In the Spring of 2012, a little restaurant called The Owl hit the Greenville Restaurant scene like a sonic boom. Our collective palate hadn’t seen or tasted anything like it. The restaurant was on the tip of everyone’s tongue.
The menu was thought provoking, dissected, creative, manipulative, and intriguing. People loved it. And hated it. The restaurant occupied an old Pizza Hut turned dive bar and was remodeled on a dime.
And the chef behind it? Aaron Manter, an anarchist skater dude who was consumed by the art of food, but refused to be called a chef. He was self-taught, experimental, and overnight became one of the hottest chefs in town, whether he liked the label or not. He gathered a scrappy group of young chefs, cooks, and wait staff willing to sign up for an adventure, and opened a place that would become a Greenville legend. People called them culinary pirates. Manter and his team set a bar for culinary creativity in Greenville.
Aaron Manter sent me a message recently to say he was leaving the food industry completely. But first, he wanted to share his story. He wanted to tell how it began, and why it ended. What he was proud of, and what he regretted. I wanted to tell why it won’t ever be forgotten. I told him I’d help him close the chapter.
Where it all began.
The original idea for The Owl was going to be interesting burgers and nitro shakes. This was 8 years ago on the heels of a creative endeavor in a make-do kitchen at Outman’s Cigars. With nothing more than a microwave, panini press, and toaster oven, Manter was turning out perfectly prepared steaks and Salmon Rillettes.
Though he had been working in food off and on since his teen years, Outman’s is where he started developing fans and his own food style.
“People were starting to ask what the fuck I was doing in a cigar bar. I have always had a curious mind. I’d just mess with the food until it did what I wanted it to do. I’d ask myself what I could do with food instead of executing a preexisting idea.”
Manter never drank growing up. His dad was almost killed by a drunk driver, and he was raised in a house where the mantra was you can’t drink alcohol or you’ll die. Meanwhile he was doing lines of cocaine.
“I did ALL the drugs. I was doing acid at 13 – way too young. That’s done some damage. The coalescing of the brain hasn’t developed that young. I was looking for the void. I wanted to hurt myself,” he says. He dropped out of school at 15. “I check out way before then, though.” By 16 he was burned out.
“There wasn’t much to do all day, so I watched the food network. I would get hungry and cook myself stuff using whatever we had in the house. Sometimes I’d cook for my friends after we got high.”
He says poor life decisions landed him in the kitchen. “I never had a career, really. I just have a busy mind. I get bored and move on,” he says.
He once worked as a dispatch coordinator for hospice in South Florida. He had a massive territory and was on call 24 hours a day. He says it dovetailed nicely into a chef lifestyle. He didn’t get proper sleep for a year.
“I couldn’t continue to do that or I was going to die.” He went back to being just a driver for hospice.
Manter grew up in South Florida, though he says the culture he grew up in was erased from the map a long time ago.
“I was out in a boat at 10 years old. We cut heads off cotton mouths and were aggravating alligators with sticks. That life is totally gone. It’s now all fake tits and Mercedes,” says Manter.
Florida was second hardest hit in the housing market crash. His sister moved to Greenville first, then his mom. He soon followed.
“I hustled when I first got to Greenville,” he says. He worked at a candy store, at a pet shop for a while, and at Little Caesars. “We didn’t do anything like we were supposed to do there,” he says. They called it Rock’n’Roll Pizza.
He also worked at PF Changs for two years. “PF Changs is pretty culinary legit. It’s all fresh food.” He was offered a Sous position, but says working at a chain just isn’t part of his DNA. He decided to move on, but not before his blue cheese steak recipe was added to the PF Changs menu.
Manter also worked at Ruth’s Chris in Greenville. He only stayed there 6 months before going to The Bohemian on Stone Avenue. It was an indie kind of place with, what he describes as, its own special kind of running. It was there he met future Owl Sous Chef Joey Fazio through his coworker, and Fazio’s wife, Faith.
“Chef Knives are like jewelry for chefs. It’s pretty and it makes you feel something while you are using it.”
Moving from place to place, one thing became clear, ” The only way I would get to do neat things was to open my own place.”
Manter pulled Joey Fazio on immediately. Community Tap and Stone Brewing collaborated on a dinner at Greenbrier Farms, and the two chatted for a while. Fazio had recently left Stellar Restaurant and Wine Bar. Manter told him he was thinking about opening a place, and if he did, there’d be a spot for him there.
In between cigar bar and The Owl, Manter’s grandmother died. He received a small inheritance that partially allowed him to bank roll The Owl.
“We opened The Owl for $50K. We weighed buying a house or opening a business and reasoned that a business could allow us to buy a house.”
“The space was the worst thing I’d seen in my life. We gutted the whole thing. We put our $50K in and put the rest on credit. We wanted to do it our own way. No partners. Just us. No money behind it, nothing.”
Looking back, he knows that The Owl was dealt bad cards from the start. The location was difficult. It was on a high traffic road with mostly just through-traffic. Their signage was inadequate and hard to see.
“This would have been better if the (people at) City of Greenville City weren’t such dicks about our pole sign. They made us take it down. We ended up with just the owl picture on the side of the building.”
Manter says he angrily drilled it to the side of the building at the end of their inspection, all the while yelling, “Is this acceptable?!” There was no money left to fix it or to get proper signage.
They found used equipment to get started. “It was fucking freezing and the whole staff was out in the parking lot with a power washer trying to get 1000 years of sadness off of some sketchy equipment we bought.”
Fazio remembers it was February and barely above freezing. “This began creating this tightness we had. We all knew the person beside us was just as invested in The Owl being a success,” he says.
Manter and his crew blew up an ice machine from turning it on without installing the exhaust properly. “Our fault,” says Manter. The restaurant never had an ice machine. They bought bag ice every day on the way in. “That probably sums us up pretty well.”
“Have we set this on fire yet. What happens if we burn it?”
From a culinary standpoint, they were out to keep it simple, in the beginning, anyway. The menu slowly morphed as they played with ingredients and taste-tested on friends. It quickly became apparent that burgers and shakes were not going to cut it. “If you’re going to suffer, make it worth it. Make it art!” says Manter.
The kitchen was one giant, experimental lab. “We’d say, ‘Have we set this on fire yet? What happens if we burn it?’ Turns out, dry ice in a blender explodes. From a physics standpoint, of course it does! The joke was, I hurt myself so you don’t have to.”
Mike Moore from Blind Pig Secret Supper Club in Asheville cold called Manter to come cook at a Blind Pig dinner at someone’s house. “Mike humors me. I have would have 2 am conversations with him – kind of drunk and mad about something,” says Manter.
The dinner was built on a No Reservations theme. Manter picked a dish representing Siberia. He processed through what grows in Siberia, and what freezing to death there would be like. You’d smell pine trees, feel yourself shutting down, you’d eventually feel warm. Pine trees, beets, snow, death, vodka.
Manter knows how much the nose plays into flavors. “Smell is actually more important than taste in what we call ‘taste’. You can only taste a handful of things – sweet, sour, salt, etc. The rest is all from aroma.”
He knew the dish had to smell deciduous, like pine. Turns out you can eat pine. He steeped pine needles in beet juice, and froze vodka with dry ice.
“I asked if I could serve a shot, because it was important. That might be my favorite thing I’ve ever done. I told myself if one person gets the idea, then mission accomplished. I got one vote.” Chai Pani won that night and the money went to charity. “I knew someone else would win,” he says. “Everyone in the audience wasn’t a philosophy major.”
Manter was frustrated that he often got tagged as a mad scientist. “Was I a chef? Not really. Early interviews were focused on molecular gastronomy. That was the least important part of it. Food was a means to an end for me. Like an engineer trying to be creative and solve a problem. I don’t give a fuck about food. I was just good at it.”
“Surround yourself with people who make you better.”
“The Owl gave everyone free reign to create. We were very much in the spirit of socialistic. Tips were shared, and cooks made two dollars more because they couldn’t do a second job too. We had such a great staff. Every place says they are a family, but at The Owl, people were forgoing pay checks to see it to the end.”
“In the kitchen, I would push the limits of what is possible. Joey’s job in the creative process was to keep me grounded. He would nuts and bolts things. There were no recipes from anything I cooked,” says Manter.
Manter’s wife, Justi, says Fazio was the Watson to Manter’s Sherlock. The two have stayed best friends.
Joseph McCarter was in culinary school and approached Manter about coming to stage. He just wanted to work for the experience. “I asked him to commit for a week. Then we had to have a conversation about how we could bring him on,” says Manter.
“We asked John Paul Newton to give us a hand one day. We paid him in beer and cigarettes and he never left.”
Kirk Ingram answered the call via a crazy Craigslist ad – cussing and all. They had hundreds of responses, but narrowed it down to 20. Manter says Kirk comes across as reserved, but he’s a talented bartender. Graham McWilliams took over bar after Ingram left. He was Ingram’s apprentice, but as time went on he was creating drinks on the menu.
Thomas Akins came on board after he helped direct traffic at the food truck rally.
“It was a great 2 years. At one point during the first year, I went to Florida to be with my mom during surgery and it was sad to be away. Going to work was fun. It wasn’t a job for anyone who worked there,” says Justi.
Manter and his team stuck to a motto – make 7 out of 10 good decisions. There were a lot of ethics involved at The Owl. Manter was committed to low waste. “Restaurants are destructive. You could not be in a more wasteful industry.” He also refused to use poultry, citing a real problem with the industry.
“Our eggs came from the very happy chickens at Merciful Heart Farms,” Manter says. But he adds he’d be lying if he said they only used local farms.
“You can’t start with the end game,” he says. They often used Southern Food, which provided a great selection of Southern purveyors, and they connected with local farmers when possible.
In late winter 2013, the food truck craze hit Greenville, and downtown restaurants were not enthusiastically welcoming. Manter was visiting Neue Food Truck owners, Graham and Lauren, in the Community Tap parking lot. A reporter was there.
They were discussing how the restaurants were afraid of losing money if food trucks were parked outside of their business. The reporter asked Manter his opinion. “I decided right then to invite food trucks to The Owl that next Thursday,” he says. He called on Asheville chef, Elliot Moss, and Nate Allen from Knife and Fork in Spruce Pine to come help out. “Nate shut down his kitchen to come and join us,” says Manter.
Three hundred people responded on Facebook. More than 1000 people actually showed up to protest the food truck laws, and The Owl broke a sales record that day.
The Owl menu was a list of ingredients. That was the recipe. “Sometimes the first time we tasted stuff, you tasted it.” He admits that sometimes it was just plain awful.
Some customers complained of small portions. “We wanted customers to leave pleasantly full, not to take home leftovers. We were trying to feed you right now. That’s it. If need a box for your food, you are not doing it well.”
Manter says he equates food to an art… sculpture. “There’s a certain density to it.”
Some of Manter’s favorite plates were the root veggie plate. “The optics on that were cool,” he says. He also loved the Watermelon sushi which consisted of compressed and torched watermelon, kalamansi, seaweed caviar, smoked salt flake, and fennel.
A friend of Manter once described The Owl as a studio where you happen to be able to get food. “A lot of our techniques were modernist in approach. I just saw it as problem solving,” he says.
He once served a tiny salad in an ashtray to present a juxtaposition of ugly and beautiful. On his Facebook he wrote: “I know some will find it vile, but this is food. I made it for a friend of ours one night.” The dish consisted of blue cheese, pear, orange ashes, carrot puree and honey. “On a philosophical level it challenges perceptions about what food can look like. Taking a delicious dish and presenting it in a disgusting manner.”
“We were a terrible restaurant but, god damn, it was cool. This is what we were. We didn’t give a fuck if Greenville needed this concept or not. This is who we were. If the public liked it at all, it was successful,” he says.
People from all over were calling to come work in his kitchen. It was incomprehensible to him. The restaurant was also number one on Yelp and landed top spot on Trip Advisor for cocktails (after they closed).
The public lined up at first. They were showered with press coverage. The Owl was one of the first Greenville restaurants that used social media to their benefit. They gathered 1000 likes on their page before they even opened. On the weekends, The Owl was booked and there was a wait for the bar. During the week was a different story. Business was slow.
“We were the kind of restaurant that if we had two bad weeks, we were going to shut down. Somehow we staved it off for 2 years,” says Manter but the stress was taking a toll.
Manter got sick. He was over worked, stressed out, and not eating. The doctors said he had bronchitis or pneumonia. He’s not sure because he refused the x-ray. He didn’t have insurance and he couldn’t afford it. “I was dying,” he says. “I would cough and pass out. I was away from the restaurant for a month and a half. I was sick enough that it was okay with me.”
The problems continued to get worse. Manter had a bad reaction to prednisone and didn’t sleep for five days. He began having seizures, and had to go to a neurologist for an MRI. There was a history of epilepsy in his family. He had to be sure. Then, one day he woke up and had lost his sense of taste. “It was like welcome to Thursday, you can’t taste,” he says. It was confusing and devastating. He wasn’t sure if it would come back.
Financial issues, health issues, and location – it was the perfect storm. After two years, The Owl closed its doors. “We were running a terrible business plan. We had initial money but after that, we had no outside money. We survived on what came in.”
Their last service was on a Friday in October. It was devastating for Manter. “It’s the closest to suicidal I’ve felt since I was actually suicidal,” he says. He washed his sorrows down with three- quarters of a bottle of rye. He had to be poured into the car, all the while sobbing to the staff, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”
He acknowledges that not getting a better sign was a bad decision. “We did love the secret clubness of it, but that’s just terrible.”
Manter says he feels regretful and ashamed to this day for their Indie GoGo campaign that ran in May of 2013. The fundraiser was to pay for medical bills, an expansion of the space, a new sign, and a new deck for outside.
He admits to misallocating money from the fundraiser. “We didn’t get T-shirts printed. We gave people dinners, etc, but didn’t get the t-shirts. Some friends still give me grief about the shirts. It wasn’t done maliciously, but it was shitty. It was that or pay rent and that sucks,” he says.
The final dinner at The Owl was called Truffles and Caviar. Close friends and long-term supporters gathered at the restaurant for one last meal. “I was more hung over than I’ve ever been in my life. I do recall about five minutes after I started the day with Joseph that my belt broke, and I had to use kitchen twine to tie my pants up for the day. Fitting, I suppose.”
“Our entire staff had their fingerprints on that place,” he says. Manter closed the restaurant with plans to reopen later in the Arts district, backed by investors.
The Arts District location was on the Top 15 list of most anticipated restaurants on Eater. “I couldn’t wrap my brain around that,” says Manter.
The new location would mean Manter was in further debt, and would answer to investors. The project was also stalled by City infrastructure issues. It was a hard decision, but he decided to leave the project behind.
“Honestly, there will never be another place like it,” says Fazio. He says there were no boundaries and that allowed them to be wildly creative. “When I look back on my time spent there, it’s with a smile knowing that we had something very special for a brief moment and that I’ve come away with life-long friendships.”
Not quite ready to let go, they operated a food truck called The Mechanical Owl. It hit the streets in August 2014, and by October, almost a year after The Owl restaurant closed, the food truck shut its window. “We tried to run it with staff but I was the face of The Owl brand,” says Manter. “ It wasn’t my food and I couldn’t be there.”
Manter helped out at Swamp Rabbit Café and Grocery for a while, and then was offered the Executive Chef position at the Peace Center. He was able to bring Joey Fazio along as Sous Chef. Manter was excited to get the band back together again.
“The Peace Center was a year and a half of a frustrating experience.” The kitchen was just not ready for volume. He stops short of saying it was his sell out moment, but admits they were paying him an “unchristian amount of money.”
“The best moments at the Peace Center were over the winter when we were using atomizers to spray essential oils. We had this gnudi dish that we were spritzing with pine oil and finishing with shaved Parmesan. You’d get this scent… it was an olfactory experience.” He says it was hard to keep that level of creativity because the restaurant was basically just catering to the masses.
At one point, he considered opening an underground cocktail bar. He didn’t want to have a sign. “I feel like I had something to say with cocktails,” says Manter.
For the last year, Manter worked in the kitchen at Addy’s on Coffee Street where he had hopes of revamping the menu. “I was going to pull Addy kicking and screaming into the modern times,” he says. Manter wasn’t given 100% freedom, but he understands why. The Greenville restaurant had been there a little under 30 years. There was a fear of changing too much, because they were afraid they would alienate customers. However, two dishes from The Owl made it to the Addy’s menu: the Crispy Duck and the Sweet Potato Stack.
“Food is art. It needs to involve a little risk. If there’s no risk, it’s safe,” he says. “Not everyone can do interesting food but it’s not okay for NO ONE to be doing it! Greenville public, as a whole, are uninformed and ignorant of what can be done. It’s not their fault. No one is trying! Is it tasty? Sure, but it’s safe. Are there any chefs doing something interesting? Pushing boundaries? No. It doesn’t mean no one’s talented but there’s no progressive restaurant in Greenville.” Devereaux’s is on his list for the best restaurants Greenville has seen. Like The Owl, the restaurant pushed boundaries and charted a new path for Greenville cuisine.
He says the fact that Greenville is happy with the restaurants in downtown is really unfortunate. “The town marks itself as a food town, and it’s inaccurate. I feel like it’s false advertising.”
Does he feel cheated by Greenville? “No. We were there for two years. Sensibly, on all accounts, we should have closed after six months. We proved people would come out.”
Manter is excited to see Husk coming to Greenville. He says Sean Brock has done some very important things for the culinary world, and has brought strains of veggies and grains back from the dead. He met Brock at the October 2013 Cook it Raw event. He was among 40 chefs invited to join Brock for the event. He was rubbing elbows with the likes of Albert Adrai and April Bloomfield. He met Bill Murray. It was a surreal moment for the guy who didn’t even think of himself a real chef.
Manter is changing course and closing this chapter of his life. “Eventually I said all I wanted to say and it was time to move on. Being a chef took time away from things. Being married to a chef tests your relationship.”
Manter looks forward to leaving all of this behind. He compares The Owl to that perfect Friday night when the next song is the best song, and people are singing along. When the vibe is just right. That one moment.
“Will I miss it? No. I’ll miss all of my friends. We had rad times at The Owl, but if I could do it all over again, I don’t know if I’d do it. It’s nothing if not folklore at this point.”
“I’m just a guy who owned a restaurant that closed.”
Though he’s sworn me to secrecy on the next chapter, one thing is for sure, he’s no longer in the food industry, but I have a feeling his next adventure will be just as creative and just as driven.
A part of Manter is childish and whimsy, and always searching for identity. “It’s how I create,” he says. “There’s always new stuff to figure out, and I don’t know if I’ll ever figure it all out.”
Where are they now?
Joey Fazio is now a chef at the Cliff’s Communities.
Joseph McCarter is Executive Chef at Southern Growl in Greer.
John Paul Newton is bartending at Barley’s Greenville.
Justi Manter is now a medical transcriptionist.
Kirk Ingram is continuing to advance his craft as Bar Manager and Mixologist at American Grocery Restaurant.
Aaron Manter now resides on the West Coast.