One of the benefits of having gone through a course at Leadership Triangle is that you can join the Alumni Network and have access to many interesting leaders from around the Research Triangle area.
The other day, I attended the Leadership Triangle Over Lunch event, where Chef Scott Howell spoke. Most people in the Triangle know that Chef Howell is owner of Nana’s, one of the most iconic “white tablecloth” restaurants in the Triangle (located in Durham), along with a series of other restaurants, including Nanataco, Nanasteak, and Bar Virgile, and the former Pop’s, all located in Durham.
The event began with a brief video featuring Howell. What really struck me about the video was the reminder of how many other chefs and restaurant owners he has influenced over the years. The list includes Brian Wiles and Tom Ferguson, both who now run Rise Biscuits & Donuts; Laureano Cortez-Hernandez, from Durham Catering; Seth Kingsbury from Pazzo!, Daniel Ferguson from The Original QShack, and Seth Gross from Bull City Burger, to name a few. I am sure there were more, I just couldn’t write them down fast enough.
In 2013, Howell was hit with a 1,200-pound piece of equipment that fell off a delivery truck and severely broke his leg, making the self-sufficient chef realize he needed to rely on his friends, family and his staff to endure. I think we all had tears in our eyes watching the end of the video as the various friends talked about his accident and how he persevered through adversity. Certainly, it was a time that his real leadership was shining.
Howell started Nana’s with just $23,000 in his pocket in 1992, after working for Ben and Karen Barker at Magnolia Grill. He borrowed $10,000 from a friend and $5,000 from his parents. “The first liquor bill I had was $1,700 to fill the shelves, which I put on my personal credit card,” said Howell. He slept on his friends couch for four months just to make ends meet. “If I came to work at 8 or 8:30, that was late, and if I left at midnight, that was early.”
Howell proudly talked about the success of Rise Biscuit & Donuts strategy to franchise its business. He worked with them as a consultant/mentor and was happy to say they now have 75 stores sold. That is truly amazing.
The Leadership Triangle alumni were all fascinated to hear about Howell’s excursions in New York City and Pasadena, California early in his career. After graduating from Appalachian State, he moved to New York and worked for Jonathan Waxman. “I go for an interview at this place(Jams), and I don’t know who this guy is (it was Jonathan Waxman) and it’s this Californian restaurant and there’s nothing on the tables….so I tell him, ‘I want to work for you,’ and he says, ‘why don’t we see what you’ve got,’ so he tells me to gut these organic chickens. So I gut the chickens and he tells me to take them over to one of his other restaurants across town, and then I need you to clean these chickens like you did the other ones you did here. I had just gotten to New York and I don’t know the city at all. So, here I am, carrying at least 50 pounds of chickens out the door with my chef’s hat on, getting chicken juice all over me and I ask him how am I going to get across town? He says, ‘here’s the money for your taxi.’ So I get a taxi, open the trunk, throw the chickens in there, cut across Central Park, go to the other place and I get out and cut the chickens up there.”
Howell described what the food scene was back when he worked at Magnolia Grill. “That was about 25 years ago. We were working with the farmers and we were getting people to grow things that they had never thought about growing before. At that time, they were growing only the things that they knew they could sell, so what we had to do was guarantee them case sales. For example, I am going to buy a case, so you sell me a case of fennel and I’m going to buy it from you, I don’t care if I don’t need it or not. Back then, we were doing something groovy, but they had not quite taken it to the groovy place yet. They (Magnolia Grill) had different meats and fish dishes and they were executed very well, but they would serve the same side vegetables with all the meals. So I said, ‘hey man, why not serve different vegetables on different plates?’ ”
Someone asked Howell why he picked Durham to open his first restaurant and his subsequent restaurants. He said that Durham has a really thriving business environment with Duke University, lots of entrepreneurial offices and big businesses in RTP. “I love being in a white tablecloth environment,” said Howell. People still like to go to a fine dining establishment in this area. They were astounded to find out that people wanted to spend more money than they were charging for a steak at Nanasteak.
He also talked about how hard it is for someone to make it today. Back when he went to culinary school, it might cost $17,000, now it’s more like $60,000. It would be really hard for someone to get out of debt and make it today.
He also greatly praised his wife, Aubrey, for all the hard work she puts in running several businesses every day. “It would take three people to replace her. She is really dedicated and does so much for us.”