One on One: Vivian Howard plans her return

Published 8:03 am Saturday, February 11, 2023

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Are the days of the roadside eateries gone? My book “North Carolina’s Roadside Eateries” celebrated the barbecue and country cooking family friendly restaurants near the interstates.

Now, one of North Carolina’s most famous restaurateurs and food experts argues that the days of restaurants as we know them may be over.

Vivian Howard, famous across the country for her television program “A Chef’s Life” and as author of two beautiful books about food “Deep Run Roots: Stories and Recipes from My Corner of the South” and “This Will Make It Good,” tried to explain why food establishments across the country are struggling. Writing in The New York Times on January 20, she explained, “I recently closed my flagship restaurant in Kinston, N.C. For more than 15 years, Chef & the Farmer was a star in the farm-to-table sky. Our food exalted my region’s little-known cuisine, and the level of service we provided was an anomaly for miles.

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“Even so, Chef & the Farmer closed, in large part because the inefficiencies, stress and fatigue brought by an unsustainable business model became impossible to ignore. Our industry needs to evolve or else more full-service, cuisine-driven restaurants like mine will languish their way to extinction.”

Her New York Times essay was not her first warning about the unsustainability of restaurants like Chef & the Farmer.

In “This Will Make It Good,” she wrote, “In 2019 my professional life was a vat of turmoil. The mountain of projects I had taken on had slowly distanced me from the day-to-day operations at my restaurants, and my prolonged absence was notable in every part of the business. The restaurants were understaffed, guest counts were down across the board, and morale was at an all-time low. My team members used to feel they were part of something.

“Now that ‘something’ just felt like a job. I had hired a consultant and a chef with a pedigree to help figure things out, but somehow that made it worse. I fired people, rehired people, and to save a marriage decided I could no longer work with my husband. We moved under a tall mountain of debt that caused finger-pointing, infighting and backstabbing, and I couldn’t tell who was doing what.”

Howard has acknowledged that she is now divorced.

“All of it was stuff that, on some level, I was doing for other people. I had never wanted to run a restaurant empire, and suddenly I was running one into the ground. Every day I let more and more people down. I felt lost.”

She is planning for a sustainable future for her restaurant.

She plans to reopen Chef & the Farmer this year. “We won’t rely on the diners to pay servers; the chefs will serve, cafeteria style, at our retrofitted kitchen bar. The energy we put into elevated service and its trappings will flow directly into the only ‘program’ we have chosen to keep – our food.”

The restaurant will open just four days a week, because, she says, “that’s the kind of schedule that nurtures staff retention.”

Howard is looking at other ways to reduce the costs of serving prepared food. For instance, under the brand name “Viv’s Fridge” she is stocking high-end food packages in refrigerators at convenient locations in cities near Kinston ready to be picked up, paid for, taken home, and reheated.

Are there lessons from Howard’s experience that can help my favorite country cooking and barbecue places survive these tough times?

Maybe they can expand their carry-out options to reduce staff costs just a little bit.

But they should remember that many of their country cooking and barbecue fans come not only for the good food but also for the social experience of visiting with other customers and staff.

It is something I hope Howard will remember, too.

D.G. Martin, a retired lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s North Carolina Bookwatch.