Sitting in his spacious and immaculate office, Frabitore pulls out a black three-ring binder. “You can run the whole company from this one binder,” he says. He opens it to reveal crisp spreadsheets of data on a variety of metropolitan areas and commercial locations. “We conducted some third-party research back in 2010 to identify key psychographics and demographics for cities that would make sense for us,” says Frabitore. That study helped them to identify 70 cities in the region that could be a good fit based on dozens of factors, like population, average household income, and number of restaurants per capita.
Today their target is even more defined. “We’re focused on towns that fit our criteria that are within a seven-hour drive from Asheville,” says Frabitore. “We’re not interested in the airplane trips…yet.” They have a two-person real estate team that helps guide the search for specific commercial locations. For each potential space, they analyze square footage, layout, the closest road car count, parking availability, the expenses required to upfit the space, and many other variables.
Due to Tupelo’s existing popularity and its resulting foot traffic, landlords are often eager to welcome the business to their buildings. “We have been fortunate and blessed to be a highly sought after tenant,” says Frabitore. “We have some pretty amazing offers.”
Bonadies says the Southeast has been a home run for Tupelo Honey for a couple reasons. “The region has a growing population and totally underserved cities,” he explains. “You have a lot of people that have moved to the area, or people who grew up in the Southeast, have worked in major cities and have come back. So I think there’s a real demand for quality of execution. There’s tremendous opportunity just waiting to be filled.”
But he also makes it clear that if they wanted to, they could take the brand from the regional level to the national. “As a concept and as a business,” says Bonadies, “it’s something that could extend across the country.”
As the expansion continues, Frabitore and his team recognize that maintaining quality control from a distance is paramount. For this reason, they require daily “audits” at each location. First, there’s a food audit. Every morning Sonoskus assigns a couple dishes from the menu. The chef at each location prepares that dish, and the management staff inspects it for plating, temperature, and flavor, comparing it to the requirements in the “menu encyclopedia,” and reporting the results in a logging system that the company leadership can access. In addition, the manager of each shift does a “seating audit,” sitting in three different random locations in the dining area and making note of any detail that’s out of place, from dust on a ledge to gum under a table. These issues are also logged.
“We’re trying to teach our managers to put on their ‘guest goggles,’” says Frabitore. He explains that creating a good guest experience might take diligence, but at heart it’s not a difficult thing to do. “No one says, ‘Gee, I hope I get some lousy service tonight and I hope my food comes out cold,’” he says. “We’re all capable of understanding what the consumer wants, because we’re all consumers.”
While the restaurant industry is notorious for high employee turnover, one of the perks of having a larger business is that staff members have the chance to move up the rungs over time, and the opportunity to really build a career.
Sonoskus says this wasn’t always the case in the restaurant industry, but that in recent years “foodie” magazines and the Food Network have introduced some glamour and fun to the industry. “It used to be that there were two good jobs in a restaurant, and that was it. Now we have a lot of people who have been with us for ten years—they can move up to run a new location, join the training team, or become a general manager or chef de cuisine.”
Frabitore stresses the importance of this as well. He mentions a general manager who started out as a part-time server, and says that he wants to make sure that Tupelo Honey is “not a company where careers go to die.”
When the company brings in new hires from the outside, the philosophy is simple: “We want to hire the very best people at every position in the company,” says Frabitore, “from the dishwasher to the top.” And he’s willing to pay to attract the right candidates. Frabitore says that none of their employees are paid minimum wage; rather, they are a Living Wage Certified business and aim for their pay to be greater than the 75th percentile of the industry average. Other incentives are offered as well. Employees at the store level are eligible for cash bonuses, and upper level positions receive benefits and phantom stock options.
This sense of generosity is also evident in the community involvement Tupelo Honey is known for. In every city that’s home to a Tupelo Honey Cafe, the business gets involved—from donating to local nonprofits to supporting community gardens. Sonoskus is very involved in the Chef in Schools Program, an initiative led by First Lady Michelle Obama in an effort to fight childhood obesity. By giving cooking presentations in third grade classrooms, he hopes to inspire the younger generation to eat healthier.
“We want to make sure the communities know we’re not there just to hang a shingle on the door and make a profit,” says Frabitore. “We want to build a meaningful, long-term company that people can be proud of.”
In other words, as this buzzing hive makes more honey, they’re also pollinating the flowers along the way.