Jimmy Williams jimmywilliamsphotography.com

Culinary Barn Raising

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Van Eure’s family business defines Southern hospitality.
By Ellen Koteff January 2013 Chef Profiles

For private events, the Angus Barn’s Wine Cellar rooms elevate fine dining.
credit: Jimmy Williams

Twenty-five years ago, Van Eure stepped up to run the Angus Barn, a restaurant that has become widely celebrated across North Carolina and beyond, putting her unique stamp on the historic operation that was founded in 1960 by her father, Thad Eure, Jr., and his partner, Charles M. Winston. Located in Raleigh, the rustic surroundings, which sit on 50 acres, have long been synonymous with Southern hospitality, great steaks, homemade baked goods, and family. Watching Eure work the massive dining room of “Big Red,” as the restaurant is affectionately called, is akin to witnessing a master hostess pull off the party of the year. She moves effortlessly, interacting with guests and staff alike, putting out fires, and offering words of encouragement along the way. It’s clear the 57-year-old Eure, who routinely flashes a megawatt smile, is in her element. But that wasn’t always the case.

In 1988, six years after buying out Winston, Thad Eure was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He lived only three months following the diagnosis, and his widow, Alice, along with daughter Van, assumed the mantle, despite enormous sorrow and bouts of uncertainty.

“My dad taught me that attitude is everything,” says Van Eure, who also lost her mother to ovarian cancer in 1997. “I am so grateful to have had parents that instilled in me the belief there is nothing that I can’t do if I want to.”

And do it she has—in style. Along the way she has garnered a treasure trove of honors including the National Restaurant Association’s College of Diplomate Award and Restaurant Neighbor Award, Wine Spectator’s Grand Award, North Carolina Restaurant Association’s Thad Eure, Jr. Hospitality Award, and the highly coveted Gold Plate award from the International Foodservice Manufacturer’s Association.

The accolades, coupled with her parents’ legacy, have propelled Eure to pull out all the stops when it comes to delivering for customers, staff, and family, even when that is easier said than done. After all, some fires are harder to put out than others.

A case in point was a recent incident when one of her servers posted a photo on Facebook of the check and generous tip NFL quarterback Peyton Manning left. Eure gave the server the option of resigning or being terminated, but the damage was done. The posting went viral within hours and, in the coming days, consumed Eure’s time and forced the restaurant to temporarily shut down its website.

“It was a horrible betrayal of confidence,” says Eure, and particularly painful for the self-described teacher who prides herself on instilling a respectful, professional server-spirit in each and every Angus Barn representative.

Ultimately Eure wrote Manning a letter of apology; he responded that he didn’t harbor any hard feelings. However, Eure won’t feel truly resolved until she has a chance to welcome him into her restaurant “home” again.

For someone who naturally personifies all the characteristics of Southern charm, with the composure and commanding presence of a restaurant leader, Eure wasn’t always sure this was her true calling—even though she started working in the restaurant at age 14.

Following graduation from the University of North Carolina with a BA in education, Eure taught high school English in Kenya, a country she grew to love and that she still visits every other year. After two years, she opened an elementary school in Kenya, which she operated for four years before returning to America.

Back in the States she fell in love again, this time with Steve Thanhauser, who became her husband and partner at the Angus Barn. Their children, Christopher and Ali, both work in the business and all four are often on the premises simultaneously.

The restaurant, which employs more than 300 people and serves about 700 steaks daily, features not only the main dining rooms but also the private Wine Cellar dining rooms; The Pavilion, which can host up to 1,200 people for special events; the secluded Meat Locker, a private enclave where smoking is permitted; and the popular Wild Turkey Lounge.

“The team trusts in my ability to make the right decisions so they can support their families and run their lives, and I do not take that trust lightly,” she says.

Eure, who swam in college and still works out daily, advocates for many personal passions, including rescuing animals, protecting the environment, and a host of worthy causes ranging from mental health issues to restaurant political action committees.

But Eure doesn’t always feel charitable, especially when it comes to the mistreatment of children or animals. “If I see something that isn’t right, I have to say something,” she says.

Her guilty pleasure is Biscoff Spread, Europe’s answer to peanut butter, and her favorite Angus Barn meal is the end cut of prime rib, served with a twice-baked potato.

Building from her parents’ legacy, Van Eure has elevated the Angus Barn to legendary stature in the industry. Talking with FSR, she discusses how she has made the Barn her own and shares her candid views of issues facing our industry.

What has been your unique stamp on the Angus Barn?

Well, I don’t know if my father would have gone this route but we put everything back in the hands of the employees, so they feel like they have ownership. It is so important to empower your employees. If something goes wrong at the table, any of our employees can make it right—even if that means comping the meal. You have to count on your employees to handle whatever occurs, and when you give them that kind of responsibility they rise to the occasion. But they have to think like me, and I have trained them how to react.

And how do you train employees to make the right decisions?

First, we have a very intensive hiring process. Some people apply for years and years. I rely a lot on my intuition and tell my managers to do the same thing. And I tell them: ‘If you get a feeling during the interview process then there’s a reason.’ We like to ask prospective employees ‘What would your last boss say about you or how would your co-workers describe you?’ For training, we assign a new employee to a veteran, and they work together for an entire month. New servers also have to pass a written test and a practical test, where they wait on managers.

The service and the setting are certainly unique, but how do you keep things fresh without changing the Angus Barn culture?

We never want to get rid of the feeling that you are having dinner in a barn, but we want to constantly enhance the customers’ experiences. We’ve added all kinds of little touches for the guest, things that make a difference. For instance, there’s a treasure chest for children, and if they are under a certain age, they get to decorate cakes for special birthdays. We try to say yes to whatever our guests want, and I always say if it isn’t illegal, immoral, or unethical, we’ll try to find a way to make it happen.

What has been the biggest challenge to your business over the last five years?

It was hard. We went through some tough times. We were watching every single penny. We got rid of any frivolous expenses and only spent money on things that directly affected the customer. We never laid anyone off, but we did cut back on hours and had heart-to-heart talks with our employees to explain: ‘This is a want-to place, not a have-to place.’ The Angus Barn is not going to be at the top of the list when times are tough. And in 2010, the conventions stopped happening so a lot of the parties stopped booking, but I get it—How can a company justify a party in the Wine Cellar when they had to lay off 3,000 people?

How is business now?

We are not exactly back to where we were before the recession, but we are close. Either people have said ‘To hell with it, we’re going out’—or things are getting better. And we are blessed in this part of the country because four major universities surround us, which keeps us insulated. Of course, now one of the challenges is the price of beef is skyrocketing.

How do you attract the business community to the Angus Barn?

Well, we are just lucky because we are near the airport and Research Triangle Park. But we pay special attention to their needs and put business groups off to the side. We give them privacy and don’t talk too much at the table. We also make an effort to make the person who booked the party look really good, like offering them something special or giving them a tour of the property. And it was the business community that looked at us and said, ‘You have to take reservations.’ Now we keep detailed information on the reservation lists, such as gluten-free requirements, or requests for sitting on the porch by the window. We want each guest to feel special.

 

You are also very active in the business of our industry, including the NRA’s Political Action Committee (PAC).

I was brought up going to NRA meetings with my parents, and when I was on the board I gave my life to the NRA. It just gets in your system. Every October, Ted [Fowler, chief executive of Golden Corral] and I hold a fundraiser for the NRA PAC here at Angus Barn. Sixteen chefs from all over the state cook their best dish, donating their time and their best work to help politicians who support causes that will keep restaurateurs alive. This year we raised $180,000, and so far that’s more than any other state—but I hope another state beats it.

Speaking of politics, how do you think the government should deal with the immigration issue?

I think people who have been in this country for a certain number of years, even if illegally, should be granted amnesty. Then they would have to start paying taxes, living the American way—and stop living under the radar. But we also have to become very vigilant about the borders. We should grant amnesty and then start from scratch.

What trends do you think will take root in 2013?

I think sustainability and concern for the welfare of animals will become even more important. All of the beef we get is from Kansas. Our cows are very happy cows, and we will not buy anything that doesn’t die humanely. We’re also very concerned with environmental issues. We recycle everything, even wine corks. And we freeze all of our meat scrapings and donate it to feed lions, tigers, and wildlife at The Conservators’ Center [a nonprofit organization that rescues wildlife and preserves threatened species].

What is a typical day like for you?

I take my daughter to school, then go to work out every morning—if I don’t work out first thing it won’t happen. Next, I’ll spend a few hours doing errands, maybe come in for a meeting as early 11 or as late as 3 or 4. Then I stay at the restaurant and work through the night, usually going home after midnight. I typically work late four nights a week, and spend another day in the restaurant as well. The other two days I am constantly checking on things.

Despite your heavy workload, are you able to maintain a healthy home/work balance?

Yes. When my kids were younger, I was very involved with them during the day, and now we have family night once a week. If you don’t schedule a family night, it won’t happen. Thursday night is date night; Steve and I will go out with friends—and on Sundays we all go to church, then try to do a bike ride or family time.

How has being a woman helped or hurt your restaurant career and what advice would you give to women in the industry?

Don’t make an issue of [gender]; never make a thing of it. You should be treated equally—and I have always felt that I have been treated equally. However, I do make a conscious effort not to overdo makeup or jewelry, and to dress appropriately, never show cleavage or wear short skirts. There’s a place for that but not at work. I teach all my employees to shake hands firmly, in a way that shows sincerity. And act professionally. Don’t let yourself get inappropriately emotional. But you can use the fact that you are a woman to your advantage because there is a gentleness that women can bring into situations—we are born with that ability. Mostly, don’t think of yourself as different because you are a woman. Think of yourself as a banker, or a restaurant owner, not as a woman banker or female restaurateur.

How did winning the IFMA Gold Plate in 2004 affect your career?

It was just incredible, and so amazing to be included in the group. It affected me not just in how my peers saw me, but also because I knew how I had to continue to do things for the rest of my career. The Gold Plate is a constant reminder that I have to run this place right and usually the right way is the hardest way. That award put a stamp on it and it is something I will never, ever forget or take for granted.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about working in the restaurant industry?

A lot of people say to me, ‘It must be wonderful to run a restaurant.’ They think it is so glamorous—but they don’t see me in the kitchen when the dishwasher is overflowing. The trick is to look relaxed and not look panicky, to totally focus on what a customer is saying. You have to make each customer feel like the most important person in the world.

Is there a succession plan for the Angus Barn, and do you think your kids will follow in your footsteps?

Christopher is in chef’s school and he works here. He has dreams to one day help run this place and Ali talks about it too. She always says, ‘I will run the front of the house and Christopher can run the back of the house.’ I tell them there is no way you can go through this if you don’t love it. It has to be a labor of love.