Family-run restaurants may sound like something from a throwback era, but in truth, there are family ties all throughout the Charlotte food scene. Is there anything better than having a sibling to go through life with? Perhaps this: having a sibling that can share industry secrets.
Siblings often say being in the same field only makes them stronger as individuals. They can offer advice to each other and recommend each other’s restaurants. Of course, siblings are also known for being able to push each other’s buttons, and the commercial kitchen is no exception.
We sat down with some of Charlotte’s sibling restaurateurs and asked them what it’s like when family and culinary life blend. We got the scoop on the good, the bad — and the question everyone might be wondering: What about the food fights?
David Brooks and Scott Brooks
David Brooks and Scott Brooks, co-owners of Brooks’ Sandwich House
Age difference: 5 minutes; Scott is older
Originally from: Charlotte
On Saturday nights as young children, twins David and Scott Brooks would watch three things on TV: Mid Atlantic Championship wrestling, the nightly news and Lawrence Welk. “Dad would be making chili,” David said. “He’d be adding, subtracting, adding, subtracting. Finally he got it right and we’d have burgers every Saturday night. It was really a treat for us all.”
The chili was so good, they said you could put it on a bad sandwich and make it taste good.
In 1973, their father took a chance and opened up a chili and burger place. Fast forward 45 years, and it has blossomed into a true family business, run by David and Scott, with David’s two children also working there.
David and Scott didn’t always plan to take over Brooks’ — David thought about getting into banking, and Scott went to law school for a brief stint. “After college, I was looking for a job, and my mother passed away that week,” David said. “We knew we couldn’t leave my dad.”
So when their dad offered, the brothers were all in and it has been this way ever since. They have watched NoDa grow up around them, seeing nearby mill houses transformed into $750,000 homes right before their eyes. They said they suppose people just really want to live by their burger place.
Their dad passed away a little over a year ago, but David and Scott have no plans to do anything different, except maybe expand the hours a bit. “My daughter is my manager and she has this idea that she wants to run this place, and we may just give her a chance,” David said.
The brothers themselves never had a food fight — with each other, anyway. “Last one I had was in Cullowhee and that was 1976. That’s when Animal House came out,” Scott said. “Toga parties and food fights — things fraternity brothers do.”
Hau Doan and Luan Doan
Hau Doan and Luan Doan, co-owners of Banh Mi Brothers
Age difference: 4 years; Hau is older
Originally from: Vietnam
Hau and Luan Doan’s parents weren’t too keen on this whole restaurant idea. In fact, Hau used to call his mom from college to ask her how to cook certain dishes and her response would always be for him to stop wasting his time in the kitchen. “Stop calling me, use your meal plan and go study,” she would tell him.
So when Hau decided to leave his corporate job in order to open a restaurant, he was nervous to tell mom and dad. For 19 years, he’d been involved in investments — mutual funds and stocks. Luan was along for the ride, too, although he still has his job as a project consultant with Bank of America.
The brothers put down a lease on the restaurant space, started the build out and then told their parents. “They were like ‘You’re going to give up a five-day work week, 401K, benefits — to work 12 hours a day, six days a week?’” Hau said.
Now, their parents visit the restaurant frequently. “They’re eating banh mis so much I know they must be tired of it, but they want to come support,” Hau said. “I tell them, I know you ate banh mis yesterday, go somewhere else.” Their mom’s touch is all over the place, including her recipes as menu items.
The brothers grew up eating Vietnamese food, although Luan was born in a refugee camp and moved to the states as a baby. “American culture was (what) I knew,” he said. “I liked to eat pizza and fried chicken and stuff. As I got older, I’ve learned to appreciate a lot of the Vietnamese cuisine that I used to not like.”
The brothers never had a food fight, though they do remember a fight about food if that counts, which they described as a heated conversation in the car. “No food fight — that’s food costs!” Hau said.
Dalton Espaillat and Dairelyn Glunt
Dalton Espaillat: owner and CEO of Sabor Latin Street Grill, with 10 open locations and more on the way; owner and CEO of Three Amigos
Dairelyn Glunt: co-owner of Salud Cerveceria and Salud Beer Shop; minority ownership in Sabor NoDa
Age difference: 2 years; Dalton is older
Originally from: Santiago, Dominican Republic
When Salud co-owner Dairelyn Glunt fills in at Three Amigos, her brother Dalton Espaillat’s restaurant, she said customers who know her are confused when they see her bartending during Cinco de Mayo. “Did you lose Salud?” they ask her.
Many customers may not realize that the restaurants have a family connection, but there is proof if you pay attention. When Salud went through a period of time without food service during a kitchen renovation, Sabor NoDa stepped up and offered food delivery to Salud’s patrons.
The siblings’ relationship with food goes way back. Both recall a favorite childhood meal of Sancocho, which is stew made with pork, chicken, beef, plantains, ruta vegetables, yuca, maguey, yautia and corn.
Dairelyn started cooking school at age 9, which they said is typical in Dominican culture as a way to prepare girls for marriage. “If you cook something good, then you say ‘So, can I get married now?’”Dairelyn said. “Oh, Dominicans.”
After moving to the states, Dalton started working at Wendy’s, then Sonic. When Dairelyn turned 15, she started working at Sonic also — with Dalton as her manager.
These days, Dairelyn said her husband, Jason Glunt, eats at Sabor every day. The couple visits Three Amigos once a week. Dalton can be found at Salud twice a week.
People get the names Salud and Sabor confused, including the siblings’ family and friends. “My mom is like ‘Are you working at Sabor today?’ and I’m like ‘Salud! Salud!’” Dairelyn said.
Have they ever had a food fight? No way — they both laughed. “We don’t waste food. That’s an American thing, I guess,” Dalton said.
Jenny Luong and Chi Zhang
Persuasion Restaurant owner Chi Zhang and his sister, Zen Fusion owner Jenny Luong, once worked together at Baoding Chinese Cuisine before they decided to strike out on their own. The brother-sister pair opened what is now Zen Fusion with Jenny’s husband, Phong. A few years later, Chi branched out on his own with Persuasion.
They grew up enjoying their parents’ and grandparents’ cooking. One favorite dish was roasted chicken, Chinese broccoli, and steamed whole fish with lots of ginger. “I do like pizza now and again and pasta,” Jenny said.
Chi likes pizza too — so much so that he’s opening his own pizza place next door to Persuasion. It will be called Chi’s Pizza and will serve Brooklyn-style pizza by the slice and the pie, wings and hot dogs.
The great thing about family restaurants is not only sharing ideas, but trading word-of-mouth recommendations, they said. Chi tells Persuasion customers to go sit at the bar and enjoy the food at his sister’s Asian/Spanish fusion restaurant. “That’s my favorite part, is telling people,” Chi said. They frequent each other’s restaurants every couple of months.
“It’s all a blessing. I’m glad I have my sister doing the same thing I do. Sharing ideas and improvements. At times, when it’s stressful you can always count on each other,” Chi said. “I’m 40 years old and the best thing I’ve ever done in my life is helping open Zen and opening Persuasion.”
They rarely even argue — “Sister is always right,” Chi said. Food fights, clearly, are out of the question.
“We respect food so much, you know?” Jenny said.
Fran Scibelli and Frank Scibelli
Fran Scibelli: owner of Fran’s Filling Station
Frank Scibelli: owner of Mama Ricotta’s, Yafo Kitchen, Paco’s Tacos & Tequila, Midwood Smokehouse and Plate Perfect Catering; partner with Clark Barlowe in Heirloom; and former owner of Cantina 1511 and Bad Daddy’s Burger Bar.
Age difference: 2 years; Fran is older
Originally from: Springfield, Massachusetts
Not all families have two Thanksgiving turkeys each year, but when two siblings own successful restaurants in town, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they might each have their own ideas about what to serve.
“C’est la vie, he cuts the meat thicker than I like it,” Fran Scibelli said about her brother, Frank Scibelli. “But I will clearly say I’m a finicky eater.”
The siblings call their mother an amazing cook and their father a great host. “She loves to make pasta, and he was the supervisor of the meal,” Fran said.
Their father was a travel agent, which allowed the family to visit a variety of places. “Food was a big deal wherever we went,” Frank said.
“We’re Italian — food is culturally important,” Fran said.
Their cousins owned a restaurant, so they spent lots of time there as children and felt comfortable in the space. So with all that background, it seems only natural that the brother and sister might both gravitate toward careers that involve feeding and entertaining people.
Growing up, Fran’s favorite meal was meatloaf and Frank’s was Chicken Bianca, mushrooms, prosciutto and mozzarella. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s now on the menu at Mama Ricotta’s.
They eat at each other’s restaurants every few months, and they constantly bounce ideas off of each other. “We can talk about it endlessly,” Fran said. They can even pool resources to get better deals with contracts, Frank said.
As for food fights? “I used to drive her crazy at the breakfast table,” Frank said. “I could just look at her and get her really mad!”
Fran said no food was ever actually lobbed at each other, though. “I’m sure it would make a much better story if we said yes.”