Executive Chef Ben Adams wore a white shirt, brown apron and peered beneath a trucker-like baseball hat, as he announced orders, timed transitions, and meticulously dressed plates with layers of regional ingredients.
Crawford Leavoy circled the downtown restaurant Piedmont – from the host stand, to tables, to the bar and in the kitchen – greeting, engaging and monitoring guests.
“Guest-focused attention,” Leavoy, the restaurant’s general manager, 29, calls it.
Adams and Leavoy’s partnership, attention to detail and slow and steady changes have helped them succeed at pulling the restaurant, which had been struggling to revamp itself for years, out of a tailspin of consistently being inconsistent.
Nana’s owner and Executive Chef Scott Howell, a serial restaurateur who has no financial connection to the Piedmont, said Adams, 32, and Leavoy have led the Piedmont in a new direction by defining its concept, establishing a customer-focused culture and standing behind it.
“And everybody went with it, and they bought into (Leavoy’s) system, and it became successful again,” Howell said.
Geer Street Garden’s chef and owner Andy Magowan,Abby Pearce and Drew Brown opened the Piedmont in 2006 in a refurbished 1930s Nash dealership. Their concept centered on Italian cuisine made with North Carolina ingredients.
In 2010, Jamie DeMent and Richard Holcomb bought the restaurant with the intention of changing the menu to focus on locally sourced, Southern-inspired ingredients that came from places such as Coon Rock Farm in Hillsborough, which they own and run along with other businesses.
Looking back, DeMent and Holcomb said, it might have been easier if they had just renamed the place because the unmarked transition created confusion among its customer base.
DeMent and Holcomb said they had also struggled to find the right people to shepherd in the transition – until Leavoy and Adams.
“With Ben and Crawford in place, Piedmont is working beautifully,” DeMent said.
DeMent and Holcomb check in with Adams and Leavoy at least once a month, if not more, but they generally allow the general manager and chef, who is also a minority partner, to run the restaurant.
Adams and Leavoy described the experience of turning around the restaurant as the first of a two-year trust rebuilding program with Durham and the area.
Adams, a Morehead-Cain Scholar, started working at the Piedmont in May 2013 after reaching out to DeMent, his former classmate at UNC-Chapel Hill. Leavoy was hired in June after finding the job on Craigslist.
Adams had attended a six-month cooking school before working in acclaimed Charleston-area restaurants, including one that foraged local ingredients, something he saw more of as he went on to work short stints in eateries in Belgium, Australia and Boston.
Leavoy started working in restaurants after graduating from Louisiana State University. He had worked his way up to assistant general manager at August, a New Orleans restaurant owned by Chef John Besh, before moving to Durham so his now-husband could start his residency at Duke University Hospital.
Hired a few weeks apart, the new general manager and executive chef-partner confessed to each other that it was their first time in top positions.
“I was like great, ‘We are two lost souls trying to do this,’ ” Leavoy said. “Let’s have some fun.”
Reality quickly brought them up to speed on the restaurant’s baggage, which included a frustrated staff, a bad reputation and vendors that were owed about $50,000.
“I think we both underestimated what we were walking into,” Leavoy said.
Adams and Leavoy started the rebuilding process by figuring out what the restaurant should be, creating a plan for stabilizing the concept and retraining and hiring more staff.
They decided to build a framework around ingredients from its namesake, the Piedmont. They shed a vine and harvest-like logo and replaced it with the tagline and sign that reads “Piedmont inspired food.”
They took down the restaurant’s existing still-life paintings, painted the walls white and replaced the table tops. Since they couldn’t afford the large art needed for the space’s tall ceilings, they reached out to a nearby re-use store, which assembled strips of old and varied wood to break up the white space on the wall.
Creating a better space
The process of clearing everything away for the restaurant to be repainted the week of July 4, 2013, helped to mark the beginning of a fresh start, Leavoy said.
“It was lighter. It was brighter,” Leavoy said. “It wasn’t the same old environment people had been in.”
The changes that followed were slow but steady.
Adams focused on providing a menu that ebbed and flowed with seasonal ingredients, while building relationships with farmers and other vendors. Leavoy formalized the steps of service, from greeting guests and making notes when they are gone. Over time, Leavoy also improved the bar offerings and wine list to help raise ticket averages.
Meanwhile, Leavoy and Adams juggled payments to vendors to pay off the debt. The last payment was made about three weeks ago.
“It felt really good to get that balance to zero,” Adams said.
Over the summer of 2013, there were days when less than nine customers came into the restaurant, but they started to see a gradual increase in September 2013.
Month over month increases followed, as Adams and Leavoy continued gradual changes, such as upgrading equipment in the kitchen and replacing a hodgepodge of silverware and glasses.
By January 2014, they had stabilized the business and hired a public relations representative to help highlight the restaurant’s new higher level of consistency under Adams and Leavoy. Articles in two local publications followed, including a four-star review by Greg Cox, The News & Observer restaurant critic.
When customers continued to come over the summer of 2014, Adams said a yearlong knot in his stomach started to untie.
One night last month, the restaurant, which seats about 90, served 170 customers, which was the most it had served under the new management.
Leavoy said he realized that he probably could have only squeezed another 15 or so orders out of the kitchen, and they might consider an expansion.
“There are now so many different things in the pipeline because we care and because we never gave up,” Leavoy said.