Chef Ashley Christensen bets it all on downtown Raleigh | Food Feature | Indy Week
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Chef Ashley Christensen bets it all on downtown Raleigh 

Countdown to opening day begins

Ashley Christensen and a designer put the finishing touches on the hand-painted logos at Beasley's Chicken + Honey, one of Christensen's new restaurants to open this month.

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

Ashley Christensen and a designer put the finishing touches on the hand-painted logos at Beasley's Chicken + Honey, one of Christensen's new restaurants to open this month.

If you persuade Ashley Christensen to slow down and sit for a spell, you'll learn the following: She has no middle name. She was a C-plus student but also student body president. She has a red handwritten tattoo on the inside of her left bicep that reads "... Life is rich and full ..." borrowed from artist Luke Miller Buchanan. Her father was a truck driver and an amateur beekeeper; her mother, a Realtor and a skilled cook. When the young family was at home in Kernersville, N.C., Christensen remembers idyllic days of gardening and entertaining. For this celebrated chef who never took a single culinary course, childhood itself was an apprenticeship for her chosen career.

This mid-July morning she has been delayed by a City of Raleigh building inspector's surprise visit to the triple-restaurant project she's developing at the corner of Wilmington and Martin streets. The 6,500-square-foot building, once a Piggly Wiggly, is now divided into three separate venues with one vast shared kitchen. The inspector has just identified a potential Massive Glitch, but Christensen decides, uncharacteristically, to step away and let the contractor deal with it. "I thought about having a meltdown and then decided against it," she says.

Christensen's piercing blue eyes stand out against a creamy '50s-style cardigan and a cherry red T-shirt silkscreened with the periodic table. Pale pink corduroy cut-offs come to the knee above steel-blue canvas Vans, no socks. Other than a watch and petite silver hoops, she wears little decoration. Oversize black Miu Miu sunglasses give a fashion-forward finishing touch.

Over dark iced coffee at the Wilmoore, and then grilled chicken salad at Busy Bee, she talks for nearly three hours about the past year and a half.

Everything's on the table, she says: the ambitious trifecta of new restaurants, sleep deprivation, compulsive jogging, an emotionally exhausting breakup, a life coach, a new long-distance relationship, making the semifinals for the James Beard Foundation's Best Chef Southeast award, along with mentor Andrea Reusing, who won. Not to mention philanthropy, which she estimates takes 40 percent of her time; her new business moniker AC Restaurants, which includes her established restaurant, Poole's Downtown Diner; her upcoming 35th birthday; and financing three simultaneous ventures in a climate of tight-assed banking rules. Then, of course, there's her appearance July 24 on national television battling Bobby Flay on the Food Network series Iron Chef America.

By the time she returns to her construction site, the Massive Glitch is a memory and the city inspection has passed. Joy! Relief. Reality.

Countdown to opening day begins.

Sometime in the second fortnight of August at Beasley's Chicken + Honey—and "just days later" at Chuck's burger joint, then "very soon after" at Fox Liquor Bar—yards of brown butcher paper will be torn from street-front windows where for months it has impertinently shrouded all secrets inside. The only hint of restaurant life has been a black-and-white poster shouting "now hiring: all positions/badasses."

On opening day, as the very first guests file in and mill about, a low murmur will bubble up above the silence as The Curious begin noticing and evaluating the signifiers, puns and efficiencies Christensen has woven in. When they get their first good look at Beasley's, here's what they'll see: wide-plank pine floors, gorgeous, like poured honey with a matte beeswax finish. Seating for 70, including four 6-foot tables to make a communal space. Industrial-metal twirly stools. A bar with a red-stained oak front, clean lines, thin raw-metal top. Rough-touch brick walls, spans of glass, and—can it be?

A giggle of comprehension, a light scratch of fingernails: Beasley's entire left-hand wall is chalkboard, floor to ceiling. No paper wasted on daily menus. It's Poole's on steroids.

Then someone orders a beer. The next revelation? No PBR in a can, or rather, no can. "The whole building is draft," says Christensen. Whether you're standing in Beasley's, Chuck's or Fox, everything that can be tapped is, from keg cocktails to Saison to root beer. The result? Far less recycling material and no time lost restocking or refrigerating individual beers. Downstairs, one temperature-controlled keg room is linked by pipe chases and hoses to each bar, keeping taps flowing at all times: six at Beasley's, four at Chuck's and 12 at Fox.

When Chuck's opens next door to Beasley's, the first guests to enter will admire the cut-out ceiling with exposed rafters and lollipop-red Edison bulbs. They will perhaps laugh at the pâpier-maché bull's heads by the artist Jane Gray (a sassy reminder of what's on the grill) or notice that the sign outside resembles the sash over a prizewinning steer.

Even the loo is carefully considered. The first reveler to excuse himself will return to camp with news that the WCs are roomy and unisex. That silver curvy device hanging from the wall? NOT a urinal. Enjoy your paper-free personal Dyson Airblade hand dryer (retail price: $1,599, per Google), and never again emerge from the loo with a damp paper towel stuck to your heel.

After pointing out a 4-foot-wide futuristic ice machine ("Perfect individual squares, very clear, no dimple") Christensen acknowledges that her micromanagement of gadgetry has lengthened the project time. But she's adamant, too, that it will improve working conditions for her staff, not just physically but psychologically.

The kitchen interior, not just the part seen by the diners, is wrapped in expensive sparkle-white subway tile. The kitchen ceiling is high, with its own built-in speaker system. Soft fluorescent squares light each workspace, rather than long sick-green tubes. A night-light mode means the first worker entering each morning won't have to stumble around in the dark. And above the pastry corner, a circle of simulated natural sunlight shines down on a thick block of maple, inspiring pastry chef Stephen Kennedy to pinnacles of buttery perfection.

Perhaps it's a function of Christensen's bravado or her ability to read the economy, but signature dishes define her restaurants, not the other way around.

Chicken. Burgers. Cocktails. Meals for $8–$12. Christensen is hyper-aware that they are "single-note" in style, but she sees that as their strength. "I want to create a place where, for whatever percentage of people that wake up on Friday morning and go, 'I really want fried chicken today,' I want there to be one place that comes to mind."

Beasley's Chicken + Honey anchors the corner of Christensen's building and holds the most meaning for her. "As a little kid, you know you have those moments where you're very emotional and your parents just laugh at you and it drives you absolutely insane? When I would throw a fit my mom would say, 'You look just like a little old lady! We're going to call you Mrs. Beasley,'" a doll from the 1970s television show Family Affair.

Christensen actually owns a Mrs. Beasley doll, and her mother still uses the pet name, phoning at times for "Bease," perplexing new employees. Christensen smiles. "Finally you just grow up and embrace it a little bit."

Menus for all three venues are still being tweaked, but Christensen reveals some clues.

"The fried chicken and honey [at Beasley's] is a huge thing for me because my mother was from Memphis and my father was a beekeeper. That thing that it does to the palate is something special to me."

Beer seems the natural fit here, and Fullsteam in Durham is brewing a special Beasley's commission with gallberry honey and cracked pepper, but Christensen is also eager to push a Champagne/ fried chicken pairing. Don't think Champagne requires white meat. Demand all-white and Christensen might step out from the kitchen and whop you with a drumstick.

"I grew up knowing that when you sit down at a hot dinner, fried chicken is dark meat. White meat is picnic chicken! At Beasley's we're doing light meat and dark meat at the same price. We're [trying to] break down that perception [that light meat is privileged]."

Next door to Beasley's, Chuck's has no sexy back story to its name, though the building's structural engineer, Chuck Lysaght, wishes it did. It's simple, says Christensen. The meat is "all from the chuck muscle. We're doing eight signature burgers, one really simple that I think we'll call Suburbia."

Pair that with the five-dollar shake for suburban swagger.

The kitchen is outfitted to create the perfect burger, Christensen explains. "We've been really careful with our equipment selections: We're doing CVap [controlled vapor oven] right to a really badass Keating Miraclean griddle. We're grinding in-house, of course, an 8-ounce burger, which is a pretty healthy burger. Everybody else is doing these little guys."

Expect to see a tarted-up "Dirty South Carolina Burger," topped with fried onions, slaw, mustard and house-smoked pork chili made with Sea Island red peas from Anson Mills. And the all-important frites are the twice-fried Belgian variety, with three aiolis.

"It's real simple but [we're treating it] much like the things that are classic at Poole's: taking it, controlling every element of it and tweaking it out as hard as we can," she says.

Christensen has 20 full-time employees running Poole's; the new project will add 60 more to the AC Restaurants family. She already relies heavily on Poole's General Manager Matt Fern. Derek Ryoti, who has worked in independent restaurants but most recently at Panera, will be GM of her new ventures. ("He had systems," says Christensen.) Scott Martin, coming from Four Square in Durham, will be kitchen manager.

The hiring of pastry chef Stephen Kennedy from Chapel Hill's Cypress on the Hill illustrates Christensen's executive style. "He was doing all this precious stuff," remembers Christensen. "It was prettier than it was great. But I could see how talented he was. So I called him and said 'Make me an apple pie. Not a tart. An apple pie that has nothing in it but apples, one other thing and some killer crust. Make me an apple pie.'

"So he [comes from Durham and] drops off an apple pie, and I'm like, 'That's all. Thanks. I'll call you. We'll get the pie pan back to you.'

"After he leaves, Matt [Fern] and I cut this pie open and eat a slice and just look at each other. I'm like, [singsongy] 'I told ya! I told ya!'"

"So Stephen comes to work the first day. I say, 'Make a kick-ass chocolate cake.' He and I are standing in front of a wooden table and looking at this invisible idea. He's looking at the table, and he's like, 'I want to make little chocolate cakes.' I'm looking at him and he says, 'But you want me to make ... ' and I'm like, 'Yes! Big. Big.'

"He makes this big chocolate cake and it's amazing. Then it gets this rich cocoa nib cream. Then he starts making angel food cake that will melt your mind. I make him work with three ingredients and then he starts adding little tweaks, and they're brilliant desserts."

The first guest to order a drink at Fox Liquor Bar's driftwood-gray bar might well be Fox himself. The namesake is Christensen's father, Robert, whose North Carolina friends call him Fox. Speaking from his home in Orient, Long Island, Mr. Christensen says he mixes mojitos when his daughter visits, "but I'm more of a bourbon man if I'm going to sit down and have some cocktails."

Bourbon and chicken, maybe?

"Sounds real good."

The elder Christensen is a natural storyteller, with a distinguished, gravelly Southern voice undiluted by Long Island. "As a child, Ashley would do anything she could possibly do to make money. Not just washing cars, she had to have a detail business. And an employee. She's always been an entrepreneur," he laughs.

"When she was growing up, we had the organic garden and all. Whatever came out of the garden is what we ate; you might buy something from the grocery store but the majority was from there. And there'd always be music playing and people coming over and enjoying themselves, having wine. She more or less grew up in that scene, and when she started doing it, she had to kick it up a notch."

Kicking it at Fox Liquor Bar will be craft cocktails with a small menu of bar food—cold plates like charcuterie, cheeses, cold fried chicken with bourbon and, when in season, oysters.

"The bar [was] the biggest question mark," Christensen admits. "I know how to make drinks. I know how to make drinks that I like. I'd been going up to New York a lot [on tasting junkets]. I met this girl and started going to bars that she's bartending at. She was just kind of blowing my mind [with her drinks] . . . So I brought her down here [to Raleigh] about a month ago. I knew she would be energized by the project, but ultimately she was really taken with it."

Karin Stanley is her name, and to say she's a cult figure in the cocktail world is an understatement. She is a partner at Dutch Kills and bartender at Little Branch, two of New York's hottest cocktail bars. Time Out New York writes, "Stanley is as swift, knowledgeable and obliging as any bartender, but she's also social, goofy and a little salty—an electric combo that makes her one of our favorites in town."

She has contracted with AC Restaurants to stay in Raleigh four days a week for the opening two months of Fox. After that she will fly down at least once a month to make sure it's to her specifications. Her Fox business cards read "Cocktail Culturalist, Assignment South."

Stanley is now in the throes of writing the liquor list and the beverage menu for Fox. Look for a Bacon Old Fashioned featuring Angostura bitters, maple syrup, house-smoked bacon-washed bourbon and an orange twist on the rocks; or a classic Tuxedo #2 (or Turf cocktail), a precursor to the martini as we know it today, made with orange bitters, Luxardo Maraschino, Dolin dry vermouth, gin and absinthe, served straight up with a lemon twist.

"We've given [Karin] permission to hire her whole staff here, her managers. She's known all over the country. This just became a national project." Christensen pauses to frame the rest of her idea.

"Sometimes I feel like things in the South, or anywhere outside of metropolitan places, if you popped it in the middle of a city, could it thrive and survive? The answer for me should be yes. I believe you could take Poole's and put it in the middle of Brooklyn and it would fucking slay. That's how I want things to be [at Fox]."

The neighborhood has filled in around South McDowell Street, but when Poole's opened in 2007, the convention center was unfinished, the Raleigh amphitheater only an idea and what's now a busy cross street with Capital Club 16 and Kings was deserted at night. Poole's was "98 percent destination," not an impulse stop, concedes Christensen. Though it turned debt-free in record time, Poole's could have been a risky move.

Beasley's, while not geographically remote, is on a grittier section of Wilmington Street than similar venues. The building was abandoned and condemned when it caught the eye of downtown developer David Meeker, who rents the space to AC Restaurants. For 50 years, the site was a series of community groceries, from Piggly Wiggly to Downtown IGA and Jimmie's Market, until it was converted to a rooming house and fell into disrepair more than a decade ago. Christensen and Meeker own matching, framed black-and-white prints of the building as Piggly Wiggly in the 1950s. She is attracted to the romance of a property's history and has become a one-woman social engineer, pioneering into areas that have languished. Some might call it urban planning. She calls it "activating."

"[Grand streets like] Fayetteville Street play a very important role. But for the things I want to do, Wilmington Street makes perfect sense. It's sort of the little sister who's being bad. We needed somebody to activate that corner. And to me the greatest nod to what we're doing [with Beasley's] will be when it's clear that someone had the confidence to venture into one of those buildings on the next block because of what we did."

Asked what Raleigh needs to continue on this trajectory, Christensen doesn't hesitate. "City government support for putting [more] independent retail downtown, four incredible tiny retail outlets. I feel like Durham has a lot of city support. This [Raleigh] amphitheater project, it's not booked nearly enough. They absolutely need to be doing a weekly community show. [But] I think Raleigh's doing a lot right.

"Ten years ago, downtown Raleigh was a ghost town, total tumbleweeds on the weekends. Now I see this huge network of people my age who are so invested in ownership of downtown. Raleigh Denim is going to make a few things for the new place, [like] our check presenters: 'Raleigh Denim for Fox Liquor Bar.' We want our friends like that to have some presence in these [restaurants]. Those are our homies."

The original 1945 cash register from Poole's glows in the sunlight beside a stark wall of windows in Christensen's living room. Her décor is unfussy, walls covered minimally with art and photography by Alex Harris, Luke Miller Buchanan and Paul Friedrich. Yellow and orange accents splash against the black cabinetry and slate floors of her working kitchen.

This modernist home clad in beige fondant-smooth stucco seems a mere extension of its new commercial cousins three miles to the east (all born of the same architect). Restaurant spore fills the house: boxes of freshly cut business cards stacked in Christensen's home office; oil-slick bull's heads destined for Chuck's napping on a guest bed. A cutting board custom-etched with the AC logo reclines on a stainless kitchen prep surface beside a stack of russet-and-cream Hatch prints of roosters and hens intended for Beasley's. Four Campbell's soup cans secure the prints' curled edges.

This late afternoon in July, Christensen wears a Roman Candle band T-shirt and the same off-white cardigan as last week. A skeletal cat appears from nowhere. The 6-pound, full-size, non-shedding Cornish Rex named Luci turns from lamb to lion and back again with no provocation, other than possibly the cheese platter Christensen has set out. It's a feline mystery how two smallish humans will get through the Humboldt Fog, Sottocenere and aged Gouda without Luci's assistance.

Christensen points out the half-enclosed patio and monstrous pig cooker where she entertains and holds fundraisers. Fundraising has become her surprise passion. In 2003, as the 26-year-old chef at Enoteca Vin, she was neither a fundraiser nor a bicyclist, yet decided to do the Ride for AIDS from Raleigh to Washington, D.C. Gab Smith, whom Christensen calls her "life coach" ("That's really ridiculous. We just inspire each other!" laughs Smith) recalls the first significant fundraising of Christensen's life:

"At the time, AIDS Rides [were] all over the country. That ride for her was kind of a physical, mental, intellectual, emotional way to give 100 percent. She pretty much broke not every barrier she set, but every barrier that the event set."

In that particular race series, each rider raised an average of $2,700. By race day, Christensen had raised more than $56,000, 20 times the average.

"Every huge decision I've made, personal and career-wise, I have sat down 80 percent of the time with Gab Smith," says Christensen. "In the past year and a half, I've lost 26 pounds [after ending] a relationship that lasted two years. It was one of those rock-bottom experiences. I went to work [at Poole's] completely destroyed, and my team was like, 'Nah, go home.' I spent about a month just wrecked.

"But it was the most amazing thing in the world because I realized, they don't need me! It's time to figure out what I can do with [this] fact ... I just sort of took my life back. I started figuring out how to be more powerful for myself."

Though dressed like a hipster in her 20s, Christensen has the demeanor of a woman years older: kind, yet crisp and businesslike, pointedly moving conversations in the right direction. Her time really is money. This decisive style likely reassures investors following her lead. Current fundraising, often in conjunction with friend Eliza Kraft Olander, a philanthropist, is focused on two nonprofits: Share Our Strength, aimed at eradicating childhood hunger, and the Frankie Lemmon Foundation to educate children with special needs. To date, the Christensen-Olander duo has raised more than $500,000 for their lead causes.

Christensen also opens her home—and pig cooker—for Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) potlucks four times each year.

Southern scholar and New York Times columnist John T. Edge is director of the thousand-member SFA, which documents and celebrates the diverse food cultures of the American South. Though based at Ole Miss, SFA now has its largest membership in North Carolina and Georgia. Edge marvels at Christensen's $150-a-plate Stir the Pot dinner series: "She's had a big impact on our bottom line. This last year, $30,000 of the $100,000 film budget came straight from Stir the Pot events," the next two of which will be at Poole's Aug. 14, with guest chef Ed Lee, and Sept. 18 with guest chef John Fleer.

"If you set out to build a restaurant that brings a wide range of people together," Edge believes, "as opposed to a restaurant that seeks to stratify and exclude, then [it] can be a real community-building force. I hear that in quite a few chefs of her generation who think of their work in terms of social responsibility and also flat-out joy. It's not only about how good the stuff is on the plate, it's about what are the possibilities for a progressive South."

Consciously or not, Christensen's homegrown work for a progressive South may be what secures the national recognition she admits seeking: a James Beard Foundation Best Chef award. She cooked at The Beard House in New York in 2005, but she hopes to return soon, to revive that connection. Ben Barker of Durham's Magnolia Grill, a past winner of the award, thinks that may be overkill.

"[The Beard award is] an industry acknowledgment; it's your peers suggesting that you've done the requisite work to be recognized . . . Those people [at SFA] are powerful food people in the United States. She can achieve the same or greater success by continued involvement with SFA and not do another thing for the Beard Foundation," says Barker.

"John Currence [of Oxford, Mississippi's City Grocery] and John T. are both fans of Ashley Christensen," Barker notes. "I'm not suggesting—this is not to say she's conniving. I just think she's making some smart moves that enable her to keep her profile up. It makes her a good businessperson because that's how you stay busy in a sketchy economic climate for restaurants."

It's debatable whether frequent tweeting counts as a smart business move, but if any restaurateur were made for social media, Ashley Christensen would be it. She seems comfortable with the form, and her @poolesdiner Twitter feed (with 2,700+ followers) is genuinely funny, in vivid contrast to most who get tweet-fright and go all hammy. She'd make a fine writer if she weren't such a fine chef.

"I'm full of those weird stretchy yawns today that force you to make baby pterodactyl noises."

"We're cooking fresh pink-eyed peas in whey from our raw milk curd project this morning. No way? WHEY. I adore my life."

"11 am tequila tasting canceled. This is probably a good thing."

There's a downside to Christensen's openness. Everybody thinks they know her. "About a year ago, I was tweeting at the time maybe too personally. I came up with this feeling that if I was really honest about my life, nobody had to make it up. So Twitter became really fun, something that drove me in my creative process. As someone who's tremendously ADD, I needed something to answer to. I needed to write about the tomatoes that morning so I'd finish the dish by 3 p.m.," Christensen explains. Twitter also allows some degree of image control.

"Having grown up here and feeling like some people sort of resented me for young success, which I'm certainly not ashamed of, there was a time when people would say things [that weren't true]. There are a couple of schools—there's Ben Barker and there's Scott Howell, and they produce pretty different cooks. I felt like I was sort of coming into an old club, and figuring out, Did you want to Belong or did you want to just Be?"

Last month, while working at the Poole's counter, Christensen saw a rare complaint come across Twitter. A man new to Poole's was scanning the menu, tweeting about the loss of the building's former restaurant, Vertigo.

"I looked around the dining room: That's him. I asked the server, What did he order? 'The tartare and mac and cheese.' So I watched the guy, waited a few minutes, and I write, 'How's the tartare?' [We tweet back and forth.] Finally I sent him some dessert. He ends up being a social media guy, and the next day he writes this piece that's like, 'This is how you make Twitter work.'"

On July 24, the night her Iron Chef episode aired, Christensen threw herself a bash at Kings.

Frank Thompson of AVMetro set up a big-screen projector. Designer Joshua Gajownik printed posters with an "Ashley" meat cleaver poised over a "Bobby Flay" rolling pin. The El Rey del Taco truck catered with suggested donations going to the Frankie Lemmon Foundation. Tecates were on the house, and Christensen moved through the tight crowd, grinning and hugging all her people gathered under one roof. Poole's sous Juan Esparza and Vin Rouge chef Matthew Kelly—her team for Iron Chef—were there propping her up, as were close friend Brad Cook of the band Megafaun; Christensen's girlfriend, national editor of "Tasting Table" Kaitlyn Goalen, who flew in from New York to surprise her; VarmintBites blogger Dean McCord and dozens of other food industry folk.

Only a few close friends and family who had joined her for the taping last summer in New York knew that she would lose to Flay. It takes a solid psyche and a few Tecates to stand amongst a hundred-plus people while watching yourself critiqued on national television. Asked for a pregame quote, Christensen throws back her head and laughs.

"How am I feeling? Tremendously honored by my friends. I'm beside myself for the fact that this feels like a wedding."

Moments later, the dark screen turns blue. Kitchen Stadium appears in all its kitsch and melodrama. Heads turn to the front, but the bar gets anything but quiet. While program host Alton Brown gives his intro, someone in Kings begins a round of "Let's Go Ashley!" to the tune of the Tar Heels sport chant. When Flay shows up, unprintable words stream forth from the crowd and middle fingers rise high like lighters during a power ballad.

The secret ingredient is announced: chum salmon.

"It's funny, so many varieties of salmon would have been a total dream ingredient to highlight," says Christensen, reflecting on the experience. "This particular salmon is really fatless and flavorless. It's my nature, when dealing with a less than stunning ingredient, to put it in the background and to celebrate other flavors of the season. Unfortunately [chuckling], it's not a characteristic that would make me an Iron Chef."

Onscreen, the cooking starts. Flay barks orders. His sous burns a pot of reducing Pinot, to great cheering at Kings. Flay is flailing. Christensen checks in calmly with her team. "Little more salt, little more acid," she tells Kelly for his shallot sauce. (As the onscreen Kelly lowers a vacuum baggie of frog legs into a water bath, one partygoer tips back her head and screams, "I love you, immersion circulator!")

Later, Esparza recalls the taping: "The [camera] guys came up and said, 'What about this? What about that?' I was like, 'Get out of my face! I don't want to talk to you. I'm just cooking.'"

Kitchen Stadium is designed to create havoc. Chefs and teams have their backs to one another; storage units are far from prep tables; lights are hot and disorienting. At 17 minutes left, Christensen remembers, she still hadn't plated anything.

Too soon, time's up. When judge Cady Huffman tells Christensen, "I haven't found a bite that I don't like," a roar erupts inside Kings. The judges are testy with Flay ("chewy," "dry") so it seems a shock when the scores flash up: 45 Flay, 35 Christensen.

The mood at Kings lowers for but an instant. Christensen's crowd considers having a meltdown and decides against it. They've done their own judging. Luke Miller Buchanan, who has bartended at Poole's since the day it opened, maintains perspective:

"I know what the rest of America doesn't know, and that is that for the next six months we're going to slay at Poole's. I can barely keep my head above water as it is, but I'm good. I'm ready for it. I'm just gonna drink a lot more coffee."

Flash back to mid-July, the hottest week on record. It's been a long day for Christensen, one meeting after another, and it's only noon. Beasley's, Chuck's and Fox still need furniture unpacked, kitchen stocked, glassware ordered, menus finalized, websites made live, staff trained. It's monumental. After giving a tour of the job site to three interested observers, Christensen and the group wander outside to Wilmington Street.

Talk moves to the neighborhood. An adjacent block on Martin has a perfect storefront begging for development, someone says. The group turns to look in that direction.

"A shake shop!" another suggests. Of course Chuck's five-dollar shake might compete.

"A really good coffee shop," Christensen throws in. "As much as Raleigh would like to believe it has a really good coffee shop, it needs a killer one."

She pauses, thinking, looking up the street.

"I also like the idea of Neapolitan pizza. Hmm. Five simple pizzas, maybe ..."

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