Serving up Southern cuisine and camaraderie
There was little fanfare in 2010 when Mary Earnest opened the Blue Rooster, a Southern diner in a strip mall past its prime.
“The day we opened, we pulled the paper off the windows and unlocked the door and waited to see what was going to happen,” said Earnest, a native of Haywood County. “We wanted folks to find us gradually.”
Its following was anything but gradual, however. The Blue Rooster in Clyde found an instant fan base, one that continues to build five years later judging by the lines out the door. It’s hard to say what draws people more — Earnest or the menu.
“I tell folks we are just like church. It has nothing to do with the building but the people inside the building that make it special,” Earnest said.
Since she was a teenager, Earnest dreamed of owning her own restaurant.
“I love to cook. And I thought I was pretty good at it,” Earnest said.
In hindsight, it’s not surprising that the culinary arts captured her imagination. Earnest’s mother was an amazing cook, defying the canned-soup crock-pot rage that had paralyzed the dinner tables of housewives in the ‘70s.
It all started with a copy of Julia Childs’ first cookbook, a strategic present from her father to her mother.
“If my mom had a book on how to build a rocket, she could fly to the moon,” Earnest said. “So she started reading.”
And soon, she was cooking like Julia Childs.
“I am a little girl and she is boning a duck. We ate crazy food for Waynesville in those times,” Earnest said.
When Earnest was 20, she enrolled in the elite and reputable culinary school at Asheville-Buncombe Tech.
“It was very tough,” said Earnest. “If you wore the wrong color neckerchief, you were excused for the day. It was survival of the fittest.”
It was also a male-dominated world, one that Earnest learned to navigate well, thanks in part to her arresting personality. She had a knack for disarming the competitive nature of her male peers.
“I was like, ‘Your knife can be bigger than mine, I am perfectly good with that,’” Earnest said. “I don’t know what they thought of me. I think that was questionable.”
The boot-camp culture of culinary school took no prisoners, however. Instructors were mean by design — one even spit her food out during her final exam, simply for effect.
“I would cry,” Earnest said, recalling how tough it was. “But I am not a quitter. I just kept coming and kept coming. It was a life-changing experience.”
Ultimately, she was one of only a handful who graduated from her initial class of 114.
It’s not surprising that Earnest would dig in and persevere. She comes from a long line of strong women. Her mom went to prestigious Emory University in Atlanta on a National Merit Scholarship, not a common path for a Haywood County girl in the late 1950s. After graduating, she got a job with the Peat Marwick accounting firm in Atlanta — not as a secretary, but as an accountant.
“Her daddy was a business person and her granddaddy was a business person and she wanted to be a business person,” Earnest said.
Her mother ultimately returned to Haywood County and helped her father start Haywood Pediatrics, the first group pediatric practice in the county. Her mom ran the business side of the practice for years.
Her mother hasn’t changed, announcing recently that she planned to go to Mount Everest next year.
“She said ‘I’m not saying I am going to the top, but I’m going to base camp,’” Earnest said.
After graduating from culinary school, it would be nearly two decades before Earnest would open the doors of the Blue Rooster, however.
Earnest took a detour, spending eight years as a commercial food distributor for Sysco, a job that took her behind the scenes of dozens of restaurant kitchens in the Waynesville area.
While Sysco is the largest restaurant food distributor in the country, the Waynesville territory had just three accounts when Earnest came on board in 2003. Seven years later, Earnest was grossing $4 million in sales. But building a client base from the ground up was work — especially with a young child and no husband.
“I was a single mom. I put my daughter to bed at night and I worked. Because that’s what we do,” Earnest said, citing the sacrifices of working moms who live with a foot in two worlds.
Built on loyalty
Blue Rooster’s 32 employees are incredibly loyal for the typically fickle food service industry.
“We have folks who were with us the day we opened. We are so proud of that,” Earnest said.
Earnest can’t point to a single factor that keeps her employees around. But she wagers a big part is that they aren’t open on weekends.
“We only work five days a week here and that has been part of our culture,” Earnest said. “That has been our decision thus far, to sacrifice that revenue in favor of family time and a quality work environment.”
Earnest used to hang a “Gone Fishin’” sign on the door on weekends — her partner Steve Redmond is a competitive bass fisherman so it was often the case, but mostly, she thought it was a cute sign. One Monday morning, an angry customer who’d tried to come eat over the weekend was waiting for her when she opened up.
“He said I must not be a serious business person if I would just go off and close for a day to go fishing,” Earnest said. “I told him we were serious about our business but we were also serious about our families.”
She decided to retire the “Gone Fishin’” sign, however.
Cultivating a loyal work force stems in part from Earnest’s own loyalty to her employees.
“You can’t drag people in off the street and do what we do,” Earnest said. “We are professionals. It takes a lot of skill.”
Earnest pays her employees higher than the service industry average, but routinely tells them when she hands out paychecks “it’s not what you’re worth.”
“I wish I could pay them more, because you can’t pay someone enough to make them care, but that’s the most important thing, is that someone cares. That is something that has to come from inside,” Earnest said.
Earnest hasn’t pulled off the Blue Rooster alone. It has been a team effort every step of the way with her partner, Steve Redmond.
Redmond knows his way around a kitchen as well, but he lets Earnest lead. He agreed to the role of supporting actor when they opened.
“He said you just have to show me once how to make it and what is it supposed to look like and how to do it,” Earnest recalled.
But Redmond has some of his own recipes on the menu, and had long shared the dream of running a restaurant.
Earnest said her biggest learning curve with the Blue Rooster was the ins-and-outs of administration.
“The business aspect — from payroll to taxes to ‘what the heck is QuickBooks?’ — it was like how do you do this?” Earnest said.
Now, with a robust following, Earnest faces the tough decision of whether and how to grow.
She’s been burned once, in a failed attempt to add breakfast to the lunch and dinner lineup. The Blue Rooster gave it a noble try for over a year.
“It was an attempt to grow and it never clicked. It was a big loss,” Earnest said. “The money we were making on lunch and dinner we were using to fund breakfast, until we realized we couldn’t do this any more.”
Earnest is now at a crossroads once more, facing a monumental decision of whether to take a leap of faith and expand the restaurant.
One thing is certain, however, that the Blue Rooster will continue to remain a signature in the Haywood County restaurant economy for years to come.
“My mom always told me I could do anything I wanted to do,” Earnest said.