Tupelo Honey Bringing Southern Charm Across the Country
When Steve Frabitore purchased Tupelo Honey in 2008, he saw the cozy Asheville, North Carolina, restaurant as the ideal business to run during his retirement. As someone who had never worked in the industry before, Frabitore found he loved the day-to-day grind.
And having spent his career building brands, Frabitore recognized Tupelo’s broad appeal. It attracted tourists visiting the mountain town, but also had a strong local following.
“There was just a lot of excitement and fun that people were having around the brand,” he says. “I just said, ‘we’ve got to see what this is all about, explore it further, and then see how we might leverage the brand.’”
A little over a decade later, Frabitore’s restaurant chain is on the cusp of something much bigger. There are now 14 Tupelos in seven states. Two new locations will open by the end of 2019 and Frabitore says expansion will ramp up to one opening per quarter through 2021.
This level of growth wouldn’t be possible without the infrastructure Frabitore and his team built over the past 11 years. Large investments were made in every part of the company’s headquarters so it could support new locations. From IT and marketing to HR and recruitment, no department was neglected, Frabitore says.
“We've always put the horses in front of the cart so we have very dynamic headquarters full of smart people,” Frabitore says. “So a lot of the things that people maybe couldn't afford or didn't put in place and started expanding and then ran into a problem, we've been able to avoid.”
Tupelo also invested in its employees on the back end. The brand’s training program was revamped ahead of growth, and Frabitore says he’s always looking for ways to improve the benefits program.
Inside the restaurant, a combination of made-from-scratch Southern food menu and touches of down-home hospitality create a differentiated experience. This has contributed to Tupelo’s success outside of the South. Some of Tupelo’s highest-performing locations are in Colorado and Arlington, Virginia, Frabitore says.
“When you walk into the restaurant, you should feel better,” Frabitore says. “And as you go through the course of your meal, you should feel more and more relaxed and more taken care of. And then enjoy just beautifully chef-inspired food.”
Frabitore is methodically looking at markets for Tupelo to grow in. There isn’t a magic number or goal Frabitore wants to reach.
“We're very thoughtful and careful about expanding to make sure that we don't outstrip either our resources or our infrastructure and damage our company,” he says.
Tupelo is far from perfect, Frabitore adds, but the brand has developed a formula that travels.
Using metadata and in-person research, Frabitore and his team determine if a Tupelo would be successful before it even opens.
“We know who our guest is and look for markets where that guest lives and works. And we also look for markets where we're pretty much completely unique, like Boise,” Frabitore says. “No one does Southern food the way that we do there.”
Frabitore personally visits the market, dining at various restaurants, chatting with employees and customers to see what works in that specific area. Real estate is also handpicked by Tupelo. The company doesn’t leave big decisions like that to third parties, Frabitore says.
“We are extremely serious about opening stores successfully,” he says. “Everybody can say that, but I'm not sure everybody has invested in the kind of infrastructure we have to do that well. We become part of a community and that's meaningful.”
As Tupelo ramps up growth, new stores are expected to open in the Southwest, the Mid-Atlantic, and the Midwest.
But don’t expect any franchise locations. The idea of giving up control has never crossed Frabitore’s mind.
“We like to control who we are and what we do and what we present to the best of our ability and put the tools and the resources and the human capital in place to take care of our guests,” he says. “So I really don't see us heading down that road ever.”
Redesigns and remodels
The original Tupelo Honey opened in 2000. Even though the brand’s expansion has taken place only in the last decade, stores can age quickly. In order to keep up with the competition and stay relevant, Frabitore says, remodeling is a top priority.
After perfecting the design for a new store format and prototype, the original restaurant now reflects what the brand will look like moving forward. The decor of the 5,000 square-foot bar-centric space will vary slightly at each location, but the functional spaces will remain the same. More technology was incorporated in the prep kitchen allowing smoother back-of-house operations.
“We've been through an interesting generation of developing our stores,” Frabitore says. “You don't get to finish where you start. At this point, we have really hit on the most dynamic store platform in our history whereby we've been able to create the most efficient environment that works for our guest and also some of the strongest penetration of beverage, particularly alcohol penetration.”
Currently, the company is remodeling its third and fourth stores with the rest of the existing locations being refreshed in order of age.
Dedication to a made-from-scratch menu
The menu at Tupelo was made-from-scratch since day one. After taking over, Frabitore continued that tradition and improved it by working with chefs and vendors to get the best ingredients in the kitchen.
Responsible and sustainable sourcing allows chefs to craft the menus Tupelo is known for.
“Over the years, in order to do that successfully and continue to evolve and meet the needs of our guests, we've really elevated our flavor profiles and our presentation,” Frabitore says. “We’re always for best in class ingredients.”
Vendors go through a strict vetting process and have to meet specific criteria. While that might sound like a headache to some brands, it’s what sets Tupelo apart, Frabitore says.
Just like Frabitore and his team do on-the-ground research in new markets, the brand does the same hands-on process with vendors. As the company grows, vendors are benefiting, too. Many have grown their businesses substantially after partnering with Tupelo, Frabitore says.
“We’ve always stayed true to scratch-made food and valuing up that food with our hands,” he says. “We really strive for excellence in our chef-inspired food.”