Frabitore had enough experience under his belt not to be intimidated by the restaurant industry. But after years in the aggressive business landscape of Southern Florida, he found he had to adapt to his new environment in a more personal way. “I was a fairly intense individual,” he says. “It took about a year to knock those edges off a bit. I lost my suntan and changed my perspective a little and everything was good.”
But it’s safe to say that Frabitore has not lost his ambition or energy. While in conversation he seems very calm and laid back, he also peppers his comments with sayings like, “If you’re not growing, you’re dying,” and, “There’s only one speed, and that’s full speed.” Anyone who knows him will tell you that he’s a non-stop idea generation machine who has extremely high standards and a drive to do better and more.
Brian Sonoskus, Tupelo Honey’s executive chef, would be one of those people. “The guy is just motivated,” Sonoskus says of Frabitore. “If anything, it’s just a challenge to keep up. You hate when you have the old guy in the company running circles around you on some days. But we wouldn’t be where we are today without him.”
Sonoskus, 47, has been with the business since the beginning, back in 2001, when he started as chef at the original downtown Asheville location. For that reason, he was a great help to Frabitore when the restaurant changed hands.
“Brian and I made such a good partnership because he gave me the ability to analyze the business and focus on the front of the house while he kept the back of the house going,” says Frabitore. Over the next couple years, the two men shared their expertise with one another, with Frabitore learning the ins-and-outs of restaurant process from Sonoskus, who was guided into the business and analytical side by Frabitore. “We melded immediately,” says Frabitore. “We’ve never had a cross word or disagreement.”
Sonoskus’ culinary background is almost as varied as Frabitore’s business background. He grew up in New Jersey in a family that hailed from the Pennsylvania mountains and had a strong connection to that mountain cooking heritage. From a young age, he learned how to cook from his parents and grandparents and lived in a home where the kitchen was the center of family life.
As a result, when it was time to get a job, Sonoskus gravitated toward restaurants, starting out as a dishwasher at Jack Baker’s Lobster Shanty in Toms River, New Jersey. He found the high energy, camaraderie, and colorful characters appealing, so after a few more restaurant jobs, he attended culinary school at Johnson & Wales in Rhode Island. After graduating, he worked at restaurants in Charlotte, ski resorts in Utah, and traveled through Europe and Central and South America.
Sonoskus used his travels and jobs to gain new skills and food perspectives, learning to prepare cuisines as diverse as sushi and classic French. One of the clearest experience contrasts came around 1990 when he was living in Charlotte. “I was working at Tally’s Green Grocery in the daytime,” he says, “and I’d leave there and go work at an Outback Steakhouse in the same parking lot at night. So I’d go from cooking vegetarian food to frying steaks in butter.”
In 1995 he moved to Asheville and became chef at the now closed Magnolia’s Raw Bar and Grille, a Charleston-style restaurant featuring Creole and Low Country fare. Tupelo Honey opened in 2000, and Sonoskus was hired as executive chef by Schott in 2001.
Today, Sonoskus has a nice, windowed office in the modern 8,000 square foot Tupelo Honey headquarters, in an office building near the Biltmore Square Mall—a far cry from the restaurant’s initial office in the basement of the downtown location. These days he doesn’t have any scheduled shifts in the kitchens, but instead oversees recipe development, food quality control, kitchen processes, and staff training for all six stores.
Each Tupelo Honey location carries the same menu, and there are certain dishes, which Sonoskus refers to as “lifers,” that are always available (for example, Nutty Fried Chicken, Not Your Mama’s Meatloaf, and Brian’s Shrimp & Grits). But the menu is updated every three months. It’s an opportunity to test new recipes, use seasonal ingredients, and evaluate dishes that aren’t as popular.
The Tupelo Honey leadership approaches menu development and staff training as a science. As they test new menu items internally, they evaluate the foods’ colors, textures, and serving temperatures. They consider how plating can help the guest tackle the meal. And, of course, they work to make sure that the aromas and flavors are up to par.
Once this is all determined, they add the new recipe to their “menu encyclopedia,” which contains everything the kitchen staff need to know in order to create each dish—from the prep recipe and utensils to be used, to a product photo and plating instructions. It also includes any allergen information. “The idea is that staff should not have questions they cannot get answered quickly,” says Sonoskus.
He explains that this advanced attention to detail is unusual for a restaurant business of this size. “The infrastructure and tools we have well surpass restaurants in the 20 to 30 store range,” says Sonoskus. “A lot of businesses don’t have these materials until they’re much bigger than we are, so I think we’re definitely ahead of the curve.”
One of the reasons Tupelo Honey is advanced for its size is the powerful team of advisors on its six-person board, and the investors the business has attracted. While the purchase of the original business was funded by the Frabitores themselves, the recent expansions have been helped along by investors to the tune of $6 million. The decision to sell shares was one that Frabitore and his wife (who also works at the business, in accounts payable) balanced very carefully.
“Jennifer and I looked at it like this,” recalls Frabitore. “We believe we have something pretty special, and we believe we should give it a chance to run. Yes, we’re going to let go of the majority ownership, but at the same time we’re going to create jobs and opportunity and see what this company can become.” They also recognized that on their own, they could only open a new location every couple of years; with investors, they were able to open three new locations in 2013 alone.
Frabitore is adamant that surrounding himself with smart people, both on his staff and board, has been the key to Tupelo Honey’s success. “Getting the right people around me who were successful entrepreneurs to discuss these things was critical.”
One of those people is board member Michael Bonadies, a leading hospitality expert and consultant. During his career, Bonadies has been involved in the development, branding, and operation of five-star hotels all over the world. He was also a founding partner of the Myriad Restaurant Group, which owned and operated globally acclaimed New York City restaurants such as Nobu and Tribeca Grill.
Bonadies says he’s been very lucky in his career to work with restaurant and hotel brands that spark a unique guest response—he describes it as a “fierce tribal loyalty”—and says that Tupelo Honey is one such brand. When asked what these special brands have in common, he says they fill a very basic desire. “There’s a human need for special and unique spaces and experiences,” he says. “Sometimes that’s filled spiritually, other times it’s filled by a great restaurant or a great bar as a human gathering place.” Of course, that place must also offer a stellar product, something Bonadies says Tupelo Honey has in spades. “It’s one of those menus you pick up and you’re a little pissed off because you want to try everything on it, but you don’t have days to do it.”
Bonadies explains that one of the main keys to successful restaurant expansion is finding the right real estate. It might be an understatement to say that where real estate is concerned, the Tupelo Honey leadership has done their homework.