Several months ago, my wife and daughter started a contest. Lauren, my 11 year-old, wants Arnold Schwarzenegger to come to our restaurant – she loves the Terminator (but has no idea about the Governator). Amy decided she would try to get the President of the United States to come to the restaurant. Now both of these may sound ambitious, but I have learned never to underestimate either my daughter or my wife when they set their mind to something.
Amy sent a letter to the White House with a copy of our menu and asked that, if President Obama and the First Lady ever came back to Asheville, they try our place for dinner. When she found out the President would be spending his vacation in Asheville in April 2010, she followed up her letter with several emails to just to keep us in mind while they were here.
The President and First Lady came to town, visited 12 Bones on the way to their hotel (a great restaurant by the way, owned and run by really good people) and settled in – if that is ever the case with the President and his schedule – for a couple of days in Asheville.
While we had hoped the President and Mrs. Obama would come to the Corner Kitchen, it seemed that their trip was too short and their were too many other opportunities for them to explore for them to make it to Biltmore Village. By Saturday night, April 24, I had assumed they would finish their trip and go back to Washington without us seeing them.
Joe and I and our friend Grant took our families to Pack’s Tavern for dinner. It had just opened and we were interested to see what they had done with the building and the food. The building is beautiful, the food was good and we were having a really nice visit with each other. About halfway through dinner, I got a text from my step-brother, David Warren. He was at the Corner Kitchen for the birthday of one of my cousins. Our text conversation went something like this:
David: Is the President coming here tonight?
Me: Not that I know of. Are there Secret Service agents there?
David: A few
Now David is a pretty decent joker from time to time so I just ignored him. I figured he was pulling my leg, and I was involved in a conversation at the table so I forgot all about it.
Three more texts came in but I didn’t really notice them until I got up to check on the kids. They were exploring Pack’s Tavern and, hopefully, staying out of trouble. I checked the messages – they increasingly implored me to get to the restaurant as fast as I could since the President was there. Still thinking that David might be joshing me (really just in disbelief), I called the Corner Kitchen.
First call goes to voice mail – not a good sign as we make every effort to answer every call. Second call is answered by Adrienne in her most professional host voice.
“Thank you for calling the Corner Kitchen. This is Adrienne. How may I help you?” I asked if anything unusual was going on and the response was something like this – “Yes, the President is upstairs and I’m freaking out!” This said in the most enthusiastic way you could imagine. And she wasn’t freaking out but she was very excited.
I made the rounds, told everybody what was up and Joe and I headed to the restaurant, families in tow. At this point, it probably makes sense to answer the most common questions we have been asked:
Did they let you in to your own restaurant? Yes. The Secret Service were very professional, very serious about their job and also very understanding that as the owners we wanted to make sure everything went OK in our business during their visit.
How many Secret Service agents were there? All of them, I think.
How much notice did you have before the President arrived? Just a few minutes. One black Suburban out front is normal, several is odd, and several with Asheville Police Department cars surrounding them is the President. By the time you notice all the GM vehicles in the street the ball is already rolling.
How did they choose your restaurant? Not really sure, but the White House advance team ate with us on the Tuesday before the President’s visit and liked the food. Their quote was “We have to tell the Boss about this place!” and that apparently put us on the short list of places for dinner for the President. From what we can gather, the letters from my wife did not play into the decision but we did not exhaustively interrogate every staffer about it (Amy would really like to know, though.)
On Wednesday night, a staffer (unbeknownst to us) made a reservation for Saturday night for six people in our Sisal room. The story was that he was going to ask his girlfriend to marry him and was going to have some friends with him for the event. We booked the reservation, gave them the price for the private room and then I had the manager, Tracy Heintzleman, call them back and tell them they could have it for half the normal price for a private room. I figure it was a special night, I wanted them to have good memories and not worry about the money. Little did I know that money was not really too big of an issue and that the guest of honor was already married.
Did they clear the restaurant of all other customers? No. Guests with reservations were allowed to come in after the appropriate checks and body scans were made but no new customers were allowed to come in after the President’s party. Good thing, too, as many of the customers that were already at the restaurant did not want to leave when they saw the President and First Lady come in.
Did you cook anything special for the President and his party? If by this you mean, did you make something that was not on the menu, then no. Josh Weeks, our chef de cuisine, felt that the regular menu had really great food on it that night and that the President and his friends would really enjoy it. It also let the kitchen continue in a more or less normal fashion for our other customers and staff.
Did the Secret Service taste the food? Yes. And they had Josh taste the food throughout the dinner preparation. Again, they are very professional and very serious about their job. But they seemed satisfied with what they saw in the kitchen and let our staff do their jobs.
What did the President and his party eat? Corn and Crab Chowder, Mahi Mahi, Baby Arugula Salad, Fried Oyster appetizer, Lobster Taco appetizer, Pork Chops, and Souffle were among the things on their order that night.
Did you hand pick the server for the President? No. We rotate our staff through each station each week and Christina Calhoun happened to be the server upstairs that night. She was a great person to wait on them.
Did you get to meet the President? Yes. We were very graciously allowed to take our families upstairs to meet the President and his guests after dinner. Their friends from Chicago were really nice people and President and Mrs. Obama were as warm and friendly as anyone you could meet.
The First Lady really seemed to gravitate to the children and asked them their ages, complimented them and seemed very motherly when around them. The President was very relaxed and seemed to have a nice sense of humor. When my wife told him of the contest she had with my daughter to get them here, he nodded and smiled. When I said that my daughter wanted Arnold Schwarzenegger to come, he turned and said “And you got me” in a fairly self-deprecating way.
Did you make the President pay? Yes, but there was some thought about protocol. In the end we figured it was the right thing to do. When we came in the room the President was signing his charge slip. My wife touched him on the shoulder and said that he wasn’t supposed to have a bill. He said that is was OK and just grinned. After a pause, he said “I never get to use this card anyway.”
Did you get pictures of or with the President? Yes. The President’s photographer, Pete Souza, was with him. If you want to see some really compelling pictures, go to Pete’s website to view his galleries. The one of President Reagan’s funeral is touching and distinctively American. Check it out. Here are the three pictures he took at the Corner Kitchen that night:
These photographs are provided by THE WHITE HOUSE as a courtesy and may be
printed by the subject(s) in the photograph for personal use only. The
photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not otherwise be
reproduced, disseminated or broadcast, without the written permission of
the White House Photo Office. This photograph may not be used in any
commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products,
promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the
President, the First Family, or the White House.
How was the atmosphere in the Corner Kitchen that night? The best word that comes to mind is “surreal”. We have had a handful of famous people visit the restaurant but they are usually by themselves or with a friend. When the President comes to your place, the atmosphere is pretty electric.
We feel honored that the President and First Lady had dinner with us. My wife kept hoping that they would have a chance to spend a peaceful dinner while they were here. I am sure they were able to do this at the Grove Park Inn and we think they did at the Corner Kitchen as well.
Here are two photos that were taken by guests who were in the restaurant that evening.