Eric Scheffer: The World is His Oyster

written by Bill Kopp

At first glance, developing skills in prestidigitation, making music videos and running an advertising agency might not register as useful steps on a path toward becoming a successful restaurateur. But the life and career of Eric Scheffer provide strong evidence that they are. Perhaps best known as the owner of popular Asheville restaurant Vinnie's Neighborhood Italian, at age 61 this energetic entrepreneur seems like he's just getting started.

Scheffer was born in 1959 in Brooklyn, New York and raised on the North Shore of Long Island. His father was a well-known advertising executive, "one of the guys they modeled Mad Men around," he says. Inspired to move even farther into the creative side of things, the elder Scheffer launched a production company, Jenkins/Covington, an industry leader for more than two decades. "That's what I grew up in," Scheffer says. "I was a child actor, in TV commercials and such."

As a kid, Eric Scheffer thought he'd grow up to be a professional magician. "From the time I was eight years old until I was about 15, I studied magic with one of Harry Houdini's last assistants," he says. That experience schooled him in the art of "working a room," a skill he would put to effective use throughout his life. But not, it would turn out, as a magician.

Right out of high school, Scheffer left Huntington, New York for Los Angeles. There he started working for his father's company, but not in some entitled, cushy job. "I was just a production assistant." he emphasizes. "My dad made me work very hard for what I had in life."

Scheffer's hard work was equaled by his ambition. He and four friends had been experimenting with filmmaking, and they all asked their parents for small loans -- $3000 each -- so they could start a proper business. Soon thereafter, they were approached by the owner of the famous Hollywood nightclub, Gazzarri's. He asked Scheffer and his team to film a set by an up-and-coming rock band. "I think it was Mötley Crüe or something like that," Scheffer says with a chuckle.

That opportunity led to more gigs. "We'd go to places like the Whisky A Go Go, film bands, and then their management would buy the films from us," he says. Word spread about the quality of their work, and soon an executive from Polygram Records came calling. "He funded us," Scheffer says. "So this group of film geeks started one of the first rock video companies." Eventually, Scheffer would co-produce the MTV Video Award-winning video for Cyndi Lauper's 1983 mega-hit "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun." He would work go on to with Stevie Wonder, the Police, John Lee Hooker and other big names.

Eventually, though, Polygram came to see Scheffer again. He recalls being told, "Look, this is probably a little bit bigger than you guys are," and so the label bough him and his partners out. Scheffer soon returned to the TV commercial business, working his way up to producer. "I spent a good part of my time between Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago," he recalls.

He also found himself frequently traveling on business to South America. There Scheffer produced some content for Showtime. "I was living in Rio for about a year, just producing these massive concerts," he says. He also organized jazz concerts with Herbie Hancock. Word got around, and he was asked to serve as producer on Madonna's Truth or Dare concert tour. "I had one meeting with her," Scheffer recalls. "But she was so vulgar, rude and nasty that I turned it down."

Soon thereafter, director Oliver Stone reached out to Scheffer for help with the Madonna film vehicle Evita. Scheffer used his South American connections to help smooth the bureaucratic path in Argentina, but when Stone was taken off the project, Scheffer's involvement ended as well. So once again he returned to the advertising world, becoming an executive producer at Harmony Pictures. "I was always very good with making stuff happen with no money," he says with a chuckle. "So I worked with a lot of first-time directors doing low-budget films.

Another Argentine adventure -- this time to make a commercial for Virginia Slims cigarettes -- led to a chance meeting with an actress. Atop a mountain in mid-winter, the two found themselves face-to-face ... sort of. "I was wearing foul weather gear, and you could only see my eyes," Scheffer recalls. "Heidi said, 'The moment I saw your eyes, I knew I would spend the rest of my life with you.'" The two were married shortly thereafter.

Though they initially settled Los Angeles, the couple detected signs that suggested they shouldn't remain there. "Within the first two years we were in L.A. together, Heidi got mugged and the '94 earthquake hit," Scheffer says. He also survived an attempted carjacking. Meanwhile, the film business was changing. "I looked like the old-timer on the block," he says. "Even though I was in my early 30s!" And Scheffer felt the need to escape from his father's shadow. "It was always, 'You must be Manny's kid,'" he says. And the decadent temptations of L.A. were finding their way into his life. "The industry wasn't very good to me regarding drugs and alcohol," he admits. "It was a trap."

At the height of his commercial production activity, Scheffer would take periodic breaks to rejuvenate. "Just for fun, I'd go to cooking schools," he says. He harbored dreams of someday opening his own restaurant. He says that he favored Italian cuisine because he "wanted to create a connection between somebody's soul and my restaurant."

As Eric and Heidi were thinking about leaving Los Angeles, they took advantage of an old friend's offer to come visit him in Asheville, North Carolina. After their plane landed, they got a rental car and somehow ended up lost on the Blue Ridge Parkway. "We pulled over," Scheffer recalls with a smile. "We looked around where we were, we both teared up, and we looked at each other and said, 'This is where we're going to spend the rest of our lives.' It was just meant to be."

Little more than a week later, they returned to L.A. and packed up their belongings. On April 1, 1995 the couple moved to Asheville. "I rented a house over the phone, sight unseen," Scheffer says. As fate would have it, the Scheffers' new landlords were Alan and Suzie Laibson, owners of the Savoy Restaurant on Merrimon Avenue in North Asheville.

Scheffer would hook up with an old friend who had moved to Charleston, S.C. and the two launched a full-service agency, Kingfisher. For the next four years, he found himself back in the advertising world, making commercials for Coca-Cola, Nokia and other major consumer brands. But it soon became clear to Scheffer that it was time to quit all the work travel.

That realization coincided with the birth of Eric and Heidi's daughter, Jordan. Severely premature, Jordan was the smallest baby ever born at Mission Hospital, Scheffer says. She spent the first five and a half months of her life in the hospital, and the medical bills piled up to nearly $1 million.

But having shut down Kingfisher, Scheffer has to do something. And he still held that dream. So in 2000, he and a partner approached Alan Laibson with an offer to buy the Savoy. "I had a vision of bringing all my experiences of traveling around the world and dining to a more upscale dining experience," he says. "Because I saw what was going on here in Asheville. There were people like me -- but with money! -- coming here and retiring here. I could see the face of Asheville starting to change." He notes that at the time, local fine dining options were comparably few: Mark Rosenstein's Marketplace on Wall Street, Cafe on the Square and Vijay Shastri's Flying Frog Cafe.

Scheffer's initial instincts paid off. The Savoy grew in popularity and stature, with positive mentions in Food & Wine and Southern Living. "We had a lot of stars flying in here in their private jets to have dinner with us," he says. "We got great national recognition for this tiny, fine dining restaurant in a still slightly off-the-beaten-path city."

And Scheffer sensed that Asheville wouldn't remain under the radar for long. "In 2003 I went to Michel Baudouin -- who owns Bouchon and RendezVous -- and one other restaurateur and said, 'We need to get organized.'" So they formed AIR, Asheville Independent Restaurants. The organization grew quickly, adding more members and spearheading initiatives like A Taste of Asheville. "And just for fun, I started the HardLox Jewish Food Festival," Scheffer says with a smile. Less than a decade after entering the restaurant business for the first time, he was all-in.

But after running the festival for ten years, Scheffer was burnt out. Eventually, he stepped back from a leadership position at AIR as well. "I believe in passing the baton at a certain point, because [organizations] need fresh blood and new ideas," he says. But he channeled his energies in new yet related directions. He was chairman of the Tourism Development Authority, he sat on the boards of the Asheville Art Museum and -- in support of the challenges Jordan faced -- Industries for the Blind.

"And I was asked by the Asheville City Council to be their representative on the Tourist Development Authority," he says. "So, I sat on the board for a total of six years and I was the chairman for a year. I was there helping represent restaurants and the food and beverage scene." He says that the experience helped him gain an even better understanding of how he could help grow the local restaurant community. "Asheville was going to grow into a tourist-centric, tourist-based community/economy."

But for a time, the Great Recession got in the way. "The Savoy had its run, but we started to do a little nosedive in '08, '09, and then '10. I realized that white tablecloth dining was going to go away, at least in this town," Scheffer says. "And I wanted to try to be out ahead of it." So he re-imagined the restaurant as one in the mold of the neighborhood Italian places of his New York City youth.

"I said to myself, 'There's nothing like this in Asheville.' I realized there were all these transplants coming here from New York, Connecticut, Boston, and Jersey," Scheffer says. He believed his concept could tap into that population, both with food and from an emotional perspective. "Because," he says, "this is what they grew up on."

The new restaurant in the old Savoy location would be called Vinnie's Neighborhood Italian. The restaurant's menu centers on comfort food, featuring favorites like garlic knots and fried calamari as well as lasagna, pizza, spaghetti with "Sunday Gravy," pasta dishes with mushrooms, seafood and delectable sauces, and Italian classics like Chicken Piccata and Salmon Gratella.

"We've been voted [in Mountain Xpress' Best of Asheville polls] the Best Italian Restaurant for ten years in a row, Best Service for six years in a row, and Best Bartender too," Scheffer says. "And we're #13, in TripAdvisor's world, as the Best Everyday Restaurant." He says that his approach is about "understanding the importance of developing culture around the brand of a restaurant so you can really inculcate yourself into people's lives."

A big part of that, Scheffer says, involves working closely with his staff. "It's really important that we are grateful, understanding that people have a choice every single day," he says. He cites New York chef Perre Thaiam's philosophy. "He's from Senegal, and among the Senegal people there's a concept called Teranga: bringing people into your home and having them sit around what he calls 'the bowl.'"

That idea inspired Scheffer. "I wanted to emulate that: to always have an open door, and to create memories and to connect life. But I knew, in order to do that, I also had to get buy-in from my staff, and I did." He notes that staff turnover at Vinnie's is extremely low; that's quite atypical for the food and beverage industry. "The majority of my employees have been with me at least four years, and a good portion of them anywhere from six to eight," he says. One staff member has been with Vinnie's for more than 15 years.

Scheffer emphasizes that he thinks of his staff as family. And he's proud of having mentored Brian Canipelli; the chef eventually left Savoy to open his own highly successful downtown restaurant, Cucina24. "He came to me right out of cooking school, and now he has one of the best restaurants in the city," Scheffer says. "And he taught me so much."

And that attitude carries over to his interaction with Vinnie's patrons. Even with his other family and business commitments, Scheffer is a frequent presence in the restaurant. So he's able to collect stories like this one:

"We had a woman in here the other night who just lost her husband," he says, his eyes beginning to water almost imperceptibly. "She'd been coming here every Friday night, having martinis and such. When she came in, my staff recognized her, they gave her a beautiful table, and my bartender sent the exact martini he knew she wanted. She wrote us a letter: 'I just lost my husband, but I know I still have a family.' You know, that's why I get up every day."

Scheffer tweaks the concept and reviews the menu on a weekly basis, he says. And not unsurprisingly, engagement is a big part of his approach. "Early on in the Savoy days, we started handing out comment cards," he says. "I read every comment card; I have since the day I started doing it." The card invites diners to rate their experience, and encourages them to share their email address, phone number and birthday. Scheffer carefully tracks demographics; analysis of the data he amasses helps guide future business decisions.

"We're probably the best at marketing and social media out of almost anybody in the city," Scheffer says. "I must have 10,000 people on my Vinnie's mailing list. So, at any one given time, I can push a button and talk to 10,000 people." Vinnie's successful Goombah Club is an extension of that. "You come in, you dine, and if you'd like to get signed up that night, you get a Goombah card," Scheffer explains, ticking off the details in a rapid-fire style. "I get you 10% off your meal that night, and now you start getting free stuff every time you swipe your card." He thinks of the Goombah Club as "an equal relationship between the customer and myself."

The pandemic has brought with it unprecedented challenges for restaurants, but Scheffer has found a way to steer Vinnie's through the crisis. "We're the greatest nation on the face of the Earth," he says. "So we should be able to figure this stuff out without destroying our economy."

When he first heard about COVID-19 in December 2019, Scheffer started planning. "I figured, 'Let's start with the worst case scenario,'" he says. And that's pretty much what happened: indoor dining establishments would be closed to the public for a time. "So we very easily pivoted into our to-go business," Scheffer says, "because we had established one with Vinnie's for the last ten years. That was always a very big part of my model."

These days when Scheffer gets up to start his day, he's embracing even more challenges and opportunities. Inspired by his childhood practice of clamming in Cold Spring Harbor -- as well as memories of an old Polish fisherwoman who sold her catch out of a tiny shack, Scheffer decided to get into the seafood restaurant business with a new place called Jettie Rae's Oyster House. "I wanted to represent everything from Maine down to New Orleans," he says.

He endured a contentious 2019 battle over a planned restaurant opening in the River Arts District, an initiative that encountered vocal opposition in some quarters and would eventually be scotched by the city's Planning and Zoning Commission. "I've pissed some people off," he admits with a rueful laugh. "I'm a very straightforward New Yorker: I don't bullshit anybody, and I believe in the truth.

"I'll never forget the day that we got turned down by Planning and Zoning," Scheffer says, clearly still smarting from the experience. "I was so defeated. I went and had coffee with [Gan Shan Station owner/chef] Patrick O'Cain one day, and a light bulb went off in my head." O'Cain was looking to close his Charlotte Steet location, focusing instead on his newer Gan Shan West. "You want to get out of Gan Shan, and I need a space for Jettie Rae's," Scheffer recalls saying. "Because I'm not giving up. Failure is never an option in my life." The two (and chef Will Cisa) worked a deal, and partnering with local developer Jim Diaz, Scheffer opened Jettie Rae's Oyster House in July 2020.

Jettie Rae's raw bar menu features oysters, clams and a daily ceviche selection. Chowder, oysters prepared a number of ways, mussels, shrimp, octopus, tuna, lobster, crab and white sturgeon caviar feature on the menu as well. And success -- even during the time of COVID -- was immediate. "This community had never experienced the type of seafood and oyster bar that we presented," Scheffer says with pride. And the focus is on freshness. "With FedEx and DHL and UPS, I can get anything overnighted," Scheffer enthuses. "So at Jettie Rae's, our fish is 100% fresh. There's never a frozen fish in my restaurant."

He gives some examples of how that works. "Captain Mark Marhefka and his son have a boat; they go out every single day off Charleston, they fish, and they text us on the way back [to tell us] what they have." Jettie Rae's fish and chips is made with line-caught off the coast of Massachusetts. "And, "he says, "we sell about 2,800 oysters a week." Those oysters are sourced from farmer co-ops situated near Boston and north to Nova Scotia. "We put our order in by 1:30 in the afternoon, they're farmed that day, and they're overnighted to us," Scheffer says. "I know these families; I've been developing these relationships for a long time to pull this thing off."

In February, construction began on a second Vinnie's location, this time in South Asheville, in the space formerly occupied by Iannucci's Pizzeria and Italian Ristorante. "Everybody says to me, 'Why didn't you open another Vinnie's sooner?' Well, for me it's certainly not about the money," Scheffer says. "It's about the timing being right. I really wanted to perfect what we were doing [in North Asheville] before I went and took a leap to a second location." A December press release projected a summer opening. "But I think it's going to be late spring," Scheffer says.

And just in case two Vinnie's Locations, Jettie Rae's and a new catering operation called Cielo aren't enough, Scheffer has even more on his plate. In January he launched The Scheffer Group, a company he describes as the culmination of all his work. The new company will oversee the operation of those three restaurant properties -- as well as additional ventures he's not quite ready to discuss just yet.

But he's happy to explain the fundamental mission of The Scheffer Group. "We're putting together this team not only to run the food and beverage aspects of what we're doing, but also to help other people," he explains. "We're going to be offering services for everything from branding and re-branding your company to leadership guidance for the individuals who own the restaurants to developing culture within their restaurants."

He says that his team has -- and is willing to share -- the "secret sauce," what he calls "the economics of hospitality" down pat. "Because it's very different than normal Accounting 101," Scheffer insists. His hard-won balance of practical business smarts and creativity is a key to his success. "If we take the time to monetize our passions, the money will come," he says.

Scheffer laughs as he tells stories of friends questioning his decision to launch so many new ventures when the city, state, country and planet remain in the throes of a deadly pandemic. "I'm not a college-educated guy," he says. "I'm a street kid from Long Island. I've always stayed calm, and I always kept my head down. I've lived my life knowing that I like to leap; I like to take chances. And I always know that when I go off the edge of the cliff, the parachute's going to open. I just trust and I have so much faith in a higher power or spirit or whatever you want to name it."

He's bullish on the future of his ventures, and of the Asheville restaurant community in general. "Unfortunately, some people are going to get weeded out. But for those of us in our business who can be smart enough to get ourselves over this hump," he predicts, "by spring or summer, it's going to be like the Roaring '20s again." And even with his multiple projects, Scheffer is ready to deal with that surge. "My best friend always says, 'If you die before me, we're going to put on your tombstone: "Eric Scheffer -- he died exhausted."'"

Even Scheffer's email signature emphasizes his credo for business, and by extension, for life in general. "Relentless generosity brings us closer together," it reads. "The standard of success in life isn't the things. It isn't the money or the stuff ... it is absolutely the amount of joy you feel." And his approach to his restaurants is one that can be replicated, he believes, if people have focus on the right things. He says that he regularly asks himself -- and his staff -- this question: "'How do we deliver, on a daily basis, exceptional hospitality?' That's our job. It should be seamless, it should be joyful, and it should be filled with gratitude," he says. "And out of all that will come great abundance for all of us. I really believe that."

Note: after this feature ran in print, publicists representing Scheffer requested a dozen or so factual changes to the story. The author has made every attempt to update the feature in a way that accomodates those requests, and regrets if any were missed.

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