Tupelo Honey Café is one of those classic, feel-good American restaurant stories. It’s been almost 19 years since Tupelo Honey Café opened its doors in Downtown Asheville. Locals, in particular the hospitality crowd, flocked there after work for what was then just a whisper of the now ubiquitous farm-to-table concept. Tired and tourist wary servers and bartenders noshed on fried okra and Carolina white sauce, sweet tea-brined chicken and biscuits, collards and fried catfish. To insiders, Tupelo’s menu was just an elevated version of what Southerners grew up eating. To outsiders, it was revolutionary.
In the ultimate what’s old is new is old again, visitors gradually discovered the café. The organic following rose beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains, catapulting simple Appalachian cuisine into the fine dining vernacular. With it, the Tupelo Honey Café lifestyle grew. Much like Asheville, Tupelo Honey Café had that indescribable ‘it’ factor of unpretentious surroundings, gathering at tables, and, as we say in the south, stupid good eating.
Fast forward to 2019. There are nearly 20 Tupelo Honey Cafés throughout the country. Visit the original café today and somehow it has managed to preserve the vibe that made it famous. Perhaps that’s why many of the employees have personal history there. E. Tyler Alford is the vice president of operations for Tupelo Honey Café. For this Carolina native, returning to Tupelo is meaningful. After stints as food and beverage manager in swanky Jackson Hole for the four-diamond Wild Sage Restaurant within the Rusty Parrot Lodge, and after that becoming manager and assistant Sommelier at the James Beard awarding-winning Commander’s Palace, in 2014 Alford joined Tupelo Honey Café where he introduced a beverage program focused on sustainable, hyperlocal ingredients. It wasn’t long before his passion for the restaurant served as a springboard and he rose to his current role.
“I spent my summers in the North Carolina Mountains and my mom would take us out for one big meal the morning before we got dropped off at camp – this new, hip café had opened in downtown Asheville that served brunch,” said Alford. “We went to Tupelo that first day and we went back every time before camp or on breaks after that, so I had eaten there a dozen times before joining the company.”
When Alford married, he and his wife knew they wanted to be closer to family – and in grand Tupelo style, all the stars aligned. It just so happened Tupelo Honey Café was in need of a beverage person with Alford’s passion and experience.
“At that time, they had just opened sixth restaurant and it was a growing company on a path towards globalization of southern food,” Alford said. “The success in taking it mainstream is a result of lots of experience from our senior leadership, technology, oversight and business aptitude to know which markets work or which ones are not a fit.”
But Alford says first and foremost, Tupelo has and will always be known for hospitality.
“My senior director of hospitality was an hourly server so with every person there is an institutional passion and culture – it follows us because everywhere we go, people say they came to Tupelo Honey Café in Asheville and remember that experience,” said Alford, who equates it with loyalty to the original location and paying attention to local markets. “There is a Franklin’s Tupelo Honey café, not just a Tupelo Honey Café in Franklin, while in Downtown Asheville, the restaurant is quirky so you’ll see a lot of blue hair and dark sleeve tattoos – we couldn’t institute a uniform policy or there would be a coup.”
Designers slightly alter the décor depending on the market, but the thematic features remain throughout in the warm southern art for which Tupelo Honey cafes are known, in step with the culture of the cuisine. Students of southern food can recall a time when the Appalachian menu was derived from a lack of resources. Now even what used to be lowliest vegetables (okra, we’re talking to you) are sustainably sourced, along with grits that come from a local mill straight to Tupelo Honey kitchens and other responsible ingredient practices.
With expansion in mind, CEO and owner Stephen D. Frabitore capitalized on Tupelo’s unmistakable vibe, pairing that with the skills of an outsider who could bring a fresh perspective on how to make Tupelo Honey Café work everywhere else. In 2016, Frabitore selected New York super chef Eric Gabrynowicz to help translate the brand to markets outside of Asheville. Gabrynowicz built his career on hard work in the kitchens of New York City but was an unabashed fan of Southern cuisine.
“I always say if everyone in life was a server for a year and in New York City the world will be a better place,” said Gabrynowicz, who loves what living in the Carolinas affords him the opportunity to do. “The people here are incredibly grateful and hospitable – they knew where they were lacking yet they understand their client base and why people love it so much.”
Gabrynowicz recognized he was coming into a tight-knit restaurant family with deep ties to a long-time menu.
“I knew they were not asking me to come in and join the Cleveland Browns to fix everything – they were asking me to join the New England Patriots where they were doing everything right,” said Gabrynowicz, who has helped elevate the poultry and seafood program to be 100 percent sustainable, among other fundamental changes while honoring the original concept.
Gabrynowicz doesn’t see Tupelo Honey Café slowing down. The Culinary Institute of America graduate who worked for Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group already had a passion for Southern cuisine.
“To see an entire region get behind this beautiful Appalachian cuisine, people lose their minds over this food,” he said. “It’s just motivating and I get swept up in that a lot.”
Gabrynowicz says the Southern food culture as a sense of place reminds people of their upbringing and has found its way into fine dining and to him, this secret is how Tupelo Honey Café skyrocketed from a local, late night jam into a national brand.
“It’s about the way people feel when they eat these dishes and even in other cities like Denver and Frisco, I was pretty amazed about how many Ashevillians came flocking to us, passionate about coming to our new locations,” said Gabrynowicz. “People recognize the brand everywhere – one time this woman accosted me in the middle of CVS when she saw me wearing Tupelo Honey Café clothing.”
Aside from those classic dishes, Gabrynowicz credits the staff for laying the groundwork for stardom.
“Servers who take care of guests is not groundbreaking, but that we take care of each other is a focus of ours,” said Gabrynowicz, who balances that core philosophy with tracking sales and reviews to see what people are saying about which dishes and why. “This is rooted in who we are – what little things can we do to appease the Southern Appalachian grandmother but wow the foodie?”
Even service and good food is not enough to fuel momentum these days, something Tupelo Honey Café mastered earl on. In a sharing society, the evolution of the Tupelo Honey Café brand is all about making it part of a larger lifestyle: a la the Tupelo Honey Social Club. Members get to take advantage of secret menu items, ease in making reservations and online ordering, gratis birthday treats and free kids’ meal offers. Like the Southern table, it’s all about squeezing in one more kinfolk at suppertime, so members get rewarded for referring friends. Newbies to the app available on iTunes and Google Play receive a free pint glass when they download it. They’ve also crafted a line of feel-good products, comfy tees, hats, canvas bags, even aprons and accessories, including the Southern pictograph collection.