Feb 5, 2024 - Business

How Charlotte's "OG" restaurants are faring in a city that loves new

The front of Beef N Bottle Steakhouse

Beef 'n Bottle. Photo: Alexandria Sands/Axios

Beef 'N Bottle part-owner Rick Bouman wants to put a rumor he's been hearing to rest: They aren't selling or closing.

  • "That's just malarkey," Bouman tells Axios. "We want to keep going for another 64 years if we can."

Why it matters: Not far from the unassuming steakhouse on booming South Boulevard, some of Charlotte's most renowned older restaurants — like Zack's Hamburgers and Price's Chicken Coop — have closed. The city has mourned the losses of Gus' Sir Beef and Green's Lunch over the last year, too.

  • In a city where it feels like everyone's looking for the best new thing, diners worry their favorite restaurant could be next to go.

What's happening: Many of Charlotte's staple eateries are actually on the upswing, the owners tell me. Beef 'N Bottle sales grew by 18.3% in 2022 and nearly 10% in 2023.

  • Alexander Michael's just had its best year on record since opening in 1983, owner Steve Casner says.
  • "This is the first year where I felt like, maybe, we're out from underneath the shadow of the pandemic," he adds.

What they're saying: Frank Scibelli has built an empire of Charlotte restaurants over the last three decades; perhaps most notable is his first, Mama Ricotta's. The secret to outlasting the new competition, he says, is simple: Don't change what your customers love.

  • "You're not curing cancer. We're selling food, right? Food, service, and atmosphere. And do a great job," he tells his staff.

Yes, but: That doesn't mean operators aren't making savvy business decisions behind the scenes. Restaurants routinely adapt to challenges in the industry, some of which stem from the pandemic, including:

1. Rising costs. "It's everything from a gallon of milk to the price of beef ribs," James Bazzelle, the owner of Mert's Heart and Soul, tells me. At one point, Bazzelle says, he was shopping in Walmart for Mert's ingredients.

  • Scibelli has also tried to bypass vendor markups by purchasing products direct, as he did with olive oil during the global shortage recently.
  • "The last decision is to raise prices," Scibelli says. "The first decision is to try to buy better."
  • Plus, waste disposal and electricity are also going up, as are property taxes following the recent revaluation, Bouman says.
  • Maintaining a century-old house in Elizabeth is also expensive, says Cajun Queen owner Tim Freer. But the house is part of the restaurant's charm.

2. Staffing. In recent years, Scibelli's raised prices to cover increased wages. The cost was passed onto customers through his menus' most labor-intensive items.

  • Al Mike's is still working to build back up the kitchen staff, Casner says, which is why they've only been open five days a week since 2020.
  • During COVID, corporate restaurants often could afford to raise pay across all positions drastically and quickly. It was challenging for small operators to keep up, says Dish's Amanda Cranford.

3. Neighborhood growth. The fast-changing Plaza Midwood neighborhood was once home to a slate of original restaurants. But franchises have taken over many prime commercial spaces in recent years. In the thick of it, Dish finds itself competing for customers with corporate chains, like Dave's Hot Chicken and Emmy Squared.

  • Cranford is hopeful the new apartments at the Commonwealth development will bring enough residents to support Dish during a difficult time. The cheap-eats diner hasn't recovered since being forced to close for several months because of unforeseen equipment issues.
  • Near Beef 'n Bottle, new apartments popped up after the light rail opened and new diners are living close by. "Our location was in the sticks," Bouman says. "Now everything's growing and coming towards us."

4. Modern-day marketing. These days, diners often seek the recommendations of influencers on social media over traditional food critics. Meanwhile, most single operators still rely on word of mouth.

  • Cajun Queen's "bread and butter" on weekdays is business travel, Freer says, which is gradually recovering from pandemic lockdowns. Al Mike's gets a lot of customers from history tours in Fourth Ward.
  • Bazzelle says much of Mert's lunchtime employee crowd has left Uptown, as workers migrated to South End since the pandemic. Tourists have been a saving grace for the 1998 soul food joint.

The bottom line: "You can get Ruth's Chris anywhere in the country," Bazzelle says. "But you can't get Mert's unless you come to Charlotte."

Editors' note: This story has been corrected to show Alexander Michael's is located in Fourth Ward, not Dilworth.

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