Rye Bar & Southern Kitchen breathes lucrative life into a forgotten space at the Raleigh Marriott City Center.
“We were one of several Italian restaurants between our location at the southern end of downtown Raleigh and the state capitol about five blocks north, so there was nothing unique about what we offered,” remembers Chef Michael Rigot. “We’d do maybe 12 covers for lunch on good day and almost zero business for dinner. It was a dying space and needed to change.”
Rigot—executive chef at the Raleigh Marriott City Center—is talking about Posta Tuscan Grille, the former streetside restaurant at his hotel, which closed in 2014. He’s much happier these days to discuss Posta’s replacement, the 250-seat Rye Bar & Southern Kitchen, where Rigot is executive chef and GM of the thriving, Southern-steeped meat-and-three venue.
Rye is the creation of Interstate Hotels & Resorts, which manages the property. Since Rye opened two years ago, it’s already among the top-three highest-grossing restaurants in Interstate’s portfolio of 85 and helped the Raleigh Marriott City Center win Interstate’s 2016 F&B Operation of the Year. Rye’s first-year revenues were $400,000 more than Posta’s final year of operation, and that number rose to $900,000 in year two. Ownership is so pleased with the ROI on Rye that they plan to expand the concept to one of their other properties in the near future.
Meat + Three
“When the current owner bought the Marriott City Center, they immediately saw the value of F&B to enhance their overall asset, and wanted a strong concept to replace Posta and make better use of the space,” says Bradley Moore, Interstate’s VP of F&B operations. “We did a lot of research and realized there was no truly Southern restaurant in our part of downtown Raleigh. After eating our way through the market, we felt there was a niche for honest Southern food and more specifically, a meat-and-three menu.”
A meat-and-three is a traditional Southern menu where the customer chooses that day’s featured meat, which could be fried chicken, pork brisket, meatloaf, country-fried steak, fish on Friday, or something else, and three sides, such as mac and cheese or charred carrots, from about a dozen options.
That unfussy and speedy concept has turned those dire days of 12 covers for lunch at Posta into 100 or more midday meals on weekdays, taking advantage of Rye’s ideal location among the offices, businesses, and adjacent convention center in downtown Raleigh, where hungry workers are looking for a quick and inexpensive lunch. Rye’s meat-and-three menu is $10 and includes a sweet tea. “Were competing with a lot of fast-casual chains downtown that aren’t too far off our price point, but they don’t have food anywhere near as good as ours,” says Moore.
Rigot adds he has “a group of 12 guys that come in every Thursday, which is our country-fried steak day, and they order country-fried steak with double macaroni and cheese and French fries as their three sides. That’s the same 12 guys here every Thursday—it’s fun to see how much they love our food,” he says, adding that Thursday is Rye’s busiest lunch day, with about 200 covers.
Customers order their meat-and-three choices as well as other menu items through table service, and on an exceptionally busy day, Rye will have up to six servers, five cooks, five bartenders, and two management staff to handle the rush.
The Road to Rye
While Rye has been a spectacular success for Interstate and the Raleigh Marriott City Center, it began with a modest renovation budget of around $285,000, so there had to be resourceful decisions made every step of the way, starting with what Posta left behind that could be used in a new concept.
“When we looked at the Posta display kitchen, there were a lot of steam tables they used for their breakfast buffet. That sparked the idea of doing a meat-and-three concept, because that equipment is perfect for it,” Moore says.
After assessing the viability of a meat-and-three concept in downtown Raleigh, Moore, Rigot, and about a dozen others from Interstate’s F&B team set out to sample some of the South’s best meat-and-three spots, including Nashville’s legendary trio of Arnold’s, Wendell Smith’s, and Katie’s.
Rigot also spent more than a decade working at hotels in Nashville and Birmingham, Alabama, so “he understood what meat-and-three was all about. He ate at the classic meat-and-threes in Birmingham: Ted’s, Niki’s West, and Johnny’s, but he also grew up eating Southern cooking from his mother and grandmother (Rigot was raised in Murfreesboro, Tennessee) and some of those recipes are on the Rye menu today,” explains Moore.
Rye’s core concept is meat-and-three, but that’s just one aspect of Rigot’s wide-ranging, seasonal, and locally sourced menu, with personal takes on regional favorites like coastal BBQ shrimp and cheese grits, fried green tomatoes, Carolina pulled pork, and Cheerwine spareribs.
“I take classic Southern dishes and give them a personal stamp,” Rigot says. “We use my mom’s recipe for fried chicken, which is one of the best dishes she ever made. Spareribs are popular here, so we start with my grandmother’s basic recipe, but I marinate and glaze the ribs with Cheerwine, which is a popular cherry-flavored soda in North Carolina.
“For our shrimp and grits, we use Atkinson Milling Company grits which are made southeast of Raleigh, we add Ashe County cheddar cheese from the northwest part of the state, and our shrimp is from the Carolina coast. I buy as many ingredients as possible from suppliers in our region. Most of our produce, for example, comes from a Raleigh collective which gives me about 20 different local farmers as a source,” Rigot explains.
Local suppliers also get a shout-out on Rye’s wall-sized chalkboard behind the bar, and in printed menus, which lists those that contributed ingredients under the heading, “Local Farms and Artisans.”
Rye’s shrimp and grits are the number one seller on the menu, followed by fried green tomatoes and the Cheerwine spareribs. The most popular meat-and-three days are Tuesday and Thursday, when they serve pork brisket and country-fried steak respectively.
In addition to sourcing from the region, Rigot also procures from three floors above Rye, where he has a rooftop garden and apiary overlooking the Raleigh Convention Center. Ingredients from there are used throughout the menu, including Rye’s rooftop honey and molasses butter with grits bread (see sidebar) given to each table gratis.
This year, Rigot is planting yellow tomatoes on the roof to use in a yellow Bloody Mary with fresh cilantro and jalapeños on Rye’s cocktail menu. Beverages are another aspect of Rye’s local focus, especially beer, where eight of 12 taps are devoted to Carolina breweries.
“Craft brews are 65% of our beer sales, and beer outsells cocktails 60% to 40%,” he says. “We rotate eight taps with seasonal local brews, and we even use one beer as the main ingredient in a dessert we call the Sweet Josie Beer Float. We take salted caramel ice cream and add Sweet Josie Brown Ale from Lonerider Brewing Company here in Raleigh. It makes a delicious adult float.”
Rye’s signature cocktails have a local foundation as well; the Fallin Apple, for example, features Carolina craft cider, Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Fire, and St. Germain, and the Low Country Cobbler is made with fresh blackberries and Hendrick’s Gin. “That one will knock your socks off,” Rigot says. “Blackberries grown around here are so sweet and juicy when they’re in season. They add so much flavor to that gin cocktail.”
Transforming the Posta space into Rye on a modest budget required the professional expertise of Laura Kay Light, senior project designer, interior design at the Gettys Group. Similar to Moore’s discovery of steam tables left behind by Posta, Light noticed existing hardwood, millwork, custom molding, decorative casks on the wall, and copper ceilings that could be utilized in Rye, helping to shorten the renovation timetable to only three months.
“We wanted sort of an airy, Southern Living or Southern gentleman’s gastropub look,” explains Light. “There was no need to rip everything out and start over. The bar, for example, had the original millwork, molding, stone bar top, and brass rails. We painted the appropriate areas our color palate of light grey with a slight purplish tone.”
While those elements were a pleasant surprise, Posta still left plenty of décor hurdles for Light. “The previous color scheme was yellow and orange with faux stucco, green shutters on the windows, and green and gold carpet—we removed all of that,” she says.
A floor-to-ceiling stone fireplace was installed to help divide the space between the bar and the main dining room, then toward back of that room—where the open kitchen and breakfast buffet are located—two heavy sliding barn doors help break up the space further and keep the morning buffet out of view from passers-by, since the breakfast offerings are not an extension of Rye’s menu.
However, the weight of those rustic barn doors—about 700 pounds each—resulted in a longer wait to open Rye. “We needed two support beams built in Raleigh and installed before we could open that section and use the doors. That delayed our soft opening date of mid-December, 2014. We couldn’t fully open Rye until New Year’s Eve, which was tough because we had a full house and needed time to set up, but we made it work,” says Dale Bullock, director of operations at the hotel. After the soft opening period, Rye officially opened in March, 2015.
In addition to the pre-opening décor adjustments, there were also menu tweaks prior to launching. Traditionally, a meat-and-three is a heaping helping of Southern comfort food. But for Rye’s $10 meat-and-three to be profitable, they had to “cut back the portion sizes, not only because it was way too much food for one person, but to show a profit at our price point you have to be conscious of how much you’re putting on the plate,” says Moore.
Rigot adds, “My cooks on the line are very conscious of how they’re plating and how it looks. There may be days when we have some extra braised kale, for example, and we’ll give our guests a little more, but we haven’t had any complaints about portion sizes. Believe me, nobody leaves here hungry.”
Bread on Arrival
A simple starter helps reinforce Rye’s story for guests.
While many restauranteurs say there’s no benefit to giving away free food, those at Rye Bar & Southern Kitchen (see main story) see a dual purpose in their complimentary artisan bread board.
“When we were designing the restaurant, I mentioned how frustrating it is to hear people complain about how long they wait for food, when the wait isn’t that long,” remembers Dale Bullock, director of operations at the Raleigh Marriott City Center, where Rye is located. “So we thought about a basket of chips in a Mexican restaurant, and how nobody complains because they have chips to eat until their food gets to the table. We wanted to take that idea but put a local touch on it, reflective of Rye’s menu and mission.”
Bullock and Executive Chef Michael Rigot contacted Boulted Bread, a Raleigh artisan bakery about a half-mile from the hotel. “Those guys went to school at Duke and the University of North Carolina to be engineers, but became bakers because they have a passion for it,” says Rigot. Boulted supplies the gluten-free grits bread and the rye levain atop Rye’s complimentary bread board, accompanied by Rigot’s rooftop honey/molasses butter—using honey from his apiary on top of the hotel—and housemade pickles.
“When our servers take our bread board to a table, it’s a chance to tell the story of our neighbor, Boulted Bread, and our rooftop beehives,” says Bullock. “It sets the tone for the rest of the meal by reinforcing Rye’s commitment to local sourcing, and, of course, the guest has something to munch on while they’re waiting for their food.”—MC
The Back Room supplies a stream of supplemental sales.
As part of the transformation from Posta Tuscan Grille (see main story) into Rye Bar & Southern Kitchen, a private dining room was created at the far end of the restaurant, appropriately named the Back Room. The space boasts floor-to-ceiling windows with a streetside view of downtown Raleigh and has been in demand since Rye opened.
Michael Rigot, executive chef and GM at Rye, says they’ve hosted 148 groups in the Back Room since Rye debuted two years ago, and for 2017, Rye has 48 Back Room bookings already. “We love selling that place, and those are bonus revenues that didn’t exist with Posta,” he says. “Word is getting around about what a great space it is, and we’re already booking Christmas parties months in advance.”
In addition to the Back Room, a total buyout of the entire Rye restaurant and bar space is available at a five-figure price, which has happened three times since Rye opened.—MC
All Eyes on Rye
Savvy social media and marketing keeps Rye relevant in Raleigh.
Executive Chef Michael Rigot isn’t just the culinary brains behind Rye Bar & Southern Kitchen at the Raleigh Marriott City Center (see main story) he’s also a one-man marketing team for the restaurant, making himself visible and accessible for customers online and in-person.
“I’m on the floor 40% of my workday talking to guests and making sure they’re happy. If something is wrong, we make it right so they come back again,” says Rigot.
When he’s not talking to Rye’s diners, he’s dishing his meat-and-three menu at the Raleigh Downtown Farmers Market every Wednesday, selling lunch from a booth to hungry patrons. On a busy day, Rigot serves 100 or more marketgoers. “It gets our name out there, and we tell them we’re not just here one day a week, we’re open every day about a block from the market.”
Rigot also oversees Rye’s social media on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, spreading the word about Rye’s live music on Friday and Saturday nights, special menu tastings, and frequent charity events. Facebook is also used to reward customers for checking in to Rye.
“I have my whole management team looking at check-ins, and if we know where that person is in the dining room, we’ll send over a free appetizer, such as fried green tomatoes, or if they’re having a cocktail, we’ll deliver another as our way of saying thanks,” Rigot says.
Facebook also is a valuable resource for customer metrics. Rigot discovered after crunching some numbers that 70% of Rye’s followers on Facebook are women, most of them in the 25-to-35 age range. “That tells me we have an inviting space that’s appealing to women and isn’t intimidating,” observes Rigot.
Finally, Rigot’s latest venture is Rye-to-Go, converting the hotel lobby gift shop into a satellite Rye for quick-serve and carry-out, scheduled to open this summer. Rye-to-Go also will sell retail items including Rye’s spices and rubs, hats, shorts, t-shirts, coffee mugs, and more, with Rye’s logo. Customers will be able to order online via the ChowNow app, by phone, or walk up.—MC