When Ashley Christensen’s name was announced as the winner of “Outstanding Chef” for the James Beard Awards, the cheers could be heard across three floors and into the lobby of the Lyric Opera House in Chicago. Her subsequent speech was filled with names that drew equally long and loud applause. For Christensen, it was all about acknowledging others within the community. After all, building communities is what she bases her life’s work on.
“One of the keys to success,” she tells me, “is to create something that people want to feel ownership over.” Her first venture as a restaurateur, Poole’s Diner, did exactly that.
“Complete strangers [would] talk to one another and recommend things. This place became really loved by this community.”
Poole’s Diner in Raleigh is where t-shirts mixed with tuxedos. From the atmosphere to the food, Poole’s created a multi-faceted experience. “It’s the spirit of the American diner,” Christensen describes proudly. “The story of this place was reaching all over the country but here, the community loved it so much. It was just the right kind of success.”
Having hit the sweet spot for Poole’s diner, Christensen turned her thoughts toward further growth.
From a Single Concept to a Restaurant Group
“I’m looking at my team and I’m thinking, ‘I’m the executive chef. I’m the owner. We’re going to run out of space for folks to climb because I’m in the way.’” Talks of expansion began. Understanding that Poole’s success lay in the fact that it was a singular concept—do one thing and do it really well—was a big factor in how Christensen chose to move forward.
“I wanted to give more to my community,” she explains. “I wanted to enrich the dining scene and inspire folks to think about their dreams in a culinary sense.” In other words, it wasn’t enough for Christensen to make her own dreams come true. She was ready to inspire and empower others to take a chance of theirs.
The second project that Christensen took on was a different beast. Set inside an old Piggly Wiggly, Christensen made plans to open three brand new concepts that all ran off one flawlessly designed kitchen. The team that she had so carefully cultivated over years went from having 26 people to 100 in just three days.
What looked like a successful business from the outside was actually a painful struggle to hold together behind the scenes.
“We hadn’t built an executive team yet and we didn’t for another three years,” Christensen recalls. “It was one of the most depressing periods of my life. We were just hanging on and trying to make it look good from the outside.”
Rather than fold under pressure, Christensen invested in her team. “We just kept getting help.”
“The profit we made was less than 1% of our sales. Of course, we’re paying salaries and all those things. But this shows that we’ve been re-investing in the company every month and every year with a new idea of how to strengthen up the team.”
Investment in Your Team is an Investment in Success
If it were ever possible to hear someone beaming through the phone, it is when Christensen speaks of her team. “We’ve got 270 employees with over 50 managers and directors,” she says proudly. “We have big ideas. We hire great people. And we need enough people to mentor them so they don’t get lost. Our awesome leadership team is how we’re able to do things now.”
Christensen is a proponent of building confidence within and beyond her team. “One of the most irresponsible things we can do is make any of this look easy,” she says. A large part of Christensen’s career focus is dedicated to mentoring others within the field. “When we talk about community, I always talk about it being an idea that does not know a zip code or town lines. It affects everyone that we have an ability to reach with our work and decisions.”
For the past decade, Christensen has worked closely with the Southern Foodways Alliance, promoting dialogue and collaboration amongst chefs all over the South. She’s also a tremendous advocate for the dining community within Raleigh, often organizing chef visits and collaborations, during which she takes them to her favorite spots around the city.
“Community means everything to us,” she says. “It’s one of the things that I’m most drawn to right now—industry-wide work. I want to use my platform to share those on a national level to have an effect on the future of the industry.”