A rambling by Dennis Quaintance, CEO & CSO (Chief Storytelling Officer)
(Some have suggested “CBSO”!)
Come June 5th, Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen will be 25 years old. This is a humbling milestone for us.
They say (I always wonder who those “theys” are) that most restaurants close during their first year, while 70 percent of those that make it past the first year close within the next three to five years. So, by a dog years sort of calculation, that makes Lucky’s as old as Methuselah.
I’m somewhat startled that we’re still standing. I was (and am) worried that running a restaurant is sort of like throwing a party, and folk either don’t show up for it or don’t stay. Thank goodness enough came and stayed! Just because we’ve been around this long doesn’t mean that we think we have some sort of special standing. We think we need to earn each guests next visit each time we serve them. I’m delighted that the fine, competent and friendly people with whom I get to work have cooked food and provided service that met enough expectations to allow us to reach this milestone.
My feelings about, and enthusiasm for, the vision and intentions that are the foundational cornerstones of Lucky’s, and QW as a whole, are as real and as intense as they were a quarter-century ago when we first envisioned them. With this rambling, I’ll focus on stories about the times before and after the opening. Then in our fall letter, I’ll ramble on about the cornerstones that QW is grounded upon and talk about how it’s going with our 25-year experiment attempting to stay true to those ideals. (FYI: Many of these stories are about Nancy and me. We worry that they might come across as self-centered. The reason we’re writing about these topics is because so many have asked about them. We hope you’ll find them interesting and enjoy reminiscing with us.)
Let me tell you a few of my favorite memories:
- At age 15, I got my start in the hotel/restaurant business in the housekeeping department at the Edgewater hotel and restaurant in Missoula, Montana. Just two years later my wonderful bride, Nancy, got her start during school breaks working at the restaurants at Disney World. She too was 15. (For 80 years combined, we’ve “played restaurant/hotel”!)
- A couple of years into my job at the Edgewater, a bigger-than-life fellow from Winston-Salem, Bill Sherrill, showed up as the general manager. By then I’d worked in most of the jobs in the hotel, and I had some leadership responsibilities at the front desk, so Bill asked me to spend the better part of a day showing him around. We became fast friends. Most of you know of Bill because in 1978 he opened Franklin’s Off Friendly near Guilford College (Bill now owns Red Oak Brewery). I followed him somewhere I never thought I’d live, east of the Mississippi, to open Franklin’s. I am glad I did, and I can’t thank Bill enough for everything he taught me, for the opportunities he offered me and for the friendship we still enjoy.
- I met Nancy in December of 1980, when she took a job at Franklin’s over her long winter break from Cornell, where she was in the hotel program. I was (and am) so impressed by her! I could never imagine that someone as competent and worldly as she would be interested in this hick kid, but we hit it off. We got married April 30th, 1983.
- A year after our wedding, Nancy and I took off for a three-week trip to Europe to have fun and to decide which direction to take with our careers. We were considering what kind of experiences we wanted to create in our work lives. We decided that we’d playfully narrow down our hundreds of ideas to the three that seemed like the most fun. Then we carefully imagined what each might be like and considered the “plusses and minuses” of each. It turned out that we found them equal to one another, so much so that we were comfortable literally just drawing straws to decide. (That is a true choice, isn’t it … choosing between things on equal footing?Choosing between good and bad isn’t really a choice: We’d always choose good!) The first of the final three was “Barefoot and Pregnant in New Mexico.” We’d settle out West, buy some land and live “off the grid.” Nancy would teach, and I would do what I learned prior to starting in hotels: excavation work and odd jobs. On the side, we’d find derelict antique airplanes and restore them. With all that, plus kids underfoot, we’d live the peaceful hippy sort of dream. The second option was called “Europe.” Nancy was eligible for a transfer to London or Amsterdam, so she’d take the transfer, and I’d tag along. It was more of a three-year holding pattern than a real career plan. The third idea was “Mr. and Mrs. Hotel–Restaurant, Greensboro.” Guess which one we chose?
- With this plan nailed down, we moved back to Greensboro from Charlotte. Nancy worked with the Marriott during its opening, then later with the Guest Quarters in Guilford College. I oversaw five restaurants with the Battleground Restaurant group. Neither of us was heart-set on “owning” a business; we just wanted to be in this industry and have fun working with others to make things happen. Our idea was that we’d commit to three-year job cycles, then reevaluate to see if we were “living our dream.” In 1988 I left Battleground, and as you know from the opening of this rambling, we opened Lucky 32 on Westover Terrace on June 5th, 1989.
- Finding the location for Lucky’s was quite an adventure. At that time, our section of Westover Terrace was a warehousing, light industrial area. So most, including us for a good while, didn’t see it as a good location for a restaurant. But the more we studied it, the more we became convinced that it would work. Man, a lot of retail has followed! And we later lucked out with a fantastic location in Cary, opening there in 2002.
- We are so fortunate to get to be partners with Mike Weaver. What a great person! I’d known Mike from Franklin’s. When Nancy and I decided we wanted to start a business, we thought of Mike first. We wanted someone to act as a sort of mentor, and we needed investment. Mike and I had lunch one day, shook hands on being partners the next and signed a two-page “partner” letter the next week.
- Obviously, we didn’t want to let people down, so we tested everything. Nancy and I modified most of the first floor of our condo for testing things. We had light tracks dangling from the ceiling to test fixtures and light bulbs. We had the various restaurant names we were considering tacked up on the wall, and we’d ask folk to look at them. We really didn’t pay much attention to what they said about them; instead, we watched their faces and noticed how they reacted. We picked the one that caused the most people to smile. We did the same with the graphics, menu covers (we still use exactly the same tri-fold covers), silverware, plates, glasses … you name it. It really is amazing how many things are the same all of these years later. That is because we had amazing people help us. As helpful as all this was, it was less important than the food, so we also did all sorts of recipe testing.
- Why the name? My father, Laythol (L.W. or Shorty), raced a ‘46 Mercury with a flathead V8 on half-mile dirt tracks around northern Iowa and southern Minnesota. His number was 32. Over the years, and still today, when something good happens, I mutter, “Lucky 32.” Plus — I was thirty two 25 years ago. (No need to do that math.)
- I got to design the kitchen and restaurant’s layout with my dear friend, Bill Carlisle. (Don Rives and others helped with the décor and architecture.) Bill was amazing. He would freehand draw different parts of the restaurant in just minutes. He had the whole thing in his head in such detail that one day when we were under construction he walked in and greeted Carl Rintelmann and me near the front door (Carl was project supervisor and now works with us part time). Bill looked toward the kitchen and said, “Why is that opening higher than I drew it?” (The kitchen opening was 40 feet away and 20 feet wide.) Carl looked at the floor, then up and said, “Mr. Carlisle, it is higher by 1½ inch. How did you know?” Bill said, “I noticed it when I walked in.” That seems like a lie, but it isn’t: Bill was a spatial genius. He was also one of the most caring and emotionally available people that I’ve ever been lucky enough to call my friend. He died some years ago. I could write a book about Bill, but testimony of my feelings about him is that Carlisle is our son’s middle name … and that I’m crying as I write this (sweet tears formed by joyful memories).
- Right from the get-go, part of the menu changed every four to six weeks. In the beginning, each menu featured a different cuisine. We were concerned that if we started right off with a cuisine like “Northern Italy,” folk would think it was an Italian restaurant, so our first menu was “Indian Cuisine.” (In that era, nobody would think that we were an Indian restaurant.) We still update menus every month or so, but now the focus is on the local good stuff that is in season.
- The Chicken Tomato Basil Soup and the Weaver Tuna Salad have been on the menu from the get-go. The Black Bean Cakes were added just a couple of years later. Trivia: One day prior to opening the restaurant, Mike shared that he enjoyed a pretty simple tuna salad without mayo. In just minutes Chef John Jones whipped one up with a mustard vinaigrette. This recipe has never been modified.
- Now a tale about our efforts to buy more food locally. First, we think that the wisdom in Lewis Carroll’s line,“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road’ll take you there,” from Alice in Wonderland is an incredibly helpful notion to employ with some efforts to improve. It is applicable in this instance. Back in ‘01, before it was “all the go,” we decided we wanted to serve more food that was grown or made nearby. We even coined a phrase: “The nearer the farm to the fork, the better the flavor.” But dern it, we didn’t copyright it! We had the sort of “any road” idea that we’d buy a “Field Truck” then hire a “victualer” (one who procures victuals, a.k.a. vittles) to pick up directly from the farms. Fast-forward to last year: We bought $795,000 in food, beer and wine locally! Now our chefs have “chefmobiles” that have ample temperature-controlled space for them to pick up this food themselves, mostly at the farmer’s markets. BTW: You can pick up some of the good stuff from the veggie carts in front of both Lucky’s!
- I can’t ramble on about Lucky’s and not mention our turn to the South. About seven years ago, we decided that a turn toward Southern food felt appropriate and authentic. As fate would have it, that decision was made soon after Chef Jay Pierce joined our team. He is great with food, and he loves learning. He already had a good grounding with the genre, having lived most of his life in the South, but he was like Brer Rabbit in the briar patch with this initiative. With Nancy’s Piedmont culinary grounding and Jay’s giddy enthusiasm and with gentle steering by general managers Karen Walker (who joined this team in 2001) and Shane Garrity (who started in 2006), the turn has been made and we’re now on the Southern road. We even changed the name to Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen!
Our hope is that the next 25 years are as joyful and energizing as the first quarter-century. And we promise that taking great care of our guests and colleagues will remain our top priority.
Cheers! Dennis W. Quaintance