Making each market its own, Tupelo Honey Cafe brings flavorful Blue Ridge Mountain soul food to new regions.
The guiding principle behind Tupelo Honey Cafe, that “Southern food is good for the soul,” resonated with customers just as much 15 years ago—when the company opened its first restaurant in Asheville, North Carolina—as it does today, now that Tupelo Honey Cafe has expanded to include 12 locations in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee. The food might skew Southern, but the restaurant is proving to have appeal outside the food-rich region: Openings are slated for Colorado, Texas, Missouri, and Utah, and the restaurant’s two cookbooks, Tupelo Honey Cafe: Spirited Recipes from Asheville’s New South Kitchen and Tupelo Honey Cafe: New Southern Flavors from the Blue Ridge Mountains, are popular across the country.
“I think it’s our unique approach to Southern cuisine, our commitment to scratch-made, full-flavor, chef-driven cuisine,” president Stephen D. Frabitore says of the restaurant’s success. Tupelo Honey Cafe serves an innovative menu that reflects the region’s mountain culture, including long-time customer favorites like fried green tomatoes, shrimp and grits, and Appalachian egg rolls—a concoction of pulled pork, smoked jalapeño barbecue sauce, braised greens, and pickled onions. And, the restaurant menu changes every three to four months according to seasonality.
“We’re really trying to be true to our inner South,” says executive chef Brian Sonoskus. He’s been with Tupelo Honey since the beginning, from inventing brunch dishes for the original Asheville spot to creating small plates like the Southern taco trio. The menu remains largely the same from store to store and reflects Tupelo Honey’s commitment to local sourcing, featuring regional farms like Fairview, North Carolina–based Hickory Nut Gap Farm and purveyors like Annie’s Bakery in Asheville. This commitment remains even as Tupelo Honey expands, with each new location taking the initial two to three months to find local suppliers. Says Frabitore, “We’re in a unique position, because of our regional footprint, to find great ingredients and suppliers that we love, and move those products across state lines.
“We’ll take our time to do our due diligence on potential farms and suppliers,” he adds. Then, they test products and move them through the entire system. “We like that, because we’re able to introduce outstanding products to new areas.”
One exception is the catch of the day, which is fresh, never frozen, and different everywhere. Local sourcing is a hot trend these days, but for Tupelo Honey Cafe, it’s not about playing to fads. “It’s about understanding and taking the responsibility as a restaurateur for understanding where our food comes from, and being able to relay the stories behind the ingredients to our guests,” Frabitore says.
The dining experience also includes a bar program run by beverage director Tyler Alford, who previously worked at the famed Commander’s Palace in New Orleans. The program prizes sustainably sourced wines; cocktails, like the Honey Lavender Flip, that feature spirits from local distilleries; and craft beers—a lot of them. Bar menus are unique to each location, and the recently opened Tupelo Honey Cafe in Virginia Beach, Virginia, features 40 taps of craft brews, half of them local. “The bar development has followed suit with food development,” Frabitore says.
Because of the success of both the original Asheville location and the cookbooks, openings are generally met with a honeymoon period, as Frabitore explains: “We have people from all over the country who have tried the restaurant, so there’s this halo effect that, wherever we open next, chances are somebody has dined at a Tupelo Honey somewhere and is looking forward to our opening.”
On the sales side, Tupelo Honey is experiencing about 78 percent compounded annual growth, and Frabitore doesn’t anticipate things slowing down anytime soon. “We’ve made a lot of heavy financial commitments to make sure we can sustain our growth properly,” he says. Tupelo Honey Cafe exceeded $40 million in sales this year, with an average of $3.9 million per unit. (Frabitore notes that the generation-one stores are smaller than the generation-two stores, and the latter all claim an average unit volume of more than $4 million.) “We’re converting first-time [guests] to regulars, and regulars to fanatics,” he says. “We set up our individual stores with incentives and tools to succeed, and we expect them to run that store for what it is: a local store.”
There are no plans to franchise, and Tupelo Honey employees more than 1,000 people. “We’re only as good as our people,” Frabitore says. This year, Tupelo Honey Cafe is investing more heavily in programs for employee training and development, striving to remind its team members that the brand’s top brass “see, feel, and understand a commitment to their futures.”
As the brand grows, Chef Sonoskus spends more time on the road, traveling to new locations to train kitchen staff and instill the company culture. “You can’t put it out in a newsletter or brochure,” he says. “Keeping the culture going is always a challenge, because you need to have people buy into it to keep it real. We all believe very deeply in what we’re doing. It’s always been my food, my passion. It’s really my love for it, and finding the perfect place and environment.”
Those perfect environments aren’t all the same, either. They’re all fashioned individually, save a few unifying brand elements. And while unified individuality might sound like an oxymoron, that devotion to both local flavor and overall authenticity is at the core of the Tupelo Honey ethos. “We want each [store] to have its own personality and deliver uniquely for [its] local clientele. We’ll never prototype a store,” Frabitore says. “That’s critical to me, that we stay focused city by city and act like a single, locally owned store.”