A tale of two pizzas

Pizza No. 1 – I recall seeing the first press release, a little more than five years ago, exclaiming that 200 Donatos were going to be built in the fast-growing central Carolinas. It wasn’t long after the release came out that I had an extensive interview with the man who would bring all this pizza to our area, Joe Drury.  Drury was a highly successful restaurateur, having worked with Wendy’s creator Dave Thomas and as CEO of Bojangles. With such amazing success under his belt, it was no surprise that the Charlotte area and beyond was quickly filled with 25 Donatos.

You don’t have to be Polish to enjoy the menu at the new Taste of Europe in Matthews, near the south Charlotte line.

You don’t have to be Polish to enjoy the menu at the new Taste of Europe in Matthews, near the south Charlotte line.

I also recall tasting the pizzas from the first store; it was good pizza and could have taken a big bite out of the pie market and the growing desire for one of everyone’s favorite foods. Instead, the Donatos he opened are now closed and I can only imagine how costly a mistake this must be for Drury. Controlling the production of a consistently superior product and maintaining a top-notch staff is tough enough with one restaurant. Add to the mix several other multi-outlet pizza options that are very similar, as well as a pizza price war that continues today. So what went wrong? You have to build a following for each particular location, and continue to wow the guests, even at a $12 price-point.

Pizza No. 2 – I remember hearing about a place that made pizza with spring water in south Charlotte, several years ago, with the funny name Mellow Mushroom. I went there once, maybe twice and thought the pizza was just OK, nothing special. Eventually they closed and that was the end of that name here, or so I thought. I was very surprised when I learned Mellow Mushroom was coming back and was opening in the area under new ownership. Presently, the Ballantyne and Myers Park locations are extremely successful. The third Mellow just opened Uptown. I have dined at the Ballantyne location on several occasions; the success is easy to understand. Now, the owners are the operators and are actively managing the eateries each and every day, setting very high expectations for the staff. They inspect what they expect and listen to the guests. The pizzas are consistently delicious with a wonderful crust and fresh and tasty toppings. A fun and inviting atmosphere, yet each one with a different interior. They are also opening stores at a pace that allows for controlled growth and the ability to maintain high standards.

The formula is simple, yet can be quite elusive. Create and maintain a product that attracts that wow affect; build a strong local clientele with outstanding service and tremendous consistency; and you too can own a successful dining establishment. Check out the next story for a prime example of what I hope to be long-term success.

Spotlight on talent – I received an email informing me of a fairly new restaurant offering authentic Polish cuisine. The location is on Monroe Road, just beyond the south Charlotte dotted-line. I went on the website and learned the following: “We are newlyweds, born and raised in the beautiful European country of Poland. We met in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and our friendship turned into love. Not only love for each other, but also love for our shared Polish heritage including the delicious food that we were raised to appreciate. In our restaurant, we want you to experience our traditional flavors that remind us of where we came from. We greatly enjoy the process of preparing food from planning a meal, buying the ingredients, cooking, and, of course, savoring the end result. Our hope for you is to feel the passion we share for this cuisine and have a little Taste of Europe. Smacznego! Agata & Michal Przyk”

I looked at the menu and found many items I was familiar with and enjoy. Potato pancakes, kielbasa and pierogies, as well as crepes. As I thought about dropping by to check it out for myself, I became concerned as I always do for anyone who opens a new eatery for the first time. Especially when, in this case, it has a limited menu and you almost have to know it is there, in a small strip mall. Knowing what it takes to open and run your own restaurant, I felt that worried feeling even as I walked into the Taste of Europe.

I found a clean, contemporary look with a couple of small dining rooms, and only about 25 seats. My guest and I were immediately greeted by Agata and comfortably seated at what appeared to be the only open table. The first item we tried was the potato pancakes. They were much bigger than ones I have had before, and very delicious; with sour cream and apple sauce accompaniments, of course.  We also tasted several other menu items and were equally impressed. The pork cutlet was tender and flavorful, the grilled Polish sausage also was very good; rich flavors and a nice char of grill marks. We tasted scrumptious pierogies that can be had with meat,  potato and cheese, spinach or sausage and mushroom. The flavors of each item were distinctly traditional and were accompanied very nicely by the Polish beer also being served. Polish beef stew, hunter stew and meatballs in mushroom sauce also are enticing offerings.

We finished with the crepes, which also were delectable. Freshly made, light and fluffy, filled with strawberry and blueberry jam. This is the way to open a first, new restaurant. In this case, they began with authentic and delicious foods they grew up with and can personally prepare for each guest. Michal cooks and Agata serves. We saw several takeout orders being picked up during our visit. Suffice it to say I was very impressed and highly recommend you check them out. They are open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday at 10915 Monroe Road in Matthews. See the entire menu at ww.tasteofeuropecharlotte.com.

Christmas Day dining – A recent email asks “Do you by chance have a listing of restaurants that will be open Christmas Day in the south Charlotte area? Thanks, Donna.” If you have lived in south Charlotte for more than 15 years, you can remember a time when there was less than handful of restaurants at which to consider a holiday dinner. Today, many south Charlotte eateries are open for Christmas Eve dinner, and a few are even serving on Christmas Day, including The Blue Taj, Buca de Beppo, Copper, Gallery, and McCormick & Schmick’s Seafood, at selected times. Reservations are highly suggested, and www.opent able.com is a great way to see who is open throughout the Charlotte area and confirm a table will await you.

Raise a mug in ‘14 – If you’re a beer aficionado, or just like to enjoy a brew now and then, this should excite you. Husband and wife team Sarah and Justin Brigham are set to open a craft microbrewery in Charlotte’s South End neighborhood in the late spring of 2014.  The building, formerly used as an auto garage, will be transformed into a production brewery and taproom.  The property sits directly on the Charlotte Lynx Light Rail Trail.  These proud owners of Sycamore Brewing will extensively renovate the building and the property. They’ll begin production on an American-made brew house and pilot brew house for more creative, experimental beer styles.   A large selection of beers will be available on draught in the tap room, with an ever-changing line-up.

Born and raised in Charlotte, co-owner Justin Brigham had his first encounter with the brewing industry while attending the University of Colorado.  He worked in the grain elevator for Coors Brewing during his summer breaks, purchasing barley from farmers. Justin began home brewing shortly thereafter and has been hooked ever since.  Sarah is an avid cook and the two have been perfecting their recipes for the last few years, and are elated to soon be sharing their beer with Charlotte. The brewery’s aim is simple: to use the freshest ingredients (local whenever possible) and brew all-natural, extraordinarily tasty beer. The couple can’t wait to become part of Charlotte’s dynamic and growing craft beer scene. Find more information at www.sycamorebrew.com.


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