Exploring the Evolution of Hospitality with Chef Katie Button
June 8, 2023
The 2022 Beard winner for Outstanding Hospitality reflects on the true meaning of connecting with guests.
There was a time, centuries ago, when the highest virtue a person could exhibit was hospitality. Xenia, as the Greeks called it, was a social code that required hosts to treat strangers with generosity and care; that way, if the host was ever a stranger in another land, they would be treated the same. Even back then, people understood the power of a good meal and an open welcome to bind communities together.
Chef Katie Button, one of today’s leading lights on the subject of hospitality, is practicing her code of xenia in a distinctly 21st century way. Katie Button Restaurants, her restaurant group based in Asheville, NC, reflects the diverse talents of its multi-hyphenate CEO and her partner & co-founder, husband Felix Meana. As of 2023, Button and her team manage two acclaimed restaurants, a grocery market, a virtual brand, a wine club, and a tour operator that leads culinary trips to Europe. In addition, Button hosts From the Source, a TV show currently airing its third season on cable’s Magnolia Network.
At the core of each of these endeavors is a fixation on hospitality. Chef Button never stops thinking about how to make an experience more comfortable and enriching for her guests, whether they’re sitting down to dine or browsing the shelves of her market. In 2022, Button’s restaurant Cúrate Bar de Tapas won the James Beard Foundation’s award for Outstanding Hospitality. A year later, she and her team are working as hard as ever to think of new ways to delight customers.
Chef Button believes we are entering an exciting time, in which the food world is recognizing some of the great hospitality taking place outside the traditional confines of fine dining. We sat down with Button to learn how she achieves great hospitality and where she thinks it is going next.
BentoBox: What is your definition of hospitality?
Button: Hospitality is about getting out and connecting with people. Maybe trying some new experiences, dishes, flavors. From our end, as the restaurant, it’s about making someone feel comfortable. It’s not pretentious. It’s being warm and inviting and guiding people to what we’ve made and are really proud of.
You’ve been outspoken that hospitality is something that shouldn’t belong exclusively to fine dining restaurants.
I think hospitality happens wherever there are humans behind a product who truly care about what they are making and care about producing the experience that helps people enjoy it, no matter what that experience is. It doesn't have to be a pre-scripted experience only meant for special occasions.
Perfect example: Just the other day, a friend of mine was telling me about a hot dog restaurant she stumbled across in New Jersey. She went in with her kids thinking, Oh, we're just going to order a couple of hot dogs. And what they got were these incredible brioche toasted buns! And the meat in the different hot dogs were each unique! Paired with different toppings and flavors! She was so taken aback by how this hot dog stand took these great ingredients and showed they were thoughtful about the quality and the story they were trying to tell.
That, to me, is hospitality. It can show up anywhere.
Cúrate’s dining room. (Via Instagram)
In your career, have you perceived there to be different eras of hospitality? Does anything go in and out of style?
Sure, there was definitely an era of white tablecloths and fine dining being the pinnacle of hospitality. I think it was a time of telling people how to eat things — little bites of dishes and a very formal atmosphere.
The era of hospitality we’re in now, which I hope never goes away, is about comfort. It’s about connecting people with new experiences while also making them feel super comfortable and guided. You know, we’ve noticed that our guests have the best experience when our team gently offers to guide them in the experience. It's not about I know more than you. It’s more about Hey, let me share something I love with you.
And comfort is a really important concept in hospitality because it can change depending on the context. Comfort can be laying in a park next to a great food truck. It’s about fitting the ambiance. And not everything is for everybody: Our spaces are lively, noisy tapas restaurants with open kitchens. Some people would rather sit around a fire. That’s OK! Matching the right energy is the key.
Button’s husband and Cúrate co-founder Felix Meana. (Via Instagram)
Cúrate won the James Beard award for hospitality last year. What did that mean for your team?
It meant so much. Winning a James Beard award is something you can only dream about when you enter the industry. I think to us, being recognized in the category of hospitality meant even more because… that's the whole thing. It’s all about hospitality. Especially after COVID — that’s what people missed and wanted back in their lives.
I also loved that they renamed the award from “Outstanding Service” to “Outstanding Hospitality.” I think that was really important. When you think of service, you think of one group of employees. Hospitality is more encompassing. It's the entire experience. And every single person who works in our restaurants, or in our office, has a role to play in creating that.
When you reflect on that award, which aspect of your operations are you most proud of?
Probably two things, one internal and one guest-facing. On the internal side, coming out of the pandemic, we went to a tip-sharing model. Now we pay everybody over minimum wage as a base hourly rate and then tip share across all our hourly positions. So dishwashers, backwaits, hosts, servers, bartenders — without one of those pieces, we would fail. Therefore, they should have the same upsides.
We’ve also put, I would say, more effort into training since we won the award, and we created training structures that tie to increases in pay. And this affects our hospitality very directly.
One of the nice things about creating a menu that is different and new for people to navigate is it gives us the opportunity to be the guide. Whenever I go out to eat, I want to ask the servers, “What should I order?” Right? Because that's how you're gonna get the best experience. So as our people learn more, they become better equipped to serve the incredible experience we're trying to create. And they should be compensated for that increase in knowledge.
Winners of Outstanding Hospitality at the 2022 James Beard Foundation Awards. (Via Instagram)
And in that training, is there a particular principle you instill in your team more than any other?
I mean, we talk a lot about empathy. Though maybe this applies more to hiring. You want to find people who are understanding of other people, because the rest of it, oftentimes, can be trained.
I want to ask about your off-premises businesses. Is there a way for an online brand to extend hospitality? Or is that further than the concept of hospitality goes?
I think we are currently in the process of figuring this out, but I hope so. I hate to think there’s a limitation on hospitality.
There are certain things we can do now. When someone wants to send a gift, and they want a note, instead of just printing the note on the packing slip, we actually take a little Cúrate-branded card and hand-write the note and stick it in the package. Nothing better than getting an actual card versus trying to read a birthday message on a packing slip.
The next step to extending hospitality across all our channels is figuring out how to link guest notes from wherever we interact with customers. The truth is, what sets us apart — what makes Felix and me light up — is when we know something about a customer and we can guide them better based on that knowledge. That helps them have a more incredible experience.
Last question: As a proponent of a more democratic idea of hospitality, what kind of hospitality do you think organizations like the James Beard Foundation should be rewarding in the future?
Again, I think the hospitality that puts you at ease. No matter what it is or where it happens. I think that’s the most important feeling. And yeah, it’s tough to choose. Because all the sudden, when you start broadening the horizon, you start to see all these amazing spaces and concepts where people are having great experiences.
There’s a whole bunch of potential once you do that. There’s a lot of great hospitality out there.
Follow Katie Button on Instagram or visit katiebutton.com. To learn more about Cúrate, follow on Instagram or visit curatetapasbar.com.
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