Team Quaintance

By Taft Wireback, News & Record, November 9, 1997

They are the power couple changing the face of Greensboro’s hospitality industry. Staff writer Taft Wireback takes a look at where Dennis and Nancy Quaintance have been and where they are going as they mold themselves into “Mr. & Mrs. Restaurant/Hotel Greensboro.”

One morning 12 years ago, Dennis and Nancy Quaintance were riding a train through the Austrian Alps, trying to figure out what to do with the rest of their lives. They narrowed it down to a few options and gave each a movie title. “Barefoot & Pregnant in New Mexico” was among the front-runners.

There in the rail car, as the snow-capped vistas spread before them, they turned their backs to each other, cast ballots and compared votes. “Mr. & Mrs. Restaurant/Hotel Greensboro,” each had written.

“We got to Innsbruck, had a wonderful lunch and clinked glasses,” Nancy Quaintance recalls. “We said, ‘OK, let’s go.’ ”

The Quaintances, who have emerged as one of Greensboro’s most dynamic husband-wife teams, made personal career decisions that are having a lasting impact on the aesthetics of the Greensboro community. They have over the years played key roles in some of the Triad’s most successful hospitality industry efforts. The former Franklin’s Off Friendly restaurant near Guilford College, the Airport Marriott and Embassy Suites hotels, three Lucky 32 restaurants they own with Greensboro businessman Mike Weaver – all bear the Quaintance touch.

And now, the Quaintances are closing in on their most ambitious project yet: the new $15 million O. Henry Hotel, the inn and adjoining restaurant near Friendly Center.

Dennis and Nancy Quaintance – with the help of Mike Weaver and other partners – hope to recreate the grand hotel of Greensboro’s past through a locally owned inn known for elegant architecture, great food and refined but not elitist service. Greensboro had several such establishments in its heyday as a rail-passenger hub, including the original O. Henry on North Elm Street, built in 1919 and torn down 60 years later.

“If you’re new to Greensboro, we don’t want you driving past and saying, ‘What a lovely new hotel,’ ” Dennis says of the planned inn on Green Valley Road. “We want you to say, ‘Isn’t it wonderful that they’ve preserved this great, old hotel and built a shopping center around it?’ ”

The project is risky. The hotel trade is almost as fickle as the restaurant business. And the new hotel’s restaurant might take clientele away from Lucky 32, only a mile away.

But those who know the Quaintances best say that if anyone can pull this off, it’s Dennis and Nancy.

“They’re a wonderful team,” says Greensboro businessman Bill Halstead, a close friend. “It gives you faith in the order of the universe that two such people found each other.”

The Quaintances come from decidedly different backgrounds. Nancy grew up in a well-established Greensboro family. Her parents, Jamesand Joan King, own J.A. King & Co., a company that sells weighing and measuring devices. Her resume includes diplomas from Greensboro Day School and Cornell University’s well-known school of hotel management, as well as study at the prestigious Johnson & Wales culinary academy in Rhode Island.

Dennis grew up out West, mainly in Nevada and Missoula, Mont. His mother worked at a Kmart. His father was an auto mechanic and would-be inventor whose most eye-catching creation was The Car Bar – a device that pumped beverages from a cooler in the trunk to an array of push-button spigots on the dash. His parents’ marriage broke up in Missoula when Dennis was 13, leaving him and his mother in tough financial straits. College seemed out of the question, so Dennis got a part-time job as a housekeeper’s helper at a hotel in town.

He liked the excitement of a place where actor Carroll O’Connor and U.S. Sen. Mike Mansfield, famed Senate majority leader, were regular guests: “I carried their bags. They knew me. For a few days at a time, I was part of their lives.” Dennis also found in Missoula’s Red Lion Inn a treasure trove of machinery, boilers, furnaces, piping, venting, alarm systems and other gadgetry that scratched his itch for working with mechanical equipment. Dennis inherited his mechanical skills and an inventive nature from his father but got something more important, says Dennis’ older sister, LaDonna Thomas of Boise, Idaho.

“Dad had some brilliant ideas for inventions, but he just never stuck with any of them,” she says. “Dennis gets really solid ideas, and he won’t let go until he works them out.”

Early on, Dennis decided that lack of college wouldn’t hold him back. He read widely and developed a knack for talking about what he learned without coming off as pretentious. He studied people he admired, and he copied what made them successful. He’d borrow this person’s easy conversation skills, that person’s ability to balance financial sheets, another person’s alertness for keeping restaurant tables looking just-so.

He was still in high school when he met the man who would teach him the most: Triad native Bill Sherrill. Sherrill, a supervisor at the Red Lion Inn, met Dennis Quaintance during Sherrill’s first day on the job at the inn. There, Dennis led the new general manager on a tour of the hotel’s critical mechanical systems, providing a detailed account of each one. Sherrill was astounded a 17-year-old kid could be that enthralled by an air-conditioning chiller and how it could be jump-started with auto battery cables if the system crashed.

What impressed Sherrill most was the tremendous responsibility entrusted in so young an employee. Dennis had been promoted to running the front desk most nights. In 1977, when Sherrill began assembling plans for Franklin’s Off Friendly back in his home state of North Carolina, he knew just who he wanted in the key position of general manager. Dennis’ youth – he was barely 20 at the time – was never an issue.

“It was a no-brainer,” says Sherrill, now owner of Spring Garden Brewing Co. “I’d known Dennis for almost four years by then. I knew he could handle it.” In Sherrill, Dennis found a role model. Sherrill had traveled widely in Europe, India and other far-flung settings. He had degrees from Duke University and Cornell’s top-notch hotel school. He knew things about running a restaurant that Dennis hadn’t encountered before, from how to cut large pieces of meat into serving portions to keeping the kitchen running smoothly.

But Sherrill’s biggest contribution was giving Dennis a catbird seat as the new restaurant was designed, built and opened. Dennis saw all the things in Franklin’s that he loved about the hotel industry, from complex machinery to the satisfaction of working in a place where lots of interesting people spent parts of their day.

There was one key difference: An ambitious young man could dream realistically of starting his own restaurant some day. It seemed out of the question that he’d ever have enough money to build his own hotel. Like Dennis, Nancy began charting her career path early. She discovered her talent for cooking at age 9, when her mother was sidelined with a broken leg. She took the lead in the kitchen of her grandfather’s farm on Muirs Chapel Road where her family lived.

Pulling together all the ingredients into a pleasing meal struck some chord deep inside of her: “I love how it feels to present a dish to someone, to have them eat and be thrilled by it.” Nancy decided her niche was somewhere in the hospitality trade after working several summers as a teenager at Walt Disney World in Florida. She started out in entry-level jobs – dish washer, restaurant cashier – and worked up to the host position at the park’s Top of the World restaurant. She reveled in the daily drama at the theme park, its sights and sounds and smells, the challenge of meeting the high expectations of thousands of customers every day.

Her parents were skeptical: With such good grades, why are you selling yourself short?

But when Nancy persisted, they sought guidance from a restaurateur friend who had become a successful entrepreneur. That friend, Ned Allen, former partner in the now-defunct Le Chateau restaurant chain, encouraged Nancy to pursue her dream. And he offered this counsel: Anchor it with a college degree – in this case, one from Allen’s alma mater, Cornell’s highly respected school of hotel administration.

Nancy flourished at the Ivy League school in Ithaca, N.Y. She became a teaching assistant in its food program, training other students in restaurant kitchen skills. During the early 1980s, she also became a key player at the school-run hotel and the gala weekends at which Cornell shows off the skills of its best students to hotel-industry leaders from across the nation.

During those weekends, Nancy supervised other undergraduates, putting together the menu in the Hotel Ezra Cornell’s restaurant and preparing the food. As executive chef, she experienced something new: She was out front in the dining area and could see the appreciative reactions of guests as they tasted dishes she’d helped create.

“I realized right then that even though I loved the preparation, the cooking, I had to figure out a way to be out there interacting with the guests.” Everyone thought that her creative fire would take Nancy into the cooking side of the hospitality business, says former college roommate Kim Blessing-Wenk, who now lives in the Washington area.

“But the reality was … all the really good jobs were in hotel administration,” Blessing-Wenk says.

It was hard switching her focus to administration, but Nancy knew it was a good career move to enter the Marriott chain’s management-training program: “Those first few days, it was really very difficult for me to walk past the kitchen to the front desk.”

She would spend more than a decade as an executive for Marriott and two smaller chains, indulging her passion for cooking only in her spare time. She developed a special skill in the marketing effort before a new hotel opened, making sure it had enough business to be prosperous from Day 1.

By 1994, when she left her third hotel employer to join Dennis at Lucky 32, Nancy had played a critical role starting up six multimillion-dollar hotels from Greensboro to Monterrey, Calif., including both the Airport Marriott and Embassy Suites’ hotels in her hometown. On the Quaintance team nowadays, Dennis is in charge of designing the new hotel, making sure it has the exterior architecture, the structural soundness, interior decor and all the necessary amenities. He also handles financial dealings with business partners and lenders. He’s president of Quaintance-Weaver Restaurants & Hotels – Lucky 32’s parent company.

Nancy is the company’s vice president. On the hotel project, she picks out and negotiates prices for all the hardware it will need to operate, everything from chafing dishes and plate covers for the new restaurant to the O. Henry’s telephone system and its system of card-activated door locks.

She’s also a consultant helping Lucky 32 create new dishes each month. And through her weekly cooking segments on WFMY (Channel 2) and her column in Our State magazine, she’s Lucky 32’s most visible personality.

Over the years, they’ve developed a chemistry that makes them what Dennis calls “perfect collaborators.” “We’re each real comfortable saying, ‘That’s not right. You don’t have it yet,’ and the other doesn’t go ballistic,” he says. “There’s just so much acceptance between us.”

The chemistry between them has enabled Dennis, 40, and Nancy, 38, to keep the Lucky 32 mini-chain running smoothly while they tend to the details that go into building a 131-room hotel-restaurant.

That chemistry recently shone through at Lucky 32 on Westover Terrace during a meeting to finalize the restaurant’s monthly menu changes: With several restaurant managers, they tasted and approved such new dishes as pork with mango-teriyaki glaze, smoked and grilled salmon, artichoke-cheese casserole and chocolate macadamia nut tarts.

Dennis was troubled by the new menu’s working title, “ Pacific Rim.” Lucky 32 is supposed to have American-only cuisine; when it opens next fall, the new restaurant at the O. Henry will offer European food.

It’s critical to success that the distinction be clear in the public mind; Dennis feared the strong Asian flavor of “ Pacific Rim” would confuse Lucky 32 customers. He was thinking about a title that included the more American phrase “West Coast.” West Coast Fusion?

Chef Bart Ortiz was still toying with “Pacific.” Pacific-something, but what? Ideas flew back and forth.

“ Hawaii,” Dennis said. “What about Hawaii?” We need to get across the idea of “hip,” said restaurant supervisor Jim Slowin.

“Hawaiian Hip,” Dennis said. “Hip Hawaii.”

“Hip, Hip Hawaii,” Nancy said.

“That’s it! That’s it!” Dennis said gleefully.

They acknowledge that the nearness of the existing Lucky 32 and the planned hotel/restaurant on Green Valley Road is not ideal. But they’ve studied U.S. Census data and other demographic information on people living within three to five miles of the location, down to the number of relatively well-to-do Volvo owners, Dennis says. There are enough people with disposable income in the area to support the two restaurants, as long as each offers distinctive dining, he says. Dennis and Nancy met at Franklin’s Off Friendly in 1980, when Nancy came to the new restaurant to work during her Christmas break from college.

Each remembers finding the other attractive, but what hit home was the other’s competence. “We put her in the kitchen, and she was great,” Dennis remembers. “We put her at the front desk handling a pretty complicated reservation system, and she did great there, too.”

Similarly, Nancy was drawn to Dennis’ passion for making the restaurant run smoothly. And she liked his ambition: “It was a combination of his Western mentality of just going out there and burning up the world, plus the way he’d pulled himself up by his own bootstraps.” When they married in 1983, they made a vow: no working together, especially not in restaurants. “We just decided that one person in the restaurant business was enough,” Nancy says. “The hours are really tough.”

In fact, shortly after their marriage, Dennis bailed out of the industry, partly to escape the long hours. Using money he’d saved during his tenure at Franklin’s, he bought into a beer and wine distributorship in Charlotte, where Nancy was based as a Marriott executive. But he wasn’t happy: “I was running from something I loved, but I wasn’t running toward anything.”

He sold his part of the distributorship in 1986, setting the stage for the trip to Europe and their vote to become “Mr. & Mrs. Restaurant/Hotel Greensboro.”

Initially, that meant only that they would move back to Nancy’s hometown, where she’d continue working as a hotel executive. He would take a job with the T.K. Tripps’ restaurant chain. They talked it over during the European vacation. As their marriage moved into its third year, the relationship was strong enough to withstand the stress of Dennis working the restaurant industry’s demanding schedule.

For her part, Nancy liked the independent role she’d carved out for herself in the hotel business. Cooking was still her passion, but the challenge of getting a new hotel off the ground and operating at near capacity was a close second. Dennis was less content. He liked the work with Tripps but still felt restless. He wanted to be his own boss. The idea of his own restaurant gnawed at him. So Dennis resigned from Tripps and started crafting a business plan for a restaurant chain called Lucky 32, the name of a stock car that his father once raced. Dennis envisioned a chain of restaurants with a jazzy decor, a menu with many choices and a wide price range. Each restaurant would be located near an established, upscale neighborhood so it would have a base of likely customers minutes away.

A key difference between Lucky 32 and other chains would be its changing menu. New items would be added to the menu every month to deal with the industry’s increasingly trendy nature.

When he finished his business plan, he approached Weaver, a savvy businessman who had made his money in construction and real estate. The two men had been friends since the early days of Franklin’s Off Friendly. They’d meet for lunch occasionally and get together weekends with friends to watch sports on TV.

Over lunch at Southern Lights restaurant near downtown, Dennis laid out his Lucky 32 proposal. He didn’t ask Weaver directly to invest in the project, just for his opinion. “Maybe I was afraid to even hope he’d be a partner because I thought that he might not want to,” Dennis says.

Weaver was leery. He knew little of the restaurant industry. And he didn’t like a major piece of the business plan – it called for Dennis to have seven partners, each investing 10 percent of the startup money.

Dennis saw it as a way to keep creative control at Lucky 32 because his 30 percent investment would be three times larger than anybody else. But Weaver viewed that many partners as a recipe for confusion and, possibly, failure.

He thought about it, weighing the risk against his sense that Dennis had what it took to make a success of his idea. “I was scared of the restaurant industry,” Weaver says, “but I knew Dennis would do what he said he’d do.”

The next morning, the two men shook hands on a revised plan that Weaver suggested: They would be the only partners in Lucky 32. Each man would contribute about a third of the startup money, and they’d borrow the rest so each would own half of the new company’s stock.

Dennis would supply the skill in running a restaurant. Weaver would bring his knowledge of finance, construction and general business management. They designed the building that became the first Lucky 32 so it could quickly be converted to another use if the restaurant failed. It wasn’t necessary. The restaurant was a solid success.

Dennis began building a chain that he thought might one day stretch throughout the Southeast and perhaps beyond. Two more Luckys followed in Winston-Salem and Raleigh. But the partners hit a snag in Charlotte. They couldn’t find a suitable site at an affordable price. They began a 14-state study looking for other cities where the Lucky 32 concept might work.

By then, Nancy had left her job as regional sales director for the John Q. Hammons hotel chain and signed on as a menu consultant at Lucky 32. She felt she’d learned as much as she could about hotels. And her job kept her traveling constantly, scouting new business opportunities for the Missouri-based Hammons chain. “I wasn’t burned out, but it is a tough business, and I was really tired of doing so much traveling,” she says.

Before making the move in mid-1994, she and Dennis had a “family meeting.” They decided their relationship had matured enough that they could abandon their vow 10 years before not to work in the same business. Meanwhile, the Lucky 32 team began reassessing the plan to build a big chain. They knew it would be difficult to coordinate the monthly menu change and keep quality consistent across a domain that could stretch from Florida to Ohio.

They asked themselves whether it wouldn’t be more rewarding to limit themselves to a smaller geographic area but be a larger presence in that area. “In a big chain, your business really becomes real estate and site selection more than restaurants,” Nancy says. “For us, it was a lifestyle decision as much as anything. How do you want to live your life?”

They agreed to abandon dreams of a sprawling empire and focus instead on a region within 200 miles of Greensboro. Inside that realm, they could build more Lucky 32s and create other restaurants, perhaps have several different types of restaurant in the same community.

With Nancy’s experience going for them, they might even branch out into hotels some day.

They got a call about that time from Alan Strong, Nancy’s former boss at the Airport Marriott. The retired hotel manager was working as a consultant for Greensboro’s Starmount Co., which was building offices on a tract near Friendly Center. The office site also had space for a hotel.

Starmount had been talking with the Hyatt Hotels chain about building a 64-room, suites-style hotel on the land. Strong and Starmount felt it could support a bigger, more elaborate inn than Hyatt planned. By mid-1995, negotiations stalled.

Strong wanted to know if Quaintance-Weaver wanted to take Hyatt’s place. Dennis was interested in exploring the idea. In fact, he’d been eyeing the land for years, once telling a planner with the Marriott chain that it was Guilford County’s best undeveloped spot for a hotel. Starmount liked the plan that Dennis sketched out for a high-quality, locally owned inn. Company officials thought enough of it to invest in the project rather than simply selling the land to Quaintance-Weaver, says Coolidge Porterfield, Starmount’s president.

Weaver’s partnership in the project was a big plus, along with the experience that Dennis and Nancy had in the industry, Porterfield says. The “Sample Room” is one of the best places to glimpse what the Quaintances are planning inside the new hotel. The room’s exterior is a web of metal studs and unfinished dry wall, surrounded by the clutter of a warehouse in eastern Greensboro. But inside, the atmosphere is elegant, with more finishing touches being added every day. Soon, it will be the exact duplicate of a suite at the new O. Henry Hotel.

Dennis and Nancy use the Sample Room to test everything from proposed sinks and mirrors to bed sheets, floor tiles, lamps, wallpaper, moldings, draperies, acoustics, even the tin ducts hidden behind the wall for air circulation. “This is going to be exactly the kind of hotel we’ve always thought Greensboro really needed,” Nancy says.

It’s the way the Quaintances operate. Before Lucky 32 opened in 1989, they had a table and chairs built for their home just like those they envisioned in the new restaurant. Dennis rigged fixtures overhead to mimic the lighting they wanted to achieve there. They ate at the table for months, changing the wattage and positioning of the light bulbs until they had the desired ambience, discussing the comfort level of the chairs, testing different plates, stemware and utensils until they found the combination with the right look and heft.

When the Sample Room is finished, Dennis and Nancy will spend hours there, working on their laptops just as they envision business travelers doing in the real O. Henry a year from now. They’ll swap assessments of the atmosphere, the lighting, the comfort of the room’s desk, the convenience of the AC/heating controls. “I don’t think we’ll sleep there, though we’ve talked about it,” Dennis says. “What we will do for sure is take the bed home and sleep on it.”

They acknowledge being workaholics. “We find that even on the weekend, we’re happiest when we can get up and go into work,” Nancy says.

An average day for Dennis can include meetings at one or more of the Lucky 32 restaurants, negotiations with contractors and suppliers of building materials for the hotel, trips to the Sample Room to check out some new feature and poring for hours at a time over the thick sheath of O. Henry architectural plans.

Meanwhile, Nancy is in her office at the Weaver Building near Latham Park trying to figure out why bids on the hotel’s telephone system are coming in $40,000 over budget. Or she’s working with suppliers to sort out which six computer systems are best for the O. Henry’s needs. One recent day began for Nancy at 1:30 a.m. when she got up to finish cooking a country ham so it would have exactly the right look in pictures being shot later that morning for her monthly column in Our State magazine. She went back to bed for a few hours but was up again at 6 to bake biscuits for the photo shoot. By 9:30 a.m., she was arranging the ham, a pan of hash and other props at a photography studio off West Market Street.

At noon, she was in the Lucky 32 kitchen, working on a recipe for her TV appearance next day. She was in her Weaver Building office by 3 p.m. working on the hotel project. Two hours later, she was at WFMY studios making final preparations for her weekly stint on “The Good Morning Show” and its 3:30 a.m. wake-up call.

Her life would be simplified if she weren’t doing TV and magazine work in addition to her restaurant-hotel duties, she says. But the exposure is very good for Lucky 32, Nancy says.

“If you were to stop all at once, you’d lose all that (public) awareness that you’ve spent a lot of time building,” she says.

She and Dennis are low-key and easygoing but seldom distracted very long from business. They live in a Fisher Park townhouse partly because it frees them from yard care and other home maintenance that could cut into work time.

When they get together with Bill and Martha Halstead or other friends, it’s often in the kitchen to experiment with new recipes, some of which end up on Lucky 32’s menu. They enjoy traveling, but one of the allures is checking out new restaurants for inspiration. The Quaintances don’t regret choosing their careers over starting a family 12 years ago. Their work pace is demanding, but Dennis and Nancy say children still could be in the picture some day. Right now, though, the O. Henry is their baby. And after the new hotel is designed, built and opened, then what?

“Once it’s up and running,” Nancy says, “I think we look to do it again in another market.”