I often hear restaurant-goers say they like to patronize only local, independently owned restaurants.
I’ve expressed the same sentiment myself. There are several reasons, including support of small businesses and the local economy, food quality and sourcing, and menu individuality and creativity.
But not all such situations are black and white, as I realized last week when visiting Carrabba’s Italian Grill on Stratford Road.
I’ve eaten in Carrabba’s before, and I’ve heard many a person give them a general thumbs-up, sometimes with a caveat of “If I’m going to eat in a chain restaurant….”
Or, as managing partner Daniel Butner said last week, “We do cook everything here fresh.”
That’s a good place to start, but that’s not where the Carrabba’s story —and especially the Winston-Salem Carrabba’s story — ends.
And, in large part, Butner is the reason.
Carrabba’s may not be local, but Butner is as local as they come. One of his ancestors, Adam Butner, was an original Moravian settler, who became a master baker at Bethabara and Old Salem. Later, ancestor Thomas Butner built the bakery in Old Salem in 1799 and ran it until 1807.
Daniel Butner, 46, was born right here and grew up on a 60-acre farm in Tobaccoville. “I could milk a cow by the time I was 5 years old,” he said.
His father built houses, and Butner eventually learned the plumbing trade. He was doing alright for himself as a self-employed plumber. He can count off a lot of local buildings he worked on, including the Village Tavern and Mid-Town Dessertery. But then the recession came along and the housing market buckled in the early 2000s.
“One day I told my wife, ‘We may be eating a lot of bologna sandwiches for a while, but let’s go out and have one last good meal.’”
They ended up at Carrabba’s in Winston-Salem. “We sat in that last booth there in the corner,” he said, pointing to one of the tables. “The waitress helped me order — said her boyfriend was a cook there. And we had this great meal. Thinking about it now, I can still taste it.”
He made a casual comment to the waitress about how he’d love to work there. When he found out he could eat for free, he said, “Sold!” He applied and persuaded the managers to hire him. At the worst, they said, they’d have someone who could fix a leaky faucet.
He started as a waiter, then switched to bartender, then to a lower-level assistant manager. He trained for three months before he was made a managing partner three years ago.
Carrabba’s may not have a changing, seasonal menu and it may not buy from local farmers, but it does care about quality, Butner said. Listen to him talk about the kind of sun-dried tomatoes the company uses or how he once threw out 30 liters of inferior olive oil. “Nothing in this building is more scrutinized than the food,” he said.
It’s easy to see that Butner is passionate about food. He also is passionate about helping others.
Unlike some small business owners, Butner has the resources of a corporation to help those in need. And he is very active in the community. Last year, he contributed to 64 charity events.
This year, he has helped with River Run Film Festival and Gears & Guitars. Three years ago, he was the only chain employee who took a whole week’s vacation to help other restaurant workers raise money for the late Mike Rothman of Skippy’s Hot Dogs, who then was fighting brain cancer.
He also is known to support local restaurants. You can find him eating at Mary’s Gourmet Diner almost every Saturday morning. “Daniel is great guy, and he really cares about the community,” said Michael Millan, the chef and partner at Mary’s.
Granted Butner’s ownership stake is small, but it does give him an incentive to make the restaurant successful. And he said he likes the way Carrabba’s operates. The recipes and many other aspects of the business may be set in stone at the corporate level, he said, but there is opportunity for him to add his two cents’ worth.
“We have partner discussions, instead of just being told what to do,” he said.
He knows the owners personally, and they listen to input from their managing partners, he said.
The company was founded by Johnny Carrabba and his uncle Damian Mandola in 1986 in Houston. The recipes come from their Italian-American family. Carrabba’s may be a company with 231 restaurants nationwide, but to Butner “it’s really just a family restaurant that got big.”
The Winston-Salem Carrabba’s is a family of sorts itself. Butner employees 63 people — all of whom live and spend their wages in our community.
Ivan Gonzalez has been the kitchen manager for 14 years — since the restaurant was brand-new to our area.
Grill cook Celso Rosado has been with Carrabba’s seven years, and prep cook Uberto Solano has been there 12 years.
In other words, even some chain restaurants are at least a little bit local.