.S.: What makes Vinnie’s unique and successful is its true execution and of “old school” New York Italian Food and the environment those great neighborhood restaurants deliver to their guests. In addition, the concept speaks to all of the Northeastern transplants that live here, evoking memories of their past and delivering on a product that only existed in the neighborhoods they came from.
Q: How have you adapted to COVID-19?
E.S.: Vinnie’s, since the day we opened 10 years ago, has always had a strong focus on our to-go business, so pivoting to a to-go only business model with contactless service was a no-brainer. We have also enjoyed a strong relationship with Take Out Central, the former Valet Gourmet, as well, so delivery never stopped.
Q: How do operations look different now compared to before COVID? How have your numbers (sales, employees, etc.) changed?
E.S.: As previously stated, our business is essentially the same, except no in-restaurant dining and a more scaled-down menu. However, we are still running well-thought-out specials and fan favorites. We currently average nine employees. Our sales are significantly lower than when we are in full operation. We have implemented all of the CDC guidelines and more regarding our sanitary practices, our personal care, and our integration with our guest, which as mentioned is contactless and through a window.
Q: What’s an important lesson you’ve learned in the time of COVID?
E.S.: Always be ready for change. Don’t fear it, embrace it, and deliver a consistent product that the guest can still understand and relate to. Build a culture in your restaurant that builds loyalty amongst your staff and build a brand whose culture is inculcated into the lives of your guests, thereby having both your staff and loyal guests ready to adapt and support you during difficult times.