The ice sculpture logo was surrounded by giant shrimp and tiny oysters, the bar was pouring beers, wine and a couple of wine-based cocktails, and the waiters were passing out hanger steak, tuna tartare tarts and foie gras toasts with strawberry jam. But what I really wanted to know from owner Steve Palmer: Is it true that he paid the whole staff for weeks even though a glitch in installing a range hood delayed the opening for weeks?
Yep, to the tune of $25,000 a week. He originally thought it was going to be two or three weeks, but it turned into six weeks.
The ventilation for the kitchen had to be taken up five stories above the building, in the development near Sharon Road and Fairview that already has Dogwood Southern Table, Corkbuzz and Whole Foods. Palmer had already hired the staff of 50 people, some of whom had quit other jobs to sign on with Oak.
“We went to the staff and said, ‘this has never happened before.’” And then he told them they’d all be paid while Indigo Road waited out the delay.
It’s our culture,” he said. “The staff comes before the customers, before everything. So I said, ‘I’ve got to put my money where my mouth is.’ I just felt lucky that they hung in with us. I said, ‘You trusted us.’”
Palmer has worked in restaurants for years, including a stint as “a really bad line cook,” and he understands that the restaurant staff depends on their tips to survive.
A few other things about Indigo Road and Oak Steakhouse:
▪ The menu at Oak will sometimes be different from the menu at the Charleston location. Executive chef Alex Jenkins, who came up from Charleston, has free range to change things depending on seasonality and what he can get here. The Charlotte menu ranges from $12 to $17 for appetizers and salads, $18 to $39 for entrees ($57 for the mixed grill, which would serve at least two), and a gut-sucking $25 to $63 for the Certified Angus steaks and chops. Sides run from $8 to $17 (three-cheese lobster grits).
▪ What’s the feel? Think clubby: Long, tufted leather banquettes, muted taupe and brown color scheme, soaring oak pillar and a long bar that will probably be a busy meeting spot for the SouthPark area.
▪ With two Indigo Road restaurants here, can we expect to see more of the eight concepts? Palmer says that the Italian restaurant Indaco may come here eventually, but he doesn’t expect that to happen for a couple of years.
▪ What’s the problem with lunch? Both O-Ku and Oak are dinner-only; eventually, Oak will get brunch. “We call lunch ‘the four letter word,’” Palmer admits.
▪ Any Charleston-vs.-Charlotte comparisons? The success of O-Ku Sushi, in Atherton Mill near the corner of Tremont Avenue and South Boulevard, has taken him by surprise. It does well in Charleston, but it’s 20 percent busier here. “We do well in Charleston,” he said. “We’re doing exceedingly well in South End.”