The inside of Waynesville’s 44 Church Street does not, today, bustle with life, warmth and the scintillating scent of food wafting through the air, as it once did. The former home of the storied Lomo Grill is cold and empty; the open wood oven is not fired up, and chairs and tables are stacked in a corner, across from an empty bar and a kitchen counter cluttered with what looks like detritus from a hardware-store explosion.
Downstairs, old water heaters sit forlorn and disused by the back door and small buckets catch dripping water.
But this is not the start of another sad story on small businesses shuttering. This is the opposite story, one of success leading, hopefully, to new success.
When Lomo Grill, a 16-year resident of downtown Waynesville, closed its doors and papered its windows in November, owners Ricardo and Suzanne Fernandez ended the restaurant’s prosperous run right in the midst of that success. They were juggling the restaurant with two other ventures – Chef Ricardo’s Sauce, a business that grew unexpectedly out of the chef’s famed tomato sauce, and a farm that specializes in peonies and fig trees. While they loved the restaurant, said Suzanne Fernandez, the sauce business was exploding. Their product was picked up by Earth Fare and Whole Foods, and the juggle, she said, became too much. It was time to choose, and when they decided to close the Lomo Grill chapter of their lives, all they needed was a buyer for the space.
Enter Kaighn Raymond, an Atlanta chef renowned for opening award-winning restaurants in the Southern metropolis. Raymond had long dreamed of opening his own place and his eye on Waynesville from the time his parents moved here. He and his wife, Tania even got married in Maggie Valley. But his culinary career required him to stay in Atlanta, building up enough experience and capital to branch out of the city and into his own venture.
“I’m able to finally get out of Atlanta and do what I really want to do, which is opening my own place in a small town,” said Raymond as he worked on repairs in the former Lomo Grill last week.
His new spot, which will be called Frog’s Leap Public House, will feature, he said, a local atmosphere with tasty, local food at affordable prices. He’s interested in serving farm-to-table fare that showcases local farmers as much as possible, offering a simple menu that captures the flavor of its location.
“When people leave, I want them to have a real sense of what Waynesville and Western North Carolina are about,” said Raymond.
But first, there is work to be done. Raymond is giving much of the restaurant an overhaul in anticipation of a spring opening. As he walked through the empty restaurant, he rattled off a laundry list of renovations and repairs, from floors and ceilings to new dishwashers and upgraded bathrooms. The drip buckets aren’t for leaks, but are catching the aftermath of an overall hose-down Raymond had given the kitchen with a pressure washer. The old water heaters had been replaced with new, and new coats of paint were starting to make their way up walls in the basement.
Although he concedes that it’s a massive undertaking in an economic climate that is less-than-friendly to new restaurants, he’s excited to be at last starting on his dream. And he thinks the combination of his culinary success and business knowledge — his father was a career banker — will give him and edge and maybe help him stay afloat.
For their part, the Fernandezes are pretty thrilled, as well, to have finally sold the property. Now they can devote their full attention to their new ventures.
“We are so grateful for the experience of being in downtown Waynesville for as long as we were, and we really love our customers and still keep in touch with many of them,” said Suzanne Fernandez. “We just decided that, after 16 years of the restaurant, that it’s time to devote more time to these two things.”
Ricardo Fernandez, the culinary creator that was behind Lomo Grill, said he won’t really miss the day-to-day life of a restaurateur; he’s got plenty of food-related fare to keep him busy.
“My hands are always here at the farm, working and propagating and also producing the sauces and going to food shows, so there’s always involvement in creating new things related to food,” said Fernandez, adding that he may even entertain a foray into cookbook writing. But, really, he said, the bottom line was that the sale was necessary to keep the other businesses thriving.
“We needed more time to develop this marketing and the only way to do it was through selling the restaurant,” he explained.
And with over 350 varieties of peonies in the ground at their farm and two new sauce varieties on the way, the couple thinks they will have their hands more than full for the foreseeable future. They’ve said they don’t intend to leave the area that has been their home for so long.
“We feel like we were very much a part of the evolution of Waynesville to what it is today,” said Suzanne Fernandez. “We believe in Waynesville.”
Her husband echoed those sentiments.
“We will continue trying to expand what we have here,” he said. “We have 36 acres and we’re pretty happy where we are.”
Kaighn Raymond isn’t complaining, either. Once a visual artist who left the craft to pursue artistry in food, Raymond believes in making beautiful, affordable food, and he’s ready to be doing it in his own place.
“I told my father, ‘when I’m 40, I’ll be ready to open my own place.’ Well, I’m 41 now,” Raymond says, laughing. “Although it will be tough, by doing things the best we can, we’ll succeed.”