Written by Anna Raddatz | Photos by Anthony Harden & Courtesy of Tupelo Honey
Walking down College Street in downtown Asheville, you could almost miss it. This active block, flanked on one side by Pritchard Park, is home to several restaurants, galleries, and shops. Perhaps the only notable thing about the exterior of this specific restaurant is the way its seating area juts out onto the sidewalk, covered by an unassuming green awning.
But go into any of the neighboring shops around mealtime and you’re bound to find people holding coaster pagers, those plastic blocks that light up when your table is ready. They’re all just killing time until it’s their turn to pull up a chair at the restaurant they’ve read about in the New York Times or seen featured on the Food Network: Tupelo Honey Cafe.
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With all of the accolades preceding it, once inside the eatery you might be surprised by how casual it is. The young wait staff wear jeans and funky jewelry. The decor is homey and unpretentious, with honey-colored walls, dark wood trim, and whirring ceiling fans. It’s pleasant and comfortable, but nothing to write home about.
That is, until your meal arrives. From the meatloaf to the fried chicken BLT, every dish tastes like comfort food on steroids. The flavors are familiar, but amped up, improved, and served in generous portions. From the first bite, you understand how the Tupelo Honey Cafe has amassed a large and loyal following over the years.
From this original location, the Tupelo Honey brand has grown to six locations in three states: two locations in Asheville, and others in Charlotte, North Carolina, Greenville, South Carolina, Knoxville, Tennessee, and Chattanooga, Tennessee. The business employs over 600 people and serves over 40,000 customers each week. Their seventh location, in Johnson City, Tennessee, will open in May of this year. In 2014, revenue is expected to exceed a whopping $24 million. And, they’re not stopping there.
The booming success of this business is due largely to the vision, leadership, and business savvy of one man: CEO Steve Frabitore. In 2008 he recognized a brand and a product that had unlimited potential. Over six short years, he has applied laser-focused financial analytics and powerful market research to grow the brand. He has grown a team based on hiring only the best candidates, and is passionate about creating opportunity for his employees. And, he recognizes the importance of connecting in a deep and meaningful way with the local communities that welcome his restaurants.
But with all of this infrastructure and growth, for Frabitore the work his business does comes down to one simple thing: “We’re feeding people,” he says. “That in and of itself is probably one of the most rewarding things.”
Frabitore, 51, spent the first 18 years of his career in the commercial packaged goods industry, starting with a sales job at Procter & Gamble right out of college, and ending up as president of Sundown Vitamins, which he helped grow from $60 million to $700 million in annual sales over seven years.
From there, Frabitore moved away from the corporate life and toward entrepreneurial opportunities. He mentions that he tried yacht building for a short time, but the bigger success came from his efforts at a small retailer of outdoor power equipment, Florida Lawn & Garden in West Palm Beach. Over several years, he transformed this “mom and pop” dealership from one location to two, and from under $2 million in sales annually to over $12 million.
While he learned many business tenets in his initial corporate work, taking an entrepreneurial turn meant taking true financial responsibility. “You don’t have to watch cash flow and the more intricate financial side of the business when you’re at a huge company,” Frabitore says. “There are departments and teams that do that. But when you step off the ladder into the entrepreneurial world, you’re the human resources department, the legal department, and the accounting department. That’s a big transition.”[quote float=”right”]“I lost my suntan and changed my perspective a little and everything was good,” said Steve Frabitore.[/quote] The transition to restaurateur may seem like a big one as well. But Frabitore’s next undertaking was less about the industry and more about the location for his family. “Our first decision was where we wanted to live, and that was Asheville,” he says. Before their move, he and his wife, Jennifer, visited while keeping an eye out for business opportunities. “There were either very large companies for sale, tied to construction mostly, or small shopkeeper type things,” Frabitore recalls. “The only businesses in the sweet spot were those connected to tourism. That’s how restaurants got on the radar screen.”
But he didn’t want to start a restaurant from scratch, and he didn’t want to buy just any restaurant. On one visit to Asheville, a Realtor showed him one that was for sale, but Frabitore didn’t care for the concept. Then the agent made a phone call to the original owner of Tupelo Honey, Sharon Schott, who was thinking about transitioning out of her business. “We walked in and had dinner and everything clicked,” says Frabitore. “It appeared to have a unique position in the marketplace, and it certainly had a fire and fanaticism around it from its patrons. I walked out of there saying, ‘This is what I want to do.’” He purchased the business in 2008.