Ashley Christensen is known for many things. You may know her as the owner of a successful restaurant group in Raleigh, North Carolina. Or perhaps you've seen the numerous professional accolades she's received, including Eater's 2017 Chef of the Year and the 2019 James Beard award for Outstanding Chef. Or, you may simply know of her mac and cheese. But beyond the significant contributions she's made to the American culinary community over the last few decades, Christensen has remained committed to bettering her adopted home of Raleigh.
For the past ten years, all of Christensen's ventures--including Poole's Diner, Death & Taxes, and Fox Liquor Bar--have been adorned with the same words: "Don't Forget Kindness." The maxim began as a reminder of agency and individual action during escalating political tensions. Previously, "Don't Forget to Vote" had been emblazoned on the windows of Poole's, an upscale diner Christensen opened in 2007. But as community conversations increasingly reached a fever-pitch, Christensen began to consider a call-to-action that guests could consider every day, rather than just a few days a year.
In the years since, Christensen has faced the same slate of challenges that all restaurant owners--and American citizens, for that matter--have: ongoing political turmoil, rising financial inequality, an unrelenting pandemic. Christensen's considerations for her business and her community have evolved in tandem, and she continues to re-evaluate the best way to be a leader in the industry. But throughout these changes, the mantra has remained the same.
Today, Christensen considers "Don't Forget Kindness" to be not only an interpersonal imperative, but also an intention to set each day, rather than a simple slogan or company motto "Remembering kindness--to me, that's kind of like my higher power," she explained over the phone. "That's the thing that centers me and rights my ship when I'm feeling a little bit lost." Kindness is a multifaceted tool, one that can be applied on a personal, professional, and community level.
For years she has been working to better her own skills as a chef, manager, and leader. Often, this manifested itself in subtler, but important ways, such as creating space for her employees to do their best work, fostering an environment where people were allowed to make mistakes without negative repercussions. "Everything that we work on, think about, invest in, believe in--We want to create the kind of environment I would've wanted to work in as a young cook," Christensen said.
With the coming of the Covid-19 pandemic, Christensen quickly realized that this tumultuous moment would only matter if something good could come out of it. Part of that imperative was to take this current moment of upheaval to re-imagine a more equitable, sustainable restaurant industry.
Since the pandemic began, all of Ashley Christensen Restaurants overhauled their compensation model. They no longer accept tip credits; rather, bartenders and servers make a base salary of $13 an hour--well above the standard non-tipped minimum wage in North Carolina, which lies at $7.25 an hour--and tips are shared by front and back of house. "We spent way more money, but we promised ourselves that we would set ourselves up for a different kind of success," she explained. "We will charge what we need to charge and continue to tell the story of why food costs what it costs."
"We'd always wanted to do it," she continued, "but you can't change the tire on a moving car."
Almost two-and-a-half years later, Christensen believes that her own business--as well as the national restaurant industry--has come out on the other side kinder and, hopefully, with a stabler foundation than it had before. "After watching so many friends lose places, lose what they had invested their entire lives into," she said, "every day when I wake up, no matter the challenges that happened the day before or that lie ahead--I just can't believe that we still get to be here." And to her mind, within that gratitude lies a reservoir of responsibility, both inside and outside of her immediate culinary community.
This intertwined sense of gratitude and responsibility also fuels her philanthropy, as she seeks to foster the same kinds of structural and interpersonal changes in her adopted city of Raleigh, as well as the American South at large. Today, she is on the board of directors for the downtown Raleigh-based Shepherd's Table Soup Kitchen, which provides free meals to neighbors in need. She has been deeply involved with the Frankie Lemmon Foundation, a local school for children with developmental disabilities, for the better part of twenty years, and she continues to serve their mission by co-chairing their annual fundraising event, Triangle Wine and Food Experience.
Other than remaining kind, Christensen has one other piece of advice for those who seek to better their communities. "Don't say yes to everything. Figure out what you believe in, what you love, and what you will really put yourself on the line for. Then really get behind those things."
READ: Livermush is a North Carolina Favorite