After graduating from Cornell University with a degree in chemical and biomolecular engineering, Katie Button found herself drawn back to the world she grew up in. From a young age, Button was frequently in the kitchen, helping her mom who ran a catering company out of their house. And eventually, she decided to take her career in a relatively similar direction.
Button got her culinary start in the front of the house in Washington, D.C. at José Andrés’ Cafe Atlantico, where she met her now husband, Felix Meana, who came to D.C. from Roses, Spain. Eventually, Button shifted to the back of the house, with a career that took her to NYC’s Jean-Georges, L.A.’s The Bazaar, and finally the world-renowned elBulli in Spain.
In 2009, Button decided it was time to open her own restaurant, teaming up with her husband and parents to launch Cúrate, a Spanish tapas spot in Asheville, North Carolina, not far from where Button was born. Since, Button has been nominated for four James Beard Awards, and Cúrate was featured as one of Food & Wine’s “40 Most Important Restaurants of the Past 40 Years”. She’s also helped grow the brand to now include a second location, a Spanish market and wine bar called La Bodega, along with an e-commerce culinary marketplace, wine club, and culinary travel company.
We chat with Button about how she’s successfully expanded and diversified her business, and how cultivating a positive workplace has been pivotal to her success.
Over the years, you’ve built a ton beyond Cúrate and I want to talk about how that’s shaped your success. Your second spot was originally a bagel shop, which you opened in 2018 and just recently transitioned into La Bodega. Can you talk a bit about the need to make that transition?
Pre-pandemic, we decided to open a bagel shop primarily because I was like, ‘Oh we’re telling the story of Spain, let’s tell the story of New Jersey’, which is where I grew up. It was also about what is Asheville missing – that’s part of how the idea for Cúrate began, too.
It was a huge learning curve. The fast-casual formula was very different from a full-service restaurant, and we were just getting into a rhythm when the pandemic hit. All of a sudden, the downtown was empty, and it no longer made sense to have a building where we were selling bagels at $4 a pop.
We instantly went into piles of bills that couldn’t be paid. So we had to think very strategically. We knew that location was a good location, and we knew if we could sell bottles of wine, chorizo, sausages, bottles of gazpacho – we could just better fill the need when people were home and nobody was dining out.
La Bodega became a huge part of us being able to survive. All of a sudden your ticket average is over $40 versus $10 in the bagel shop. And sometimes people come in and spend $100 because they stock up, and they trusted us already through Cúrate.
And you plan to continue to expand your brand in this direction.
Once we reopened Cúrate, it just stuck. We always struggled telling two separate stories – how do you tell the story of a bagel shop and a Spanish tapas restaurant in one sentence? So we realized this is exactly what we need to be doing, focusing on our strengths, which is connecting people to Spanish food and culture. Felix is from Spain, we go every year, and we have this deep understanding of the culture and food, and we want to share it. So it made a lot of sense. And then we started layering on additional revenue streams during the pandemic, out of necessity.
You’ve openly talked about how you wouldn’t have survived the pandemic without receiving Restaurant Relief funding. Can you talk about its role in your expansion?
When you’re operating out of fear of going under, you’re not operating from a place of making decisions out of integrity. It’s hard. The biggest driver is not closing, and everything else falls second to that.
The biggest thing that RRF has allowed us to do is to make decisions in the best interest of our team without having to make fast decisions about our bottom line. We can navigate the losses of January due to Omicron, and struggles with hiring, like closing a brunch service. RRF is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do, which is to go back into the economy and the workforce.
You’ve actually recently increased wages and benefits for your employees. Can you share why this was important to you?
We’ve always been Living Wage certified. And when we opened Cúrate, we always had this intention to grow our benefits year over year. Then when the pandemic hit, before we received RRF, we did eliminate a lot of benefits. Our team size shrunk so we got rid of health insurance, and we did a lot of scarcity, fear-based things because we had nothing to cover those losses.
But RRF has allowed us to be able to continue our Living Wage Certification – which in Asheville increased to $17.70 an hour – and expand. We used to offer one day of sick pay, and now we offer three, plus we added five days of paid time off if you test positive for Covid.
On top of that, we increased our PTO. We always offered one week in your first year, two weeks in your second year, and now we’ve added three weeks in your third year. When you’re in a committed job, you should have three weeks off. We also brought back our health insurance, and we added a benefit of paying 50% of a dental membership plan. All of that feels really good to us.
We also added bereavement time off. We had a couple people lose some people this year – people need to be able to get time off, and be paid for that time, to take care of themselves.
What have been your employees’ reactions? Has this helped retention?
We just did an employee survey, and we don’t have those results yet, but we’re constantly looking to understand how they’re feeling and how we can improve. When you’re an employer, you’re on a journey of continual improvement of how you operate and how you take care of your employees and your guests.
And we have seen good retention. Our numbers are much higher than the national average.
Do you have any advice for other operators, on inherently tight margins, looking to make similar changes?
First of all, I would never expect any employer to make all of the changes they want to make at once. We have built up our benefits over a 10 year period. We felt confident returning to our pre-pandemic benefit levels, and even going a little further, because we know eventually we’re going to get out of this, and with the RRF, we were able to withstand losses for a little longer.
Try one thing at a time. And also understand that when you add a benefit, not everyone takes advantage of it. The financial impact is never 100% the maximum that it could be. It’s always somewhere in the middle. The truth is that I think the cost of PTO and extra sick days is far less than the cost of turnover. And the cost of turnover is not just financial. It’s an emotional and mental strain on your team who’s in constant training mode. I want our servers and cooks, I want their job to be something where they can live happily and get the time off that they need to feel balanced.
But it’s hard. And it can feel like doing all of it will put you under, and that’s why my advice is to add one benefit each year. Then you see the financial impact and you have a decision – can you afford to keep adding the next year? Can you increase menu prices or do other things to make it work?
Along with La Bodega, you recently launched two other new lines of business, Cúrate at Home and the Cúrate Spanish Wine Club. How do those play into your goals?
Cúrate at Home was for customers outside of Asheville, to allow them to support us while getting some of their favorite things. It’s a home shipping program that allows us to keep telling that one story of Spanish culture across all parts of our business. And the Wine Club brings Spanish wines to your door.
These other things have a potential of having lower labor costs and different profits of margins. The end goal and reason behind them is because if we can grow all of these into successful, sustainable businesses, then we can better take care of everyone – because it’s all one pot in the end.
Was diversifying your business always part of the plan?
That’s purely because the pandemic has taught us not to have all of our eggs in one basket. Butts in seats in a dining room – that was the business we knew and were good at. So before the pandemic, we envisioned ourselves opening more restaurants. But what we learned is that diversification for restaurants is really important – just like in farming, where you grow a variety of crops for the same reasons.
You also have Cúrate Trips, where you take customers on trips to Spain. And recently you became the host of a TV show. It’s a lot of moving parts – what’s been crucial for allowing you to keep everything operating smoothly?
The key is our team. And building that. And retaining it. We can’t build and do new things if we can’t hang onto the people that are doing wonderful work for us.
I’ve been working our office leadership team through Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead book. We do a book club every two months during working hours, and we talk about a section of the book. And the purpose is to get us thinking about conversation and connection. It’s about culture-building.
Do you have any advice for operators seeking to expand their brand?
Take it one step at a time. Looking back, a negative [for us] during the pandemic is that we knee-jerk reacted to try to get lines of business open as quickly as possible. For the Wine Club, the Bodega, we’re now doing the vision work that should’ve been done on the front end but got skipped because we were just running at any possible solution that could fix the catastrophe that we were in. And I would say, don’t skip that. Get clear on that vision. The vision will change as you learn and try, but it’s important to have that clarity, and then revisit annually.
[Photo courtesy Evan Sung]