Few names are as synonymous with the Charlotte food scene’s evolution as Bruce Moffett. The restaurateur and chef has been a driving force in the local industry for the past 17 years, starting with Barrington’s in South Park. Though owning several famed establishments in Charlotte wasn’t necessarily Moffett’s goal.
“I had a son down here and I wanted to be part of his life growing up. I was living in Boston at the time, and so I came down here and visited a friend and decided that maybe I’ll feel it out and see what restaurants are hiring. The first restaurant I walked into was called Metropolitan Cafe and Fran [Scibelli] was the owner,” recalled Moffett. “I asked her if she was hiring and she actually offered to sell me her restaurant. So I went back to Boston, changed my mind every day for a month. Finally I said, ‘You live once, you want to be part of your son’s life.’ So I gave my notice, threw everything in a moving truck, and moved on down.”
That was the inception of Barrington’s, Moffett’s first venture in Charlotte. With some capital from his grandmother, he negotiated a long-term pay off, maxed out credit cards, and convinced his brother to come down and help him open the restaurant. That was 17 years ago.
Barrington’s is still a cozy 1,500 square-feet, offering 47 seats. Not only has the establishment survived the industry’s changes for 17 years, but it has thrived.
“I’ve seen trends, like when I first moved here people were getting produce flown in from California and Hawaii. Then it was all about he molecular gastronomy, and now it’s all all about local, sustainable, organic and foraging and so throughout that time I have adopted some of those principles and tried to learn some of those principles,” said Moffett. “But at the end of the day, I think that when people show up they want to have a good time, they want to enjoy someone else’s company, and they just want to eat a good dinner. And I’ve always tried to stick to that.”
Moffett’s second restaurant, Good Food on Montford, has been open for nearly eight years. But the idea for the small-plate concept was planted a few years prior.
“My wife and I were having dinner at a place called Avec in Chicago, and it was a couple years before I opened Good Food. It was a small plate type of venue and she said to me, ‘Do you think this could work in Charlotte?’ and I said, ‘No I don’t think so,’” said Moffett.
Flash forward a few years and everything started to fall into place. Moffett’s brother had been with him for 10 years, and Moffett thought it was time for a new adventure. One of his servers mentioned the space was for rent, and he just had a good feeling about it.
“I felt like no other food would succeed there other than the tapas style I had had in Chicago,” he said.
Moffett had to convince the owner to rent him the space, which turned out to be in the perfect location. Montford is at a cross-section of Myers Park, South Park, and Dilworth—all very dense areas. Even the name came about serendipitously.
It all started with a barista in a coffee shop near Barrington’s. “I was telling her, ‘I think I’m going to open a restaurant on Montford,’ and she looked at me like I was nuts. She said, ‘You can’t open up a restaurant on Montford it’s a seedy bar street. There’s a bunch of college kids getting sick in the streets, you don’t want to be a part of that,’” he explained. “She said, ‘There’s no good food on Montford, there never has been good food on Montford, it’s not a food street.’
“And so I looked her in the eye and said, ‘Well just to prove you wrong, when I open it up I’m going to name it Good Food on Montford,’ and we kept trying to figure out a better name and I just kept circling back to it.”
Today, Moffett Restaurant Group maintains three restaurants: Barrington’s, Good Food on Montford, and Stagioni, located in Myers Park.
Over the years, Charlotte’s food scene has changed drastically. Part of that has to do with Johnson & Wales.
“I always said it was going to take 10, 15 years before we started seeing any effects because these guys have got to graduate and kind of get their sea legs. I feel like finally we have some people that are interested in the local farms and producing interesting, innovative food,” he said.
Moffett attributes this in part to students spending time in Charlotte. He said that they have a good feel for the local economy, the audience, and the appetite. The general public interest in the scene has helped transform Charlotte into a food city, too.
“I think one of the big things is when I first opened, I always felt like I was struggling with Gene Briggs, Tom Condron, and Tim Groody for the same 15 customers. I feel like now as the city continues to grow and grow, and we diversified a bit from the meat and potatoes crowd, I feel like there’s a genuine interest in the population as a whole in seeking out fun, interesting, independent restaurants,” he said.
But it’s not just the audience. There’s been a shift in how integrated chefs are in the community, as well. Whether getting involved int he community or giving back to the community (or both), chefs are part of the ecosystem in Charlotte, said Moffett. “We’ve done a nice job of educating people and our customers, and our customers have done a nice job of educating us.”
Being involved in the community has a very direct business impact. The more people get to know you and your business, the more they stop by.
“The more I got involved, the more I met people and kind of organically through word of mouth, Barrington’s message spread. That wasn’t a result of a big marketing and advertising budget, it was a result of just getting to know people and getting to know something about them, and getting to know what their passions are and being involved in the system,” he said.
Moffett offers some valuable advice to those wanting to open their first restaurant:
“My advice to anyone is make a bold move, make a decision. Make a decision about what it is you’re passionate about and what it is that you want to do. And then once you decide that, go work for someone that’s successfully doing what you think you want to do. Figure out how they’re successful doing it, figure out the things they do that you would like to emulate, figure out the things that you wouldn’t want to emulate, and put that together. The more you do that, the more you’ll find your own voice.”
If you like interesting interviews about the intersection of real estate and restaurants, don’t forget to subscribe to Retail Redeveloped, and rate and share this podcast.