House Keeper: Multitasking at multiple locations is all in a day’s work for Asheville Brewing Company’s Michelle Walton
Early in her restaurant management career, Michelle Walton received two foundational edicts: Don’t let the building burn down, and make sure the doors are locked.
That was nearly 20 years ago, and Walton, now regional manager for Asheville Brewing Company, has learned plenty since. But sitting at the Lost & Found table in the Library Room of Asheville Brewing Company’s original Merrimon Avenue location, she admits it was solid advice.
Growing up in Knoxville, she took her first after-school job when she was just 15, working at Wendy’s. After high school, she decided to remain in the hospitality industry — always front of house — and see where it might lead her. With hosting, serving, and bartending posts under her belt, she let her boss at Olive Garden know she wanted to get into the chain’s manager training program. She began by participating in new location openings then became a floating manager, which took her to Virginia; Kentucky; Sevierville and Nashville, Tennessee; Asheville; and a memorable very hot July in Kady, Texas.
“What I really learned going to different locations was how to deal with all different kinds of people,” says Walton. “You have to build leadership very quickly. Everyone receives direction differently, so it really helped me build my communication skills.”
In 2014, she said yes to a permanent manager post at the Asheville Olive Garden location. “Right before I transferred, my GM told me that Asheville was very ‘culturally different,’ and I wasn’t sure what he meant,” she says. “I had traveled all over the country for the company and seen a lot. But he was right! Asheville is different, but I really fell in love with it.”
After six months at that store and a decade with the company, Walton was ready to branch out. She first went to a small Indian restaurant, then a little pizzeria, but when a manager position opened at Zia Taqueria (now closed), she took it. “I learned so much there, especially from the operating partner, Robert Tipsword,” she remembers. “He always had fresh ideas and was not afraid to try new things. He was really a mentor to me.”
She met an industry friend one night at Asheville Brewing Company’s Merrimon Avenue restaurant, Asheville Pizza & Brewing, and they observed that the multipurpose restaurant/bar/movie theater would be a great fit for her multitasking skills but added that the place was almost always fully staffed and rarely hiring. Walton took that as laudable testimony to the culture of that restaurant. Not long after, she saw an online ad that caught her eye: We need a manager! Maybe you’re the person! We have pizza! We have beer! We have movies! “It was so quirky I just had to go for it,” Walton says.
She interviewed with Cory Gates, one of the company’s five owners, and immediately recognized him as a regular at Zia. He remembered her as the manager who had assisted him with a food issue one night. “I totally remembered the issue and how I resolved it. He remembered that too but also how very serious I had been. And he still hired me!” says Walton.
Though managing a restaurant as big as Asheville Pizza & Brewing with so many moving parts is serious business, it’s also even quirkier than the Craig’s List ad indicated, and Gates noted that Walton didn’t need to be serious all the time. “He suggested I could be happy helping people and resolving problems. I thought that was a good perspective, being happy is good all-around and now I’m a little more bubbly,” she says with a laugh.
She added that advice to the extensive list of management lessons learned and her love of “guest recovery” and parlayed it all into a steady rise in the company, navigating through the Covid-19 crisis and many changes in operations. While still GM of the Merrimon Avenue store, she was named GM of the Coxe Avenue location in South Slope. Now as regional manager of Asheville Brewing Co., she also runs the Rabbit Rabbit concert and event space. “I’m here at the Merrimon store today, yesterday I was at Coxe Avenue all day, and Thursday I’ll be at Rabbit Rabbit for a private event,” Walton says. “My schedule is constantly changing, and I love that.”
If she could add to the two pieces of management advice she received early in her career, what would it be? “Be aware and observant of your customer needs and your staff needs. See things before they become an issue. Hear the whispers before they become a scream.”
For more about Asheville Brewing Company, visit ashevillebrewing.com.
Written by Kay West
Photo courtesy of Asheville Brewing Company