Can Charlotte become a dining destination in the same league with Southern cities like Charleston, Austin, Texas, Nashville and Atlanta?
The Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, which promotes tourism and events, is sending a team of seven chefs and mixologists to New York in November for a Charlotte Tastemakers Dinner at the James Beard House, the home base of the culinary foundation that supports American regional cuisine. The regional authority said the trip would cost about $35,000.
That follows the first big effort last spring, when the CRVA helped to support a large Charlotte contingent — 22 chefs, mixologists and brewers from 19 restaurants and breweries — at the Charleston Wine + Food Festival, one of the biggest food festivals in the South with more than 29,000 visitors.
“That was new to us, to go to a city that has such a respected culinary scene and see if we could generate some excitement,” said CRVA spokeswoman Laura White with the CRVA.
Focusing on Charlotte as a culinary destination is part of branding efforts stemming from the CRVA. One of the key themes of the promotion is culinary, according to White.
While the CRVA isn’t footing the entire bill for the New York trip (Big Green Egg and poultry producer Springer Mountain Farms are also sponsors), the authority is investing in putting Charlotte on the dining map, according to White and spokeswoman Kristen Moore of the CRVA.
The CRVA’s budget is about $70 million a year, said White. Half of that comes from money generated by venues that draw visitors, like the Charlotte Convention Center and performing arts venues. The other half comes from hotel/motel occupancy taxes. A portion of the occupancy tax goes to the CRVA for advertising and promotion.
White points out that Charlotte’s 2018 budget for sales and marketing, $5.2 million, is less than half of Nashville’s $11.6 million. Atlanta spent $8.1 million, Charleston spent $8 million and Asheville spent $7.8 million. All are cities that are regularly listed as Southern dining destinations in coverage of the region.
The perception of Charlotte’s food scene by visitors may already be changing: Surveys of visitors have shown that the city’s dining is becoming a bigger driver of visitor interest.
A 2018 CRVA study of visitor perceptions of Charlotte compared to other markets showed that 57 percent strongly agreed that Charlotte has a wide variety of restaurant options vs. 38 percent for other cities. And 46 percent strongly agreed that the city offers “exceptional dining experience,” compared to 27 percent for other cities.
Of the types of leisure activities people did on recent trips here, a TravelUSA study from last year shows that dining was the biggest, at 52 percent, compared to “visiting friends and relatives,” at 45 percent. Visiting a local brewery came in at 14 percent, and attending a sports event was 13 percent.
Numbers like that are encouraging the CRVA to support drawing attention to the culinary world, White said.
“When we look at that visitor profile every year (and see dining perceptions rising), that’s what our end target is. While there isn’t one silver bullet, it’s the collective efforts.”
Even if you aren’t a visitor to Charlotte, drawing in more tourists with restaurants in mind can pay off, says White. Hospitality and leisure is the fourth largest industry for jobs in Mecklenburg County, she says, with one in nine jobs coming from hospitality.
If you aren’t likely to be in New York on Nov. 16 for the James Beard dinner, you can still get a taste: The chefs and mixologists headed to New York — Ashley Bivens Boyd of 300 East, William Dissen of Haymaker, Joe Kindred of Kindred and Hello Sailor, Bruce Moffett of the Moffett Restaurant Group, Paul Verica of The Stanley, Colleen Hughes of Haberdish and cocktail consultant Bob Peters — will do a run-through of the menu at The Stanley at 6 p.m. Nov. 5. Tickets are $95 and are available at www.eventbrite.com.
And if you are headed to New York, the dinner at the James Beard House is $180 ($140 for members). Tickets are available at www.jamesbeard.org.