Chef Ashley Christensen cooks up a Raleigh-based eating empire in short order.
By Leah Hughes
If you want to eat at Poole’s Downtown Diner, be sure to plan ahead. The Raleigh restaurant — which matches the makings of a traditional diner (pressed-tin ceilings, red-and-black decor, macaroni and cheese) with modern embellishments (eclectic music, locally sourced ingredients, $9 blackberry sangria) — serves only dinner and accepts no reservations. Guests begin arriving at 5. Dinner starts at 5:30. If you’re not there by 6, expect to wait. On this Friday, a middle-aged man from north Raleigh sits at the bar. He drives south every week for treatments but declines to specify what kind. Just treatments. Regardless, he thinks he deserves a nice meal and orders $20 North Carolina flounder and two $8 glasses of white wine. Poole’s is part of his Friday routine, but he didn’t stumble upon the restaurant. Its location on a one-way street, with tree limbs obscuring its sign, doesn’t encourage chance encounters. He came because he saw the chef was nominated for a James Beard Foundation award — the Oscars of food service.
From Emeril Lagasse to Guy Fieri, chefs have become headliners, and North Carolina has its own set of celebrities. Andrea Reusing of Lantern in Chapel Hill won a James Beard in 2011. Vivian Howard of Chef & the Farmer in Kinston has her own PBS program, A Chef’s Life. Though she doesn’t star in her own TV show, Ashley Christensen, the chef/owner of Poole’s, has been featured in Bon Appetit and Southern Living, competed on Iron Chef America on The Food Network and was a James Beard semifinalist in 2013 and 2014. And more than other Tar Heel chefs, she has used her platform to build an empire. AC Restaurants LLC has opened five venues in Raleigh since 2007 and announced plans for three more this year.
Christensen, 37, grew up in Kernersville, an hour and a half west of Raleigh. Her father drove a truck but also was an organic gardener and beekeeper. Her mother was an Air Force brat who had lived in North Dakota, England and Japan. “I think she had an interesting perspective on Southern food.” Christensen moved to Raleigh to attend N.C. State University in the mid-1990s. There, she read about cuisine and invited friends over to eat and finance what she learned. After four years of college, focusing on business design and writing, she left without a degree. She then took a job at Humble Pie, the restaurant she credits with sparking the downtown Raleigh dining scene. She moved to Enoteca Vin in Raleigh, where she worked under Reusing, then Nana’s in Durham. She returned to Vin in the early 2000s as executive chef.
Christensen’s Poole’s isn’t the original. John Poole opened a pie shop at 426 S. McDowell St. in the 1940s, and it became a popular lunch and then late-night spot. She tended bar there in her 20s, loved the space and bought the diner in 2007. “It’s the last place I would site a restaurant,” says David Diaz, president of Downtown Raleigh Alliance. “But people in Raleigh like to preserve buildings.” Christensen was backed by a patron, who invested with the intent of being bought out. “She said, ‘Listen, this is a really tough business,’” Christensen recalls. “‘I want you to get in there and get settled and be successful and start thinking about paying this back at month 36.’” She restored original aspects of Poole’s, including the horseshoe bar and red leather banquettes, but added such modern aesthetics as Lucite chairs. Guests leave coveted seats to survey the blackboard menu on the wall. The fare is simple with small flourishes — a $21 crab cake, for example, teetering atop summer squash and heirloom tomatoes. If you like what you got last time, too bad. It’s probably not there anymore. The 75-seat restaurant averages almost 200 diners a night. Though she did not disclose revenue, Christensen repaid her investor by month 35.
As Poole’s took off, so did downtown. The Raleigh Convention Center and the Raleigh Amphitheater (now Red Hat Amphitheater) opened nearby in 2008 and 2010, respectively. She spotted the trend and inquired about a building, originally a Piggly Wiggly supermarket, about half a mile from Poole’s. “The next thing you know, we were leasing the whole building.” She envisioned three concepts under its roof — Beasley’s Chicken + Honey (fried chicken), Chuck’s (hamburgers) and Fox Liquor Bar — and got a loan and interest-earning investors. They debuted in 2011 and share a kitchen, wait staff and sales system. She opened Joule Coffee a few doors away last summer. Its brick walls are lined with old coffee cans and carafes, and the beans come, via Durham-based Counter Culture Coffee Inc., from places such as northern Peru.
Poole’s employed 28, but the expansions have increased AC Restaurants’ staff to about 150. “One of the things that’s sort of my newfound favorite strength is really enjoying finding strengths in others that aren’t my strengths,” Christensen says. Delegating will become more important as she launches more venues this year. Death and Taxes — the three-story building around the corner from Poole’s has past lives as a funeral home and bank — will have a bar in the basement and a restaurant on the main floor. The top two floors, Bridge Club, will host private events. There will also be an auxiliary kitchen — called Aux — to support all of her restaurants.
Food-service companies with weak management tend to stumble at six or seven units, says David Kincheloe, president of Golden, Colo.-based National Restaurant Consultants Inc. But Christensen sees strength in scale. She hired a service manager to oversee all front-of-the-house employees, which will take some of the load off of Poole’s General Manager Matt Fern, who became beverage director. “I wake up every day with anxiety that I’m not doing my job well enough because I have that much care and respect for what she’s doing,” Fern says.
Poole’s is still Christensen’s home base, and maintaining a presence there is not just personal, it’s business. “If [the chef] spends less and less time in each restaurant, it gives the consumer less and less incentive to visit,” says Mary Chapman, director of product innovation at Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based food-industry consultancy. That’s why Christensen has no office and lives in a part of Raleigh they call Forest Hills. Or at least she thinks they do. The name doesn’t matter that much. She can get to Poole’s in 9 minutes. That’s what’s important.
And the nominees are...
The New York-based James Beard Foundation honors the best of food and beverage in North America,
and 12 semifinalists are from North Carolina in 2014. The real winner was the Triangle, home to nine.
Outstanding Restaurant: The Fearrington House Restaurant, Pittsboro
Outstanding Pastry Chef: Phoebe Lawless of Scratch, Durham
Outstanding Restaurateur: Giorgios Bakatsias of Giorgios Hospitality Group Inc., Durham
Rising Star Chef of the Year: Katie Button of Cúrate, Asheville
Best Chef, Southeast: Colin Bedford of The Fearrington House Restaurant, Pittsboro; Ashley Christensen of Poole’s Diner, Raleigh; Scott Crawford of Herons, Umstead Hotel, Cary; Vivian Howard of Chef & the Farmer, Kinston; Scott Howell of Nana’s, Durham; Meherwan Irani of Chai Pani, Asheville; Matt Kelly of Mateo, Durham; Aaron Vandemark of Panciuto, Hillsborough