Q&A: Noelle Phelps shares some secrets to the ‘laid-back vibe’ at It’s A Southern Thing

Noelle Phelps, general manager of It’s A Southern Thing, works at the bar.

Sunday, April 14, 2024

By Cade Carlson

Since its opening in September of 2017, It’s A Southern Thing has put a unique spin on the traditional southern cuisine in the West End of downtown Durham.

Owner Pete Susca is “a Jersey boy who has lived in the South for more than 20 years,” according to the restaurant’s website, and was inspired by the South’s slower pace of living and southern hospitality to open a restaurant as his love letter to it. It’s A Southern Thing opened another location in October in the Ellis Crossings neighborhood.

General Manager Noelle Phelps agreed to talk about the ins and outs of the business and how it has found success in the heart of Durham.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

The Durham Voice: Tell me about your background and how you got into the restaurant industry?

Noelle Phelps: I’ve been in the industry for about 20 years. I was pre-med in college and worked in surgical oncology the whole time. I kind of realized that I didn’t want to give up my 20s and 30s because I would be about the age I am now before I could have practiced on my own. Got a degree in ancient history, a minor in English, and then sort of fell into the industry when I was in my early 20s.

How soon after you opened did you start to make a profit?

We were in the black in the first three or four months. We shut down (during the pandemic) and we didn’t really do the whole take-out thing. We shut it down and we came back. We did all the rules and regulations and, as things opened up, we slowly opened back up to full capacity.

Aside from the pandemic, has the business faced other obstacles?

You always tell a difference during election years because people are always wondering what’s going to happen later in the year. Definitely all the local businesses that we speak with, everybody is holding on to their money a little bit tighter. Obviously with the inflation and the ebbs and flows of the economy, we definitely are affected by that.

How do you stand out from other restaurants? What makes this place different?

One, our cuisine. We are not typical. You know this is not going to be your Grandmother’s Southern food. It is going to be our unique spin on it. Laid-back, Southern, welcoming atmosphere for everybody that joins us. We pride ourselves on excellent customer service. We try to change up our menus several times a year. We go by what our guests are looking for. So, if things aren’t selling well, we’re going to change them. We’re going to change recipes or we’re going to take them off the menu completely. We change our cocktail menu several times a year. I only will do local brews on draft. We really play into that, and we want to support local. Pete is so dedicated to Durham and its success. He has been here the whole time to see the growth that’s happened in the last 20 years. This is where we want to stay. We get our produce from local vendors, and we try to work with as many local companies as possible.

Is there any target customer for It’s A Southern Thing?

We cater to everyone. I wouldn’t say that we are trying to get anyone in particular through the door. We want people that are looking to come have a nice, relaxing, fun experience. One of my favorite things about being in this industry – and it’s something you get to see here – is building relationships with our guests and watching their relationships grow. Going from people dating to all of a sudden they’re having their rehearsal dinner in our private dining room or we’re catering an event for them. We may be catering their baby showers and that’s such a fun thing to see that growth and we want people to come in and be a part of our southern family.

What’s your best-selling meal, appetizer or drink?

Fried green tomatoes. They are unreal with homemade pimento cheese, bacon jam on the side and our roasted garlic ranch. I think we’re known probably the best for our shrimp and grits and our chicken and waffle skewers. It’s not actually going to be a waffle, it is waffle batter that we deep fry to almost look like hush puppies. We are a 90% scratch kitchen. Rather than pulling out frozen items, we like to prep and make our meals by hand.

How many employees do you have and how do you manage your time between supervising employees and making strategic decisions about the restaurant?

In this location, we’ve got about 40 employees. Really, I think it’s a matter of getting the right people in the right places. Delegation is something I excel at and really making sure you have those people you can trust and have proven their loyalty and are going to go above and beyond. It’s never a one-way street, and I think creating those deep, sincere bonds with your staff and treating them well is what keeps so much of our staff on. You see a very high turnover in the restaurant industry, and we don’t have that here.

Is there anything you would want the Durham community to know about this place that they may not already know?

We’re locally owned. We look forward to continuing to grow and we intend on growing further underneath this umbrella. Maybe some different concepts, but we look forward to greeting everyone that comes through this door. We are dedicated to giving them an outstanding experience and wanting them to come back and see us.