A Personal Perspective on the O. Henry Hotel and the Green Valley Grill
So many people have asked about our new hotel and restaurant in Greensboro, that I decided to answer the questions en masse, via this neighborhood letter. So here goes…
I guess this venture really got started when Nancy King (my wife) and I were fifteen years old. We both started our careers in the hospitality business: she with Disney in Florida, and I in Montana at the Red Lion Hotel in Missoula. Nancy went on to Cornell’s hotel school, and I played various roles in several different hotels, mostly for the same company, and primarily in the West. Then, in 1978 1 moved to Greensboro to open Franklin’s Off Friendly with Bill Sherrill. We hired Nancy during one of her Christmas breaks from Cornell, and then, well… that is how Nancy and Dennis came to be “Nancy and Dennis.” We both stayed in the hospitality business. Nancy worked with Marriott, Guest Quarters, and with John Q. Hammons at his Embassy Suites and Holiday Inn Hotels. For the last three years, she has been with us at Quaintance-Weaver, focusing on our menus and on the O. Henry. I stayed in the business, and ten years ago I teamed up with the greatest guy and greatest partner in the world and started Quaintance-Weaver Restaurants and Hotels. Along with Mike Weaver, we own three Lucky 32 restaurants, the Green Valley Grill and the O. Henry Hotel.
The Community-Centered Hotel
Nancy and I have long observed a gap in the hotel business. Years ago communities had locally-owned, passionately run hotels that were “in and of” the community. These old hotels were close to where people lived and worked, and even though they served the traveling public, they also served their neighbors. They were real centers of community life and a source of pride for the city. Then came the interstate highways and commercial aviation, along with some technical advances in hotel facility design, and poof, the community-centered hotels disappeared. In their place came national, corporately-owned, brand name hotels, situated along the highways or near the airports. These hotels don’t seem to fill the place that the old hotels filled in the hearts of their neighbors. They are in the city but not “in and of” the community and neighborhoods. So, we thought, “Let’s bring back the neighborhood, community-centered hotels of old. Wouldn’t several North Carolina cities love to have a small, tasteful, locally-owned, passionately run, boutique hotel located near where people live, yet convenient for travelers; a hotel that is ‘in and of’ the community?” We are certain the answer is YES!
The O. Henry — “In and Of” Greensboro
We decided to begin our hotel venture in our home community, Greensboro. First we asked, “What is our community about?” Our answer is: it’s about education (five colleges and universities) and culture (a rich history of writers and artists — even the N.C. Poet Laureate); it’s about cooperation and collaboration between industry, government, education, and society in general (I guess meaning cooperation and collaboration between neighbors for the “greater good”); it’s about beauty — natural and man-made beauty; and it’s about blending tradition and innovation. So, with this definition in mind, we set out to design and, of course, eventually operate our hotel paying dutiful honor to the unique character of Greensboro.
Our “in and of” Greensboro idea goes further than the design. First the name. O. Henry, the distinguished and world-renowned short story writer was born in Greensboro as William Sidney Porter in 1862. He authored “The Gift of the Magi,” “The Last Leaf,” “Of Cabbages and Kings,” and “The Ransom of Red Chief,” to name a few. He attended his Aunt Lina’s school in Greensboro before leaving for Texas. (His Aunt’s schoolroom has been replicated at the Greensboro Historical Museum.) After his death in 1910, a local group decided Greensboro needed a modern hotel. So, in 1919 they built one on Bellemeade and called it the “O. Henry.” With this history, we couldn’t resist naming our hotel the O. Henry. “In and of” Greensboro, wouldn’t you say? Additionally, our largest banquet room will be called the “Caldwell Room” for our forefather and esteemed educator, David Caldwell.
We wanted the new O. Henry to look like the original O. Henry, but the way it would look had it been built in 1998 rather than 1919 (tradition and innovation). We honored the rustication and arched windows of the first level, and the old-fashioned, double hung windows in the guestrooms. We also turned to other Greensboro buildings for inspiration – for instance, we borrowed the design of the urns atop Aycock School. The interior will be wonderful, warm and welcoming, without being standoffish or, as I call it “fancy-dancy.” (We sometimes worry that folks think this is going to be a snobby place, but I assure you it will not. It will be nice, it will be friendly, and it will feel like a hotel that’s been around for fifty years. But, it will not be stuffy. No doilies here!) We will have every modern amenity in our oversized guestrooms, including: impressive electronic data connections; an individual direct-dial phone number for each guest; two vanities; a dressing room; a shower separate from a steeping tub; a microwave; a refrigerator; a coffee maker; a full-sized desk; windows that actually open; and a complimentary breakfast, along with gardens, a courtyard, and a pavilion.
The Green Valley Grill – A Great Solution
We knew the hotel was a great idea and that people would love it, but we had a problem. in the hotel industry’s evolution, it managed to give itself a “black eye” in the food and beverage quality department. The current perception is that most hotel restaurants are just “okay,” and that hotel eateries are expensive, dress-up places. These are real problems and I think we’ve figured out a solution.
We will not have a restaurant in the O. Henry, but there will be one adjacent. The Green Valley Grill will stand proudly next to, and attached to, the O. Henry. We are determined that the Green Valley Grill will have it’s own, separate identity. it will be a wonderful, exciting building with a great menu and delectable flavors. In fact, it will be like Lucky 32, only different. It will be like Lucky’s, in that it will feature different menus every month menus that relate to a regional or ethnic cuisine. It will be different, because while Lucky’s menu and decor has a distinctive American, “New World” reference, the Green Valley Grill will have a distinctive European, “Old World” reference. At Lucky’s, the featured menu might offer tastes from the Pacific Northwest one month and from New England the next, where the Green Valley Grill might feature recipes from the Tuscan region of Italy one month and from the Provence region of France the next. In other words, at Lucky’s it’s mashed potatoes with butter, and at the Green Valley Grill it’s creamy polenta with extra virgin olive oil. (The Green Valley Grill will also handle the catering needs for the O. Henry’s 5,400 square feet of banquet space, and the room service for it’s 131 rooms.)
With the Green Valley Grill, our design concept is again a blend of tradition and innovation. Our idea was that we “discovered” an old, abandoned two-story building that was once a mill or a community store; and time had claimed everything, except the shell and the roof. We fantasized that this building was designed in a Tuscan style. So, we took pictures of Tuscan-style buildings around Greensboro — like the Blandwood Mansion, the old store up on Highway 150 at Lake Brandt Road, and the little pump house on Benjamin Parkway at Lake Daniel — and used them as our inspiration. Then we pretended that we truly had discovered the old building, and restored it into a restaurant with a modern, open kitchen, and a huge wood-burning oven, rotisserie and grill. The Green Valley Grill – “in and of” Greensboro as well.
Beyond Design and Name
We believe that a business won’t succeed by just having a good idea. The business must decide what service it is going to provide for the community, then make providing that service its focus. We believe that success will he the natural by-product of meeting the community’s needs. We have developed a five-point mission statement that is our organization’s “reason for being.” It is what we call “the promises we make to our guests and our staff.” (When we bring new people into our company, we explain that on this team you are not subordinate to other human beings but you are subordinate to the ideas held in our mission.) We focus first to serve our guests, and second to provide rewarding employment. Then, when we do these well, we’ve learned that we will naturally be successful. We are proud that we operate under this idealistic premise, and I can assure you that these words are not pop culture rhetoric. They are the soul of Quaintance-Weaver Restaurants and Hotels. This community-centered approach seems simpatico with our observation that Greensboro is, to a certain extent, about cooperation and collaboration.
There you have it. That is my perspective on the O. Henry Hotel and the Green Valley Grill and our dreams for their future. It is really incredible that we have the opportunity to build and operate a dream.
Beyond this dream, it is our ambition to bring similar community-centered hotels and restaurants to other Carolina communities. Stay tuned…