Kathryn Hubert, 30, chef and restaurateur
The French bistro on South Elm Street is a delight. The food is rich, comforting, and affordable. The cozy space is full of plants and light and conversation. The service is leisurely. The staff is happy to be there.
It’s the stuff most costumers never see that makes the place special. The picture menu for the server who has an easier time taking orders by circling items than writing it out in words. The back of house sign that reminds employees of ways they can help the team – by doing dishes or rolling napkins – even if they feel overwhelmed.
Chez Genèse is exactly how chef and first-time restaurateur Kathryn Hubert imagined it. A place that embraces a very French version of hospitality, and provides a platform where a staff of adults with intellectual or development disabilities can thrive.
Kathryn grew up in California and Boone, NC, loving to cook. She got an associate’s degree in culinary arts before taking a year-long adventure in the Burgundy region of France. She volunteered at a conference center doing whatever needed to be done, from making beds to cooking meals. She was inspired by the French.
“I fell in love with French food and culture and their sense of hospitality and service,” Kathryn says.
After her trip, she got her Bachelor’s in hospitality management at UNC Greensboro. While she studied and a few years after graduation she worked as a behavioral support assistant with the Autism Society of North Carolina. She had experience with individuals with autism. Her cousins Zachary, Tyler and Tate are on the spectrum.
Kathryn also worked restaurant jobs while working out her next move. She thought she might move across the country to get into the business of helping people, such as those recently released from prison or experiencing homelessness.
One day it hit her: she wanted to open a restaurant that would give people a second chance, or perhaps a new beginning.
Enter Chez Genèse. In early 2018, she started working full time to open her French bistro. While its her concept and her dream, she says it is “very much a community project.”
“It struck a chord with a lot of different people,” she says. “The Greensboro community gets so excited to get behind a project.”
She raised $75,000 in donations and investments, about $25,000 of which was from individual donors on Kickstarter. More than 300 people helped get it opened, from volunteers who cleaned kitchen equipment and reupholstered the bistro chairs to one of her former colleagues in France, who designed the Chez Genèse logo and flew to Greensboro to paint it on the restaurant’s wall.
Every part of Kathryn’s process was intentional, especially how she built her team. Her cousin Zachary helped train the staff, which began months before opening day. “He said, ‘I am Zachary and I have autism and I am not ashamed of it,’” Kathryn said. “He brought something to the table I didn’t.”
Half the 24 staff members have an intellectual or development disability. They worked together before opening to the public to talk about things like how to treat each other in moments of stress or anxiety. They talked about their personal goals – from building confidence to meeting new people.
“It was helpful to figure out how we could create strength and support across our team,” she says.
The break room has a nook with coloring books, drawing supplies, and stress ball – some favorite things staff members brought in. There is also a kitchen timer. Need a break from serving crepes and café au laits? Take one. But not too long.
Kathryn has high expectations for the staff to create a convivial, welcoming environment akin to what one might experience in France. This isn’t for fun. It’s her business. She will be busy in the kitchen making cocottes and quiche. They must come prepared to work, too.
“I push my staff to be very independent. I am not easy on my staff,” she says. “You have to work hard and have a good attitude. I love seeing potential in people. We believe everyone has abilities and skills to contribute.”
Five months in, and all but two of her original employees have stuck it out with her. She sees her staff becoming the team she wanted.
“When we are busy, they will support me. They will say, ‘You are doing a great job, Kathryn.’”