If you had to pick a concept to describe Mary Catherine Earnest, it would probably be local. The owner and co-founder of Haywood County’s Blue Rooster Southern Grill is a proud local girl, through and through, and she said that’s exactly what she wants her new Southern culinary endeavor to be.
“My family came over the mountain from Transylvania County in 1849,” explained Earnest. “I’m a real local person, I grew up in Waynesville. That’s a big source of pride, to be able to be here, to be a local person that’s starting a new business.
“My family’s been in business here for a long time, so I want to work very hard to uphold that tradition.”
And with the November opening of her restaurant in Clyde’s old Wal-Mart shopping center, she proudly joined the ranks of other small-business owners looking to serve the local community.
Asked why she chose to open a restaurant in such tumultuous economic times, Earnest said this was really the most logical step in her career.
She’s been in food service for most of her life, graduating from A-B Tech’s culinary program in 1994. For the last eight years, she’s been one of the top salespeople at Sysco, the commercial food distributor. While she said she was happy — and successful — there, she wanted something new, something of her own. And to Earnest, the uncertain economy made it an even more appropriate time to take such a big step.
“I believe that it’s kind-of a more important time than ever for us to take charge of our careers rather than sit back,” said Earnest, so she and her partner Steve Redmond put together a plan, secured a location and opened for business.
She said business has been encouragingly steady since they opened, and they’re eager for the influx of customers that the Wal-Mart revamp promises.
Since Haywood County commissioners have committed to moving hundreds of their staff to the old storefront by the fall — when the building will house the Department of Social Services and the Health Department — the Blue Rooster will have a whole new crop of full-time and hungry workers as neighbors. Earnest hopes that more than a few of them will become regulars. In fact, it was a part of the business plan from the beginning.
“We’re near all the biggest employers, and of course the big project that the county’s working on, that was a huge part of our plan,” said Earnest, adding that she wouldn’t have embarked on the project if she wasn’t certain the county was going to add to her client base with the project.
When she started toying with the idea, though, Earnest said there were several restaurant concepts that they were working with. They finally settled on Southern cuisine because they couldn’t think of anything that fit the space, the place and their own tastes better.
“Southern cooking is my personal heritage,” said Earnest. “I’m a good Southern girl, that’s the food I was raised eating and cooking. It just turned out that that’s the genre that fit that location.”
She said that being right in the middle of the county is a pro for the business, too, because they’re offering down-home food that you can’t really get in that area.
“Being away from Waynesville proper, you know, with the lake right next to us and of course the hospital, the college, Lowe’s, and all the churches that are out there, we’re right in the middle of Haywood County. And I think Southern comfort foods in Haywood County, that’s what people want to eat.”
Apart from having local clientele, the restaurant is looking to provide local food, too. For someone who spent nearly a decade sourcing good foods and ingredients for other restaurateurs, Earnest said she and her staff are prepared to use the best local food in whatever ways they can.
“In food service, about 150 miles is what we consider local,” said Earnest, and she’s happy to report that they’ve been able to source natural chicken and natural ground beef from inside that range, as well as some other ingredients. And when the spring rolls back around, they hope to be plating up offerings from even closer to home.
“We’ve already had lots of farmers that come eat with us that are saying, ‘hey, we want to do your tomatoes,’” said Earnest, “and that’s really exciting.”
But until then, she said that everyone at the restaurant is happy to be in business, offering their neighbors something they couldn’t get before and cultivating relationships with customers they hope will be dining there for years to come.
“We already have regulars, I mean what does that tell you?” Earnest said, excitedly. “That’s just a wonderful thing, to be able to work my dining room every day with my neighbors and my friends. My 86-year-old grandfather lives less than a mile from the restaurant and eats with me everyday.
“We’re not perfect, but we’re doing things right.”
By Michael Beadle
Long before the days of microwaves and fast food meals, there was the slow-cooked stew, a Southern standard prepared in vast pots over an open fire. These stews included tender meats, fresh vegetables, secret seasonings and a day’s worth of preparations that would bring out an entire community.