How Vinnie’s Neighborhood Italian owner Eric Scheffer instills a sense of family in his restaurants

September 1, 2020

Eric Scheffer knows how to run a restaurant. When the housing market crashed in 2008, he had a vision for a family-owned eatery inspired by the neighborhood corner restaurants in New York, and he ran with it. Today, Vinnie’s Neighborhood Italian is a staple of the food scene in Asheville for locals and tourists alike. We sat down with him to learn about why he believes in running restaurants like businesses, how he created a culture with his staff, and his new restaurant in town, Jettie Rae’s.

Tell us a little of the history of the company.

Vinnie’s was the product of the shift in the economy in the later part of 2008 into 2009. We opened Vinnie’s Neighborhood Italian in February 2010. I knew with the economy collapsing, fine dining was about to see its demise, at least for me, in Asheville. However, I did not just want to close up shop and put my employees on the street. I knew it was time to be smart and innovative and work out a plan to ensure our survival. I also knew that people still needed to eat and that they still wanted to go out for a portion of their meals during the week.

I had an intuition that people wanted to feel safe and comforted during those difficult times and that they still wanted to have a place to go and to enjoy with their family and friends. In every neighborhood in Brooklyn and the small villages on Long Island that I grew up in, there were restaurants that were institutions, generational and family run. They ranged from small Jewish delis to Italian neighborhood restaurants and the 24 hour Greek-owned diners. Taking from those experiences I realized that Asheville, which was quickly growing with people from the Northeast, had no authentic “old school” New York Italian restaurants reminiscent of those I had grown up with.

So I decided to dive into creating an experience combining the atmosphere and food I know and love. I wanted to create a neighborhood Italian restaurant that was affordable, comforting, evoking memories of good times past and a place where folks could begin new traditions with their families and friends here in Asheville. Well, it worked! Vinnie’s is a place where “every night is a party”, I like to say.

What is a little known piece of trivia about Vinnie’s?

Vinnie’s was named after one of my father’s closest friends, Vinnie Cappola. Vinnie owned several pizzerias and small Italian restaurants in and around Manhattan and on Long Island. I actually worked during the summers in some of those kitchens.

What are you most proud of about the company?

I am most proud of my staff. Without the dedication and buy-in from the folks who I am surrounded by, we could have never accomplished what we have. I have staff members that have been with me for as long as 15 years, going back to the Savoy days, and an average length of employment for 4 to 8 years. They have helped me build a culture and deliver on the experiences I was wanting to deliver. They are my family and I would do anything for them, and I know they would do the same for me. I want any person who works for me, whether it is for a couple of months or for years, to become better people by working in the environment(s) I create. By doing soI want them to take that and pass it forward to bring a better version of themselves into the world and their next job experiences.

What’s the best advice you’ve gotten for operating a small business?

I will relate to this from the perspective of being a restaurateur. The best advice I have is “run your restaurant like a business, first.” All the fundamentals apply. Save money, don’t overextend yourself, sell a product that people can understand, get your ego out of the way, take care of your staff first, pay attention to the details and listen to your customers/guests. I believe that everything starts with a great idea, to assume your audience is smart, that the information you deliver requires context. Emotion is good, change is constant, detailed planning is critical, budget control is imperative and everything you present defines who you are.

Any other tips for other small businesses?

Know your market, understand your audience, there are very few new ideas, just build on and make better ideas that fit your model and that work time and time again. Stick to the basics. Have a really well thought out and funded marketing plan. Treat your employees with respect and help them lift themselves up along with you.

What’s next on the horizon for you?

As you know, I have just successfully opened Jettie Rae’s Oyster House on Charlotte street. From here, we will see. I’m optimistic that “this too shall pass” and when it does, I will be ready and well positioned for the next adventure on my life’s journey.

Our tagline is “Together, We are More”. How does that apply to your business or what does it mean to you?

Since my moving to Asheville 25 years ago and my foray into the restaurant world here in Asheville, I have always felt it my mission to give back to my community. I have been doing so for 25 years with my public service on boards and with starting and leading organizationsas well as supporting non-profits dear to my heart and always helping those less fortunate than myself. We as a team, from Vinnie’s, participate in feeding the homeless and providing meals to abused women and children. We work with drug recovery houses and work hard to support the efforts to end human trafficking to name a few.

Be bold and selfless in your endeavors, treat everyone with respect and equally and be generous, always. Lead with your heart, embrace those who don’t agree with you with patience, never hate or be violent, and don’t form opinions of others based on one’s politics. We all need each other to create a balanced and vibrant thriving community. I am the luckiest and most blessed person I know. To be able to have all that I have and to be fortunate enough to build what I have built here in Asheville, NC!

Connect with Vinnie’s Italian Restaurant

Hours: 4:30-9:30 p.m. Thursday through Monday

641 Merrimon Avenue | 828-253-1077

Facebook | Instagram | Website