Bringing ‘Life’ to Lenoir

Margret Fisher

Kinston Free Press

December 26,2013

A television series based around a local business has brought much attention to rural Eastern North Carolina and Lenoir County, in particular.

The PBS show “A Chef’s Life” premiered in September, highlighting Ben Knight and Vivian Howard’s restaurant, Chef and the Farmer, in downtown Kinston.

The restaurant — open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday in a fine dining atmosphere — is entering its eighth year. The impact became noticeable around the fifth episode, Knight said.

“I’d say that it’s been a pretty significant impact on our business,” he said about the show. “For the first time, we’re starting to see people booking a month out — which is the greatest form of security for a restaurant after being here for so long and not knowing week to week whether it was going to be busy or not.”

Knight said the restaurant, which seats about 90 people, has always drawn new customers but lately, people have been staying in town overnight. He said he gets 20-30 emails from people asking where to stay, despite Kinston not being near a major interstate.

He estimates his restaurant has increased business about 10 to 15 percent because of the show, but the dining atmosphere has seen a bigger impact.

“Well, I think the biggest difference is that, in general, folks are really excited to be here because of the show,” he said. “I think that’s made a huge impact on the experience that they have.”

PBS has estimated 41 million impressions, or individual people exposed to the show in some way, Knight said.

Adrian King, director ofPride of Kinston, said he’s noticed much more traffic downtown.

“No matter where you go, who you talk to, people are talking about the show. I haven’t seen so many people since the flood (of 1999),” he said.

King recalled seeing a limousine with people from Raleigh showing up just to eat at the Chef and going back that same night.

Mother Earth Brewing has a bus that picks up people in Greenville to tour the brewery and other downtown sites.

Stephen Hill, co-owner of Mother Earth and investor of several downtown businesses and the arts district, said “A Chef’s Life” has impacted visitors who are relatively close, mostly because of holiday and family-related visits.

But Hill said he believes a larger impact is yet to come when people farther away begin showing up simply because they saw the show and heard about what Kinston has to offer.

“Honestly, I think spring will be a huge impact because of the show and other things that are going on in Kinston,” he said.

Mark Pope, Lenoir County economic developer, said he gets calls from consultants, company executives of local industries and other company contacts from Texas, New Jersey, Virginia and Alabama who saw the show.

“They’re calling and saying, ‘Wow, so that’s pretty awesome. We want to go there the next time we’re in town,’ ” he said. “That’s the kind of response we’re getting. So it’s really shedding light on especially Kinston and Lenoir County. So I think that’s been very good for us.”

Pope said the publicity is not only good for Lenoir County, but also for Eastern North Carolina.

Both Pope and King say they are seeing a younger crowd shopping and dining and more cars up and down Herritage and Queen streets.

Linda McConnell, who has owned the Bentley, Kinston’s bed and breakfast inn, for 22 years, said all of her recent guests say they saw the show prior to visiting. Her business has picked up since October.

“The recent real uptick,” she said, “has been in people that are coming to Kinston to have dinner at the Chef and participate in some of the other downtown activities with the gallery and the brewery. It used to be just weekend couples celebrating anniversaries and something special. But now it’s like any day of the week that we’re open, we’re busy with couples making the effort to come.”

Her guests come from as far away as Raleigh, Wilmington and Richmond, Va., and tell her they will spread the word about Kinston.

McConnell closes the inn around the holidays, having to turn people away.

“We need more bed and breakfasts, for sure,” she said. “There are a number of houses that I think would be good for a bed and breakfast.”

Another inn opened about a month ago — Brothers’ Farm Experience, owned by Warren and Jane Brothers. The La Grange farm has been selling chemical-free produce to Chef and the Farmer since the restaurant opened.

The bed and breakfast farm experience opened due to the interest in people coming to Lenoir County, Warren Brothers said.

“I would say I’m expecting 80 to 90 percent of our business are going to be people that are going to Chef and the Farmer,” he said, “Not just Chef and the Farmer, but Kinston.”

Barbara Rose, who has owned Barbaros, for six years, said her kitchen store business has increased, especially on Saturdays because of the brewery and the CSS Neuse site.

“I have had several out-of-town guests to come in, and they have come specifically to eat at Chef and the Farmer,” she said.

Dennis Tracz, owner of Carolina Wild Muscadine Juice in Pink Hill, doesn’t even produce enough stock to supply any retail stores, but his sponsoring the show has opened the door for future business.

“We’ve gotten a much easier time talking to grocery store chains and other potential retailers because we are a sponsor of the show,” he said.

Tracz said he anticipated having sufficient stock, but there was a delay in making a unique type of bottle from the United Kingdom. He expects to launch the product in February.

The only distribution of the product is to Chef and the Farmer, which uses the juice in cocktails. Tracz said the company has received about 3,000 Facebook likes.

“In terms of our product being available, generally, it’s not,” he said, “So I credit the show with that kind of exposure.”

He’s had inquiries for the juice from Seattle, Phoenix, Los Angeles and Minnesota.

“They’re recording PBS markets in nearly every major city,” he said.

A chain store in Manhattan, Richmond, Va., and Washington, D.C., has already committed to carrying the product, he said.

Tracz said the show and his product is all about developing an appealing brand image in people’s minds. In their case it’s the image of farm to table gourmet food and beverages.

“You’re either a commodity selling for $2 a bottle or you’re a premium selling for $6 a bottle,” he said, “and being associated with Chef and the Famer and ‘A Chef’s Life’ helps us reach that premium brand level.”