It’s 4:30 p.m. on a Thursday, and two lines, facing each other, stretch both ways down South McDowell Street: one to get into Poole’s Diner, the other to get into Poole’side Pies, neither of which open for half an hour. Both restaurants are helmed, of course, by Ashley Christensen, who also owns three other popular downtown-Raleigh eateries—Death & Taxes, Beasley’s Chicken + Honey, and Chuck’s—as well as Fox Liquor Bar. The lines are a testament to the warm hospitality and consistently great food on which Christensen has built her reputation.
This year, Christensen won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef, cementing her status as an industry leader. Raleigh’s then-mayor, Nancy McFarlane, commemorated the win by officially declaring October “Ashley Christensen Bad Ass Month,” citing, among other things, her commitment to fostering community through food.
For her nearly three hundred employees—aka badasses—Christensen has fostered an inclusive, safe, and sustainable work environment. Until recently, such an ideal would have been regarded as lofty in an industry plagued by grueling hours, low pay, systemic harassment, and substance abuse.
More than Christensen’s famed macaroni au gratin, this is the work that will be her legacy.
Christensen’s leadership has paved the way for the next generation to continue her work.
She’s a mentor to many, including three former employees who now (or soon will) have their own Raleigh restaurants: Sunny Gerhart, who opened St. Roch Fine Oysters + Bar in 2017; Andrew Ullom, who opened Union Special in August; and Matt Fern, who will open (ish) Delicatessen in The Longleaf Hotel in 2020. When an AC protégé opens up shop in Raleigh, the name and pedigree follow, as does a responsibility to leave their own positive mark.
“Ashley is one of those souls that you just rarely, if ever, come across,” says Ullom, who served as Christensen’s executive pastry chef for seven years. “She’s incredibly intelligent, and her ability to hold onto information as a way of multitasking is kind of mind-blowing. It’s very easy to say she’s the most ambitious person I’ve ever met.”
Given Christensen’s success, it’s hard to imagine a time when lines didn’t stretch down the block. But Gerhart, who worked with Christensen for seven years, recalls the early days of Poole’s Diner, when he and Christensen worked brunch shifts on the heels of dinner service. Exhausted, they’d set up their stations and then go nap in their cars, instructing servers to wake them if diners showed.
“You sort of forget the struggles,” Gerhart says. “It wasn’t given to her or anybody. You have to earn it.”
Still, Gerhart says he never saw Christensen sweat things like making payroll. But these days, Christensen says that the last thing she wants to do is make running a restaurant look easy. For her, making the restaurant industry sustainable hinges on financial transparency.
When Christensen was coming up, she was only privy to a profit-and-loss statement detailing her part of the operation; looking back, she realizes how frustrating it was to be asked to make changes without knowing the end goal. Part of setting up employees for success has been putting infrastructure in place to share the big financial picture.
For Gerhart, this was revelatory. It showed him how he could contribute to the restaurant’s success and prepared him to strike out on his own when he was ready.
“I don’t hold anything to my chest,” Gerhart says. “I want [my managers] to know exactly what’s going on for their own benefit in trying to help manage this business, and for their own personal growth.”
Christensen saw that Gerhart was motivated by learning financial operations, but what makes a mentor great is knowing what makes each individual tick.
As Fern—who worked with Christensen for eight years, most recently as AC Restaurants’ beverage director—works to make (ish) a reality, Christensen has helped him make connections, suggesting an intrinsic generosity that underscores one of her personal mottos: “Don’t forget kindness.”
“She’s stern when she needs to be,” Gerhart says. “She’s never yelled or put anyone down. It’s more, ‘Let’s talk and boost each other up and have an environment to have fun, but also be serious and execute work to a high level.’”
In the wake of #MeToo, fostering a welcoming workplace culture has become paramount, forcing the industry to reckon with other systemic issues that have precluded it from being sustainable, including low wages, inadequate benefits, and a lack of support for navigating substance abuse and mental health.
Within her organization, Christensen is testing tip pooling at Poole’side to eliminate the wage disparity between the service and kitchen staff. Next year, she plans to roll out an employee assistance program that will provide free emergency counseling and access to online resources to help with matters such as quitting smoking or personal finance.
For Gerhart and Ullom, sustainability starts with paying employees above the minimum wage of $7.25. Gerhart’s lowest-paid employees make $12 per hour, and Ullom’s start at $13.
But investing in people isn’t just about money. When Ullom and his wife welcomed their first child, Christensen gave Ullom an unprecedented five weeks of paternity leave. One of his biggest takeaways from that experience was the value of meeting people where they are and giving them what they need to succeed as a person.
“We’re helping out a few employees [who] need to get some things sorted out legally. To me, that investment is going to stay here for a long time,” Ullom says.
This drives home a fundamental Christensen principle: The future of a community depends on what you put back into it.
Though Fern has yet to open (ish), it’s something he’s put considerable thought into.
“The goal is to have people do what I’m doing, from a company that I’ve started, and either do something with me or something that brings up this city,” Fern says. “I want to be an Ashley to somebody.”
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