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Hospitality and Tourism

James Beard-nominated restaurant in Greenville closes, plans new concept

Hospitality and Tourism
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A highly regarded restaurant in Greenville has closed, but its owners have plans to open a new concept in the same location.

Oak Hill Café and Farm, located off Poinsett Highway in Greenville, closed Dec. 18 — less than four years after its inception.

Oak Hill Café and Farm co-owner Lori Nelsen said the closing of this farm-to-table restaurant concept was a combination of things that kept building, specifically the increase in costs of the mortgage, insurance, and food in addition to labor and staffing issues.

“For instance, our mortgage went up $2,000 a month since July,” said Nelsen. “We came to a point when we said we need to rethink this, because we just didn’t have the business to support the increase in costs. We didn’t want to get into a spot where we couldn’t pay our people, either.”

A post about the closing on the restaurant’s website noted its James Beard nomination for Best New Restaurant, stating that it was “proud to have turned a family home and clay backyard into a beautiful restaurant and farm. We hope our legacy will be remembered fondly by the community we served.”

The restaurant, which is located between Greenville and Travelers Rest, is also in an interesting location for fine dining, said Nelsen.

“If you’re thinking of fine dining, you think more of downtown as your first option,” she said. “But we loved what we did here. We produced quality food for Greenville, and a lot of people appreciated that, but unfortunately it just wasn’t enough to keep us going.”

Nelsen, who worked at Furman University for 20 years as a chemist by training, running a lab in a sustainability program, left and opened Oak Hill at the time, because she felt the city didn’t have a great farm-to-table restaurant. She partnered with Oak Hill Café and Farm co-owner and Executive Chef David Porras, who was trained in culinary arts in Spain and moved to Greenville about six years ago from Athens, Ga.

“I thought this idea was exciting, a great food concept, a really enjoyable thing to do and offer people,” Nelsen said. “It unfortunately didn’t work out, but we have no regrets. The people we have met, the excitement they have had here, making a place for people who really cared about where their food came from with a great expression of flavor, we feel really did appreciate what we did here and are sad to see it go. We created experiences for people they couldn’t get anywhere else.”

Porras said it has been a roller coaster.

The local restaurant had received a lot of community support, especially after they received the James Beard nomination, but when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, they had to close for nearly two months, making an attempt at a sense of normalcy.

“I still think the restaurant scene has not been the same as it was prior to COVID and the behavior of customers has changed,” said Porras. “A lot more people learned how to cook and wanting to eat at home, especially with the boom of home delivery food services. Things happened very quickly, but slow motion, too, because we saw our dream slipping away.”

Porras’ concern for the environment plays a crucial role in his cooking goals and that was reflected in Oak Hill’s menu — through creativity, color and innovation.

“Our hope was always to be the best restaurant in Greenville, maybe in the South,” said Porras. “We had tried a lot of different things to pivot following the pandemic, the way we approached cooking with hyper-local ingredients and a sustainable footprint. Any ingredient has to have a purpose.”

The overall nature of the restaurant industry has changed, though, Porras added, and small restaurants, especially fine dining concepts like Oak Hill are struggling nationwide. Most fine dining restaurants are starting to charge just to make a reservation — following the pandemic — said Porras, and if you are no show you lose your money, because that restaurant will.

“So, how do we change the culture in this area?” He asked.

Though this one door is closing for the co-owners, this is not where Oak Hill’s journey ends.

“You can’t change the nature of the business, so we chose to keep moving forward,” said Porras.

Nelsen and Porras will be launching Oak and Fire Handcrafted Pizza and offering wood fired pizzas and along with their OHC smash burgers and homemade ice cream offerings in the same location.

“We are very committed to making the best pizzas possible for Greenville, and we hope you'll give us a try,” said Nelsen.

This concept will be more streamlined, and there will be no waitstaff, so labor costs will be minimal, said Nelsen. They will also be fine-tuning their ingredients, so everything will be used and continue to be locally sourced to keep the quality of food they are known for.

Oak and Fire doesn’t have an anticipated opening date at this time, but Nelsen said they expect to be up and running in the next two to three weeks.

Nelsen and Porras said for the future they may also consider opening a fine dining restaurant again, possibly downtown, but for now, they will focus on the new concept while keeping the bakery and also offering gardening plots on Oak Hill’s land, with the possibility of utilizing the space for an event venue and catering.

Reach Krys at 864-640-4418.

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