In January of 2020, Crystal Pace returned to her hometown of Sylva, NC, after over a decade in the NYC wine scene to renovate her family’s iconic neighborhood restaurant, converting Meatballs into Ilda, while maintaining an Italian focus. After a challenging timeline (she and her husband, Ilda’s chef Santiago Guzzetti, purchased the property in the fall of 2019 through a local nonprofit that got put on pause when the pandemic hit, and they had a baby in July of 2020, all while trying to open the restaurant and accompanying wine bar next door), she opened Ilda on April 1, 2021. Pace spoke with me early this year about the challenges of getting open during the pandemic, staffing, and creative ways of marketing and running events. —Susannah Smith
Staffing has been a rollercoaster for the restaurant industry the last couple years—how has it been for you?
Lately, things have evened out for us, staff-wise. We’ve always had a really amazing core—Antoine is our bartender who came with us from NYC, and Kevin helps me run the wine bar. We are in a college town, so we initially started with a lot of college students as servers and bussers. But we quickly realized that they have a lot of things on their plate and they’re not really excited about hospitality in the way that we are, so we learned we needed to focus just on hiring professionals. That’s not to say that we won’t teach people from scratch, because we do, and we pay all of our staff really well.
On your survey, you reported that wine constituted just 46% of your alcohol sales.
Our bartender is so amazing. He has lots of Instagram-friendly, fun, beautiful cocktails. But it’s also the wine pricing and corkage policies, which I try to keep really reasonable. We let people bring in wines from our wine club with no corkage, and $15 corkage if it’s from the wine bar next door. I wanted to make wine approachable to everyone and didn’t want to come off as the fancy New York people. My stepmom had our location back in the ‘80s, with a carpet floor, and she would smoke Virginia Slims in my face. “Big John” was the chef. It was the neighborhood spot, and everyone had their picture on the wall. There’s a lot of history in the building.
Your top seller was Tignanello, followed by COS Frappato; those are two very different wines, appealing to very different guests. What’s the story?
Our town is medium- to low-income. Our target market is college professors and local professionals, but we do have people come from Highlands and Cashiers nearby and that’s wealthier. They know wine a little more and are asking for the Tignanello. The locals are more curious and want to learn and have a different price range. And, as for the Frappato—my staff come in on their days off and they end up drinking a lot of it.
Are there any tweaks you have made to how you structure the list or what you buy because of the pandemic, as opposed to what you had planned?
My wine list on the menu itself is not an extensive wine list. I keep it pretty simple and hit all the notes that I thought everyone would be looking for and then I created a secret wine list. That’s where I have the higher-end things to offer people a little bit more if they want to celebrate a little bit more like a birthday or an anniversary.
How do you coordinate the two businesses, the restaurant and the wine bar?
I’m doing all the wine for both locations. We’re normally open 5 days a week at both locations.
During the summer we would get quite a queue at Ilda so we could suggest folks to pop over to the wine bar and let them bring an open bottle with no corkage back to Ilda.
Are there any special promotions or marketing strategies you’ve employed?
We do an industry night where we open on a Monday or Tuesday and invite everyone to come join us for some small bites, invite other local restaurants to come in and offer small bites.
We do a wine club, and we have a pop-up at a local winery in Asheville, Plebe. Their winemaker is coming in to talk about their wines and get to know our clientele. Next week, we’re hosting a fundraiser for WNC Farm to Table. She sources all our produce and meat from local farms and cheeses and she’s trying to get brick and mortar.
And the drag shows are so much fun. A couple of the ladies who work locally—we started talking about it with them and said, let’s do it at the wine bar. Some of the girls come from Asheville. It’s had a fantastic reception. We offer a drink special, a take on a pornstar martini, with passion fruit purée and prosecco.
What’s the craziest thing to happen at Ilda this year?
I got COVID the week I was due with our son. I went into labor four days after catching it and gave birth alone and then they took my son away. It was traumatic. But the silver lining is my son never got COVID.
On the negative side, just people being really funny about masks and not wanting to wear them. But for the most part it’s been really positive. We still have our staff wear masks to this day for their safety and for the safety of others.
On the positive side, I would say just the outpouring of support, especially those who knew [my stepmother, and late owner/chef of the previous restaurant in the Ilda space] Karen and my dad. She passed away from cancer and is much missed. I’ve really felt her support through this whole thing. People are adamant about supporting locals.
This is a W&S web exclusive. Get access to all of our feature stories by signing up today.