Southern slide

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Southern Season’s recent bankruptcy and pending auction represents a disappointing turn for the once-successful gourmet-foods retailer known for its curated collection of regional foodstuffs and amazing gift baskets. It’s particularly frustrating for those of us who worked at the original Chapel Hill store, learning a few life lessons in the process.

Shortly after I graduated from Carolina in the early 90s, feeling not quite ready for a 9-to-5 job, I worked at Southern Season’s newly expanded Weathervane Café in East Gate Shopping Center, on East Franklin Street. Most of my colleagues were, like me, students or aimless grads from UNC or Duke, along with a few free-spirited professors’ kids taking breaks from their studies at places like Smith or the University of Colorado. The business was then owned by Michael Barefoot, who started the company in 1975, five years before Whole Foods Market opened its first store in Austin, Texas. He focused on selling kitchenwares and gourmet goodies produced by small vendors based throughout North Carolina and the Southeast.

Barefoot was very hands-on, spent lots of time at the store and had a meticulous attention to detail. He ran a tight ship. While he seemed to have a good camaraderie with his longtime staffers, many of the store’s rank-and-file workers found him rather intimidating. We never had much face-to-face interaction, as he usually chose to filter critiques through his trusted management staff. Compliments were a rarity.

The restaurant was nice, but the fare was unremarkable compared with many of today’s chef-driven concepts. But that wasn’t really the point, which was to showcase some of the store’s carefully selected products. If you really liked that crab dip at dinner, you could swing through the adjacent store and pick up a container to take home.

One evening, while still new at my job, a party of about a dozen including Barefoot, his elderly mother and and other family members was seated in my section. The restaurant was very busy, the kitchen was slammed and I was nervous. I wasn’t too surprised the next morning when my manager told me Barefoot had been extremely disappointed with his meal, particularly my lack of knowledge regarding menu items and proper wine service. It was a humbling experience: With my newly minted college degree, I was being cut down to size for my lack of expertise as a server. I saw colleagues receive similar treatment for their serving  transgressions, or when their shirts weren’t starched or when they showed up to work with a stain on one of our required Kelly-green aprons.

Despite his intimidating management style, Barefoot’s high standards obviously contributed to the company’s success. Presentation and impeccable customer service were of the utmost importance. Over 36 years, he built a loyal customer base and created a well-respected brand.

By most reports, the company’s backward slide began, not surprisingly, during the 2007-09 recession. In 2011, Barefoot sold the business to TC Capital Fund and veteran Triangle investor Clay Hamner became chairman and later CEO. In an interview with Business North Carolina in late 2015, Hamner outlined optimistic plans to add stores and eventually take the company public. With its vast array of gourmet products, Southern Season, he said, “has to be located in a well-educated population where people want to entertain at home.”

But Hamner clearly underestimated the challenges posed by larger, well-funded rivals skilled at serving gourmet cooks and discriminating foodies, including Whole Foods, Sur la Table, Dean and DeLuca, along with many online retailers. Consumers seeking home-grown delicacies also can visit farmers markets that have proliferated across the state. With Barefoot out of the picture, perhaps no one deeply vested in the business was focused on the small details needed to distinguish the retailer.

Now, countless small food and beverage companies may get stuck after Southern Seasons filed for bankruptcy protection in June, listing assets of $9.8 million and liabilities of $18.3 million. It has retained investment bank 321 Capital Partners to help find a buyer, with an auction scheduled to start Friday, Aug. 19. A deal could be in place next week.

What was unique about the business was its celebration of products made in the South, including many from North Carolina. Sure, Michael Barefoot took me down a notch during my stint as a bumbling server. But I feel bad for him, and I suspect he’s shed more than a few tears over the company’s struggles. Hopefully this week’s auction will produce a buyer able to reinvigorate one of North Carolina’s proud homegrown success stories.

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