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Greenville Business Magazine

25th Anniversary: A salute to Greenville's dining pioneers

Oct 04, 2018 03:59PM ● By Emily Stevenson
By Emily Stevenson
Photos by Greenville Headshots

When Nello Gioia opened Ristorante Bergamo downtown in 1986, the chef and owner was considered a pioneer.

“Everyone said no one would ever come downtown to dine,” he says. “The growth of Greenville has surprised and delighted us all.”

Nowhere is that growth more evident than in the city’s culinary arena. Reliable chain restaurants and “meat-and-threes” were the bread and butter of Greenville’s restaurant industry in the early 1980s. Not anymore.

The evolution of Greenville into a “foodie town” has two distinct causes, according to Chris Stone, president of VisitGreenvilleSC.

“The convergence of these two effects propelled growth in creating jobs, attracting new business, and even birthing a new branch of the economy in the form of tourism,” says Stone.

One was the 1976 plan to transform downtown Greenville from a “blighted four-lane downtown Main Street” into a thriving and vibrant district.

The second was the arrival of GE, Michelin, and BMW.

“Securing these quality, brand-recognized companies gave other businesses, both existing and new, the confidence that the Upstate was positioned to support corporate long-term success,” says Stone.

But more importantly, those European powerhouses brought European employees with European tastes. And the restaurant industry began to explode.

Along with Ristorante Bergamo, Addy’s Dutch Cafe and Restaurant was one of the first international restaurants in downtown Greenville. It was built to resemble a traditional Dutch pub, complete with an extensive list of imported beers, decor straight from Amsterdam, and a menu that many people in Greenville weren’t familiar with — yet.

“We went from fried okra to complicated dishes from all around the world, because we adapted fast to the new citizens of Greenville from around the world,” says Addy Sulley, owner of Addy’s.

Because the Dutch were known for traveling the world and trading, Sulley wanted to bring a variety of food to his restaurant. On the menu, diners can find dishes from Indonesia, France, and Spain, as well as the Netherlands.

In addition to the unique cuisine, Sulley says that one of the big draws of his restaurant is the cozy ambiance, with warm wood walls and no TVs. He says it’s not unusual to hear conversations in many languages.

“At Addy’s, you are a person, not a number,” he says. “That’s why we hardly ever take reservations, because we don’t know how long [customers] are staying and enjoying their evening.”

But while patrons still enjoy Addy’s, the restaurant itself is seeing the pinch from a booming downtown. The rise of chain restaurants — even local and regional ones — with bigger budgets and dedicated PR teams makes things difficult for a single, locally owned business.

“We’re seeing a huge increase in high-end franchises and, sadly enough, a big disappearing amount of small restaurants,” Sulley says. “Also, to find skilled and dedicated people to work is getting more difficult.”

Sulley isn’t the only one finding it more difficult to secure quality employees.

“The last three or four years, it’s gotten tough with employees, with so many places opening up and taking an employee here and an employee there,” says Jimmy Melehes.

Melehes, along with his wife, Paula Starr, own The Open Hearth. The restaurant was originally opened downtown by Melehes’ father Mike and was called Michael’s Restaurant. In 1959, when downtown began to take a turn for the worse, Mike changed the name to The Open Hearth and moved it to its current location on Wade Hampton Boulevard.

The restaurant was opened when Chicago-style steakhouses were in vogue, and though times have changed, The Open Hearth has remained the same.

“I don’t see a lot of changes,” says Melehes. “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.”

Over the past 59 years, not much has broken — and not much has been changed. The one transformation Melehes notes is the addition of seafood and fresh fish to the menu. But quality food and customer service remain paramount, both of which have kept the local gem thriving.

“The main secret is that we are here, hands-on, all the time,” says Melehes. “When people walk in the front door, they see somebody from the family. We know our customers and they know us. They come in looking for us.”

In addition to customer service, consistent, reliable quality is what keeps restaurants in business.

“I think that our dedication to high quality, great service, and innovation are the reasons we are still thriving after 32 years,” Ristorante Bergamo’s Gioia says. “Adventurous locals and the foreign business community has thankfully supported me over the years.”

Unfortunately, the cost of staying downtown has become more expensive. Rising rents are forcing out some.

“It seems as though it has become very difficult for many small businesses to thrive,” says Gioia. “Rents have risen and so many restaurants have great difficulty finding funding.”

Sulley agrees.

“What has changed for me the most in downtown is the change of demographics,” he says. “In the early years, we didn’t have sports bars or franchises, and housing and rents were affordable.”

Still, Sulley is optimistic about the future.

“A town will always change, and Greenville has changed mostly positively with good leadership,” he says. “A mayor who has been there that long and still is able to understand what’s going on and see the needs is a very rare situation, too. I think when the growing pain in downtown becomes less stressful, it will be a more manageable downtown where everybody can enjoy our town.”

The Evolution of a Foodie Town

By Emily Stevenson

Rick Erwin says that when he opened his West End Grille, he didn’t even know what the term “foodie” was. Now, that buzzword is frequently used to describe Greenville as area restaurants receive accolades. For instance, a July 28 New York Times article praised The Anchorage, a relatively new addition to the Village of West Greenville. Twenty-five years ago, there wasn’t much cuisine to praise.

So how did we get here?

Table 301 Restaurant Group President Carl Sobocinski gives a nod to manufacturing. As the textile industry fell by the wayside in the late 1980s and early ’90s and manufacturing came in to replace it, the area became home to out-of-market folks who were exposed to other cuisines and flavors.

“Once you have a population of people who are looking for elevated cuisine, then entrepreneurs like myself and others will take a little more of a risk and try these things,” he says. “Over the last 20 years, it’s just exploded.”

Erwin agrees.

“Greenville is extremely blessed with an explosion of business with BMW, Michelin, GE, and the hundreds of companies that support them,” Erwin says. “Without those companies, the foodie city we know and love today may not even exist.”

Today, Greenville takes its food seriously, and the economic benefit is staggering. Total restaurant spending in the area tops $490 million annually, says Chris Stone, president of VisitGreenvilleSC.

“Eating and communing with family, friends, and business associates is a growing and major niche of our economy,” Stone says.

Stone adds that an increasing dependence on locally sourced food has been a significant way for chefs to create authentic, unique cuisine.

“Years ago, only 10 percent of the food product was locally sourced,” he says. “Today, 50 percent of sourcing comes from the area farm community.  Our support for local farmers and their products becomes increasingly important in portraying ‘genuine Greenville.’”

Another important aspect of the foodie culture is service.

“Southern hospitality is our differentiator that should never be taken for granted,” says Stone. “It’s our unique calling card of service.”

Sobocinski, for instance, trains his staff to engage with customers and talk up the area’s many attractions, including restaurants.

“We are ambassadors to Greenville,” he says. “We’re ‘all in,’ to use Dabo’s expression.”

That motivation is critical.

“We can’t fall in love with all the good things being said about us,” says Stone. “Complacency is a killer of progress. It’s just not true that we’re great and everyone else is standing still. It’s very much true that great competition is all around us, and that should motivate us to ever greater heights.”

Larkin Hammond, owner and chief creative officer of Larkin’s Restaurants, expresses a similar sentiment. “Stay relevant to your customers and continue to take care of your guests every day,” Hammond says. “Successful restaurants are not a trend, but a commitment to quality and service.”