Written by Shawndra Russell | Photos by Anthony Harden
“Do you think you’ll open a third restaurant?”
Nearby, a table full of Early Girl Eatery employees starts snickering, while owners Julie and John Stehling blow out puffs of bewildered air.
“Nope,” John says, almost as if he doesn’t believe himself, but hopes that what he’s saying now is true.
“I don’t think so,” Julie seconds with a sheepish smile and a sidelong glance at her husband.
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he Stehlings are on the heels of their West Asheville restaurant, King Daddy’s Chicken and Waffles, celebrating its first anniversary—13 years after they opened their first restaurant, Early Girl Eatery, located downtown on Wall Street. So, it’s understandable that the daunting task of opening a third restaurant isn’t on their radar now, or perhaps ever. Keeping two restaurants alive past their first year of business is quite a feat considering that 60% of restaurants fail in the first year and 80% fail within their first five years. Early Girl has already beaten that second foreboding stat, while King Daddy’s appears to be heading toward that milestone, too.*
“The customers and feedback we’ve been getting about King Daddy’s reminds us of when we first opened Early Girl. We saw that downtown is changing, and we wanted to keep a local business. And I wanted something else to stimulate me after doing Early Girl for so many years,” John explains. “West Asheville is what downtown Asheville was like when we opened Early Girl,” Julie chimes in.
They list a few of the reasons for the déjà vu: lower rents, mostly locals, and being slightly under the radar—a good thing in their eyes so they could work out the kinks. “After a year, we finally feel like we have King Daddy’s running smoothly,” Julie says. John quips, “Yeah, but now we’re spending all our time at Early Girl because of some staffing issues.” This concern pops up several times throughout our conversation, and John warns aspiring restaurateurs to be aware that the first wave of applicants are sometimes “people who have worn out their welcome around town and need something new. [People] that haven’t stayed in places for a reason—or more than one reason sometimes.”
Of course, a lot has happened between 2001 and 2014 in Asheville. “It’s a boom town now,” John says. “It’s really, really crazy,” Julie agrees. But they see Asheville’s current growth as a good thing for Foodtopia. “There’s always room at the top,” John quips. “New restaurants will come in, and people that do a good job will be fine, and the people that were already struggling at the bottom that weren’t where they needed to be quality-wise and things like that, will not make it. It’s just natural selection. And if they keep adding hotel rooms, people are going to need more places to get caffeine and need places to go eat!”
During that time they also tested the waters of being restaurant partners with someone else from 2006 to 2008 in Weaverville. That venture “wasn’t a great fit for us,” Julie says, but they did learn some valuable lessons that helped make opening King Daddy’s a tad easier. John shares, “That failure motivated us too to try again and succeed, and it helped fuel our decision.”
“We all have to adapt,” Julie says, “and as things change, you have to roll with it a little bit and listen to what people want. For example, we didn’t used to do breakfast all day at Early Girl, but that’s what people wanted, so we found a way to make it happen.” That change happened in 2007 or 2008 (they can’t quite put their finger on the exact date as it’s “all a blur”), which was about seven years after they opened their doors, proving the adage ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ doesn’t apply to the Stehlings.
The continual struggle to run both restaurants successfully is symbolized by the flour and grease splatters on their clothes after a full day working Early Girl Eatery—their exhaustion is apparent, yet in a matter-of-fact, we-wouldn’t-want-to-be-doing-anything-else kind of way. They both typically work six days a week at whichever restaurant needs them the most on a week to week schedule, with Julie handling the business side and John manning the kitchen. Each are adamant that they couldn’t do this without the other, not to mention all the support they’ve received from John’s parents, who moved to Asheville from Winston-Salem after Early Girl Eatery opened back in 2001.
“None of this would be possible without John’s parents,” Julie explains. “They’ve helped financially, they watch our kids after school and on weekends…they’re lifesavers.”
They also praise their managers and staff, despite the current trying patch with Early Girl being understaffed, and the rapport they have with their employees is evident. During the staff meeting I witnessed right before our interview, smiles and laughter sprinkled the conversation, and the vibe was more peers than a bosses/employees dynamic. “The hardest part is being a surrogate parent to 80+ employees. You’re not responsible for them necessarily, but you go through their life crises with them; you feel that stress,” John explains. “Yet, it’s what’s the most rewarding part about this business too, the employees. And when you get to watch them go on to fulfill their dreams, it’s really rewarding.” Julie adds, “I think any small business owner would tell you that—not just restaurant owners.”
[quote float=”right”]“We had no interest in opening Early Girl 2,” John explains. “The whole point of doing King Daddy’s was to get to be creative and do something different.Plus, I apparently wasn’t miserable enough,” John says, with a sly smile. [/quote]So why did they go to the trouble of opening a second restaurant, especially one that on the surface bears no ties to their existing successful eatery? “We’re gluttons for punishment,” John jokes. “But really, we knew that this was our last chance to do something like this. We’re not getting any younger!”
He also credits the instant gratification that’s built into running a restaurant as being a factor. “When you’re doing a good job, customers acknowledge that,” he says. Julie points out another piece of the restaurant puzzle she loves: the energy. “The fun part is waiting on people, getting their reaction, interacting. That energy, when you’re riding on the edge of that energy when things could go really wrong or really right. I don’t know that there’s another job like that, where you get that specific rush.”
Perhaps they really are gluttons for punishment considering they didn’t try to capitalize on the success and reputation of Early Girl when concocting King Daddy’s. In fact, most people don’t realize that both restaurants are owned by the Stehlings, because it’s not emphasized in the marketing, design, or menus of either place. In fact, the website for each only briefly mentions the other restaurant. “We wanted to do something completely different. We had no interest in opening Early Girl 2,” John explains. “The whole point of doing King Daddy’s was to get to be creative and do something different. Plus, I apparently wasn’t miserable enough,” John says, with a sly smile.
John grew up near Winston-Salem loving fried chicken—“We’d go to the fish house, and Johnny would order chicken.”—so that part of the King Daddy’s menu was a no-brainer. The menu has a create-a-plate option, which allows guests to pick their chicken, such as heirloom (sautéed in a cast iron skillet with a 30-minute wait time), habanero sweet potato, or Korean style, with the option of adding several types of waffles, including pumpkin, vegan, or cracklin, which is made with pork cracklin. The à la carte menu proved to be such a hit that customers quickly begged for King Daddy’s to be open for breakfast, too. “At first we were just going to do lunch and dinner, but our customers asked for breakfast too, so now we serve three meals a day, six days a week,” Julie explains. Their only short respite happens on Mondays, when King Daddy’s is closed and Early Girl closes at 3pm.
The pride they have for their new baby is obvious. “We inherited the Early Girl space, but King Daddy’s we got to design from scratch,” Julie says. “It’s more us—a little bit more modern and sleek.”
The two met in Charleston, where they both worked for John’s brother, Robert Stehling, at the highly rated Hominy Grill—Julie as a waitress and John coming in when Hominy Grill added breakfast in 1996. But John is quick to point out that he always wanted to open his own restaurant without his brother’s influence, and vice versa. “I knew I wanted to do this since I was 14 or 15. I kind of dreamed of a cute little restaurant with the red-and-white checkered tablecloths. Luckily, I matured, and my restaurants don’t look like the vision I had,” he says, although no one else in their family is in the restaurant business. “It has worked out. It has been fun, and we’re passionate about it, but if I would have known then how much money was in it and how much hard work goes into it, I might have reconsidered…I thought it was going to be easy back then.” Julie echoes John’s sentiments: “It’s tough to make a living wage as a restaurant owner.”
Yet, one thing they were sure about, once John shared his dream with her about opening a restaurant of his own one day, was the location, even if they never opened a restaurant. “We loved Asheville. We love the mountains. We knew we were going to live in Asheville,” Julie says adamantly. After a brief stint in Colorado, they made their move and soon opened Early Girl when they were in their early thirties. “I’ve always been drawn to the mountains no matter where I’ve lived,” John adds.
Earning his degree in hospitality management at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, John proudly recalls that his professors and advisor let him focus on restaurants instead of having to pretend to be interested in hotels, although during high school he did work as a bellman at a Hilton. Meanwhile, Julie grew up in the Detroit area and started working in restaurants when she was 17. She initially had plans of being a teacher, but she doesn’t think she would have ended up being a restaurateur if she hadn’t met the risk-taking John. However, those nurturing skills that drew her to teaching have translated into managing the staff and being the mouthpiece for the restaurants. “People come back because of Julie,” John says. “She’s the face of our restaurants. People want to talk to her; she makes them feel at home.” But Julie believes the opposite. “We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for John’s fearlessness. He is the mastermind,” she says adamantly.
Suffice to say, these two have a strong bond with no delusions that either of them could do this on their own.[quote float=”left”]“You have to have a partner to run a restaurant,” Julie states, “but I wouldn’t want that partner to be anyone but my spouse. Besides, we don’t make enough money to be splitting this with another household!”[/quote]
They make no secret that these restaurants aren’t making them flush with cash. “Our sons don’t want to inherit our restaurants because they want to be rich,” Julie says. “And I wouldn’t want them to,” John adds, in a tone that’s unclear if he’s being serious or sarcastic. We can assume the former as Julie drives his point home: “I want their lives to be easier than ours,” Julie says, without bitterness.
It’s not that they don’t love what they do or appreciate getting to work together, but the hours and inflexible schedules aren’t something they wish for their sons, who are now eight and ten years old. “We have only taken three real vacations in our 14 years doing this,” she explains. “And being people who love to travel, that’s hard to swallow sometimes.” They also own two dogs, so handling chaos well is apparently in their DNA. “It’s like Julie’s ark,” John explains of their lifestyle. And while some owners dream of franchising, cookbooks, and product lines, “That’s just not who we are,” John says emphatically.
And if he has anything to say about it, they might not be able to pass down the restaurants anyway. “I wouldn’t mind someone just buying us out down the road and keeping me on as the manager,” John says of his retirement plan. “I could do that.” Julie, however, isn’t convinced. “John always has a plan; he’s always working something underground,” Julie chimes in, “so we’ll see what happens.”
For now, the couple is focused on making things run as smoothly as possible at both restaurants so they can work fewer hours and spend more time together as a family without sacrificing quality. Their high standards have earned each restaurant 4.5 stars on Tripadvisor and have cultivated two beloved spots that continually make guests feel welcomed and appreciated. With 14 roller-coaster years under their belts, the next 14 will undoubtedly be full of pivoting, surrogate parenting, and more than a few stains. That’s the nature of restaurant life, but it’s hard imagining the Stehlings doing anything else, and doing it with such high levels of dedication and humbleness.
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