Helen Schwab

‘No compromises’ pays off for restaurateurs

That milk bread, though.
That milk bread, though. Helen Schwab

Kindred, opened in Davidson in February by Joe and Katy Kindred, was named No. 7 among the country’s top 10 new restaurants by Bon Appetit, the national food magazine announced Tuesday.

The couple found out early, just before chef Joe Kindred left – for jury duty. “I couldn’t believe it,” he said by phone, on a break for lunch. “I immediately teared up. ‘Surprised’ would be an understatement.”

Bon Appetit’s Andrew Knowlton has traveled the country to create the list each year since 2009 (estimated yearly calories: “something like a million”).

This is the first time a Charlotte-area place has made the list. (Husk, Charleston’s now-famous spot from chef Sean Brock, was named No. 1 in 2011; two Charleston places made this year’s list of 50 nominees, but not the final cut.)

“I’m especially happy about Kindred,” Knowlton said Tuesday. “Those are the kinds of restaurants I love and I root for, places you wouldn’t necessarily expect.

“I love the Kindred story ... What it says about America in a bigger context is that you can put your family first. You can pay your dues in San Francisco and New York, but you can come home again and see your kids and have a life and reap the rewards.”

So what is the Kindred story?

Joe grew up in Davidson, went to Johnson & Wales when it was in Charleston, then interned, straight out of school, at now-defunct Noble’s in Charlotte. He went on to cook at Delfina in San Francisco and The Pump Room in Chicago, among others, before returning to Charlotte and chef Jim Noble again, for whom he cooked at Rooster’s for six years.

Next year will be Katy’s 20th in the business: She began working in restaurants at 14, started studying wine at 18, passed her sommelier test at 21 (the earliest it was possible to do so) and figures she has “worked in every position you could ... busboy, cook, somm, assistant manager, manager ... ” She worked at Quince while Joe was at Delfina; the two met at The Pump Room, and have had the Kindred concept “in our heads for the better part of 10 years.”

When they decided to take a shot at a restaurant in Joe’s hometown, they renovated a historic building, winning a $10,000 restoration grant from the town to do so, further cementing community support. And they made a promise to themselves.

“Before we even opened, we made a decision that we were not going to make any compromises: We were going to do what we’re going to do and it was going to work or it wasn’t going to.

“We kind of didn’t want to tiptoe onto the scene.”

So they launched with a challenging menu (pork arista with chermoula, crudo with fennel pollen and grapefruit), but worked, through the restaurant’s service and its social media presence, to personalize everything, trying to convey warmth and win trust.

“We wanted to be, this isn’t the way to say it but, unyielding: ‘This is who we are and what we’re doing; however, this is a family and this is a real family,’ ” as Katy put it.

“It’s worked,” she said – then laughing, “at least for now. We have a 15-year lease.”

What made it work? Milk bread, for one thing.

“Thank God for the milk bread,” Joe Kindred said. Food & Wine magazine might be “doing something,” he said, about the pots of pull-apart yeasty rolls that Kindred provides, complimentary, to each diner.

Make no mistake: Handing over milk bread, with its house-cultured butter and fleur de sel, is a tactical move, aimed at disarming “all the haters and the Yelpers,” he said.

“The whole milk bread thing is inspired by the yeast rolls I used to get at Quincy’s. Those were the bomb,” said Joe, referencing the old Southern-based steakhouse chain. “(We figured) everyone’s going to come in expecting so much, so much, so much. Let’s take them back to a moment in their lives (like) the yeast rolls they had at Thanksgiving.”

Disarm them with yeastiness, then convince them with risk reduction: Servers at Kindred get a lot of training and tasting experience, the better to explain and recommend, and are encouraged to comp (remove from the bill) any dish a diner doesn’t like and order dishes on the fly (quick-like-now) to correct or apologize for a mistake.

The menu changes often, as Joe assesses whether things are working – he removed a raviolo that he felt the kitchen couldn’t execute, for example, and butter sauces may be on the way out: They’re “really tough for us. By the time we get them to the third floor, they’re cold.”

Prices were cut, too, when the couple determined people weren’t comfortable with entrees that topped $20. Little tops $20 now.

Sales last week were up 35 percent, he said; Katy Kindred said reservations have been “a little crazy” but there’s nearly always room on the patio. Add to that the fact their nanny went into labor Tuesday (daughter Alba is 4, son Luca, 2), and that Katy’s expecting their third child, and the Kindreds are facing a bit of chaos.

Or as any self-respecting restaurateur would put it (and Joe does): “We’re definitely in the weeds.”

Which leads him to the conclusion that “there’s more pressure on me as a chef, as a dad, as a leader... I gotta get better, if we’re going to be in the limelight.”

Knowlton, who first visited Davidson as a high school junior in 1992 to visit the college with his mom, doesn’t remember how he first heard about the restaurant – maybe in the Observer, maybe a mention from someone.

Visiting, he was struck by the regulars’ pride – they talk about it “like another Steph Curry” – and the staff’s engagement: “The bartender pointed out the gnome guy and said he comes in all the time.” (That would be Tom Clark, whose collectible gnomes were once housed in the building and who orders a martini and fried oysters.)

“Look, Charlotte always ... played second fiddle in a lot of people’s minds” and “only recently” has national press turned its eyes to Southern food, said Knowlton.

Often, restaurants playing up their Southernness are “schticky, maudlin,” he said (and he grew up in Atlanta).

Kindred, with its squid-ink conchiglie with blue crab and sea urchin butter, and “a really good rabbit dish” is offering “Southern dishes and Southern ingredients ... but doing it in a very smart, sophisticated way.”


131 N. Main St., Davidson; 980-231-5000.