Even as a kid, Jason Smith loved going to restaurants. After a long car ride with his dad from Wilmington, North Carolina, to Raleigh, they’d stop to get something to eat. It was the excitement about the experience that first piqued Smith’s interest in the business.
“I loved that entire going out to eat feeling of excitement, right before you get to the restaurant,” the chef says. “I still love going out to eat but I almost love more when my wife and I are getting ready and we’re having a cocktail waiting for the Uber to come; that excitement that we know we’re going out to eat is what I like. That adrenaline part of the business has kept me very interested in it. Still to this day I’m nervous about every shift because you’ve never seen it all or done it all.”
Smith owns four restaurants in the Raleigh area, three of which opened in a span of less than four years. He opened the first, 18 Seaboard, in 2006 after making stops at Magnolia Grill in Durham, Union Square and Gramercy Tavern in New York, Peninsula Grill in Charleston, and a year managing foodservice at a research station in Antarctica. Smith’s restaurant group’s flagship location has become a neighborhood anchor. The chef and owner says 40 percent of the clientele on any given evening are repeat customers.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor
Cultivating a neighborhood clientele at 18 Seaboard, as well as other locations in the restaurant group, comes down to management. Smith says hiring decisions make a big difference and personality is key.
“Having the right managers and having the right culture,” are the secrets, he says. At 18 Seaboard, Smith or the manager will try to visit as many tables as possible when they can to build and nurture those neighborhood relationships.
“The most important thing in business is how a customer feels,” he says. “No matter what you say, how they feel is going to create a lasting memory—more than the food, the service, the ambiance. Trying to get our customers to feel a certain way is key.”
A Place Like Home
Harvest 18, Smith’s third restaurant, has a local following as a family destination. But many of them are new to the area.
“That area is growing so much,” he says. “Say we have 100 customers all day—85 have moved here in the last year-and-a-half.”
When Smith moved back to the area, he couldn’t have predicted just how close to home his businesses would be. His second restaurant, Cantina 18, opened in Raleigh’s Cameron Village in 2009.
“I rode my BMX bike through that shopping center as a kid, now I’m a merchant there,” he says. “You just don’t hear that anymore. There are not a lot of places left in the world where a doofy guy like me can do something like that—that’s really how I feel and I tell people that.”
Making Trends Approachable
The restaurant business is certainly different for Smith in Raleigh than it was when he was a chef in New York—a slower pace, more familiar faces, and less demand for trendy items. When 18 Seaboard opened, local sourcing wasn’t quite as common a practice as it is now. But Smith made the effort to source locally for his restaurants from day one, he says. It can be more expensive, and it’s important to be able to share that cost.
“The good thing is I have a clientele that find value in it,” he says. “You pass a lot of it onto the customer. We have kept reasonable prices but we’re also serving catfish.”
Smith sources catfish from a local midsize company as a business-to-business purchase and says he’ll always keep it on the menu. He also sources from local farmers markets and creates long-term relationships with North Carolina farmers. Being an agricultural state helps, he says, but so does being more resourceful with purchases. Ultimately, it’s a balance.
“Taking by-product type things and making them better than premier cuts is what we’ve tried to do as best we can,” he says. “We do a flat iron steak, we do a lot of short ribs. It’s not always the most desirable cut, and we still have some commodity ingredients here.”
Slowing But Still Growing
The menu at 18 Seaboard stayed the same for a long time after its initial opening. Smith says the first four to five years were very seasonal, but after that many best-of’s were hanging out on the menu while he was side-tracked with growth.
After opening 18 Seaboard 2006, he opened Cantina 18 in 2009 and Harvest 18 in 2014. In 2016, he had the opportunity to renovate the original Cantina 18, and then opened a second location in 2017. Now, he’s taking time to regroup and circle back, tightening the screws so to speak. But there was one last renovation on the list: 18 Seaboard’s menu.
There are some menu items he’ll always stand behind: barbecue brisket, crackling pork shank, and of course, the catfish. But now customers can find new bar bites and trendy pokes on the menu. The renovation doesn’t represent a change so much as a refocus, Smith says.
“It was just getting back to focusing on being seasonal and ingredient-driven, and making sure it was complex enough to be fun and interesting but not an intellectual test,” he says. “That’s what we do here and tried to do the best.”