For a time, Sam Hart was homeless, living in a small repurposed dormitory and stretching every coin as far as it would go. Hungry and broke, Sam discovered cooking, first as an economic means of feeding himself and later as an artistic compulsion.
“I learned that I could make pasta and it would cost me a fraction of buying boxes,” Sam recalls. “As I got my feet underneath me and began to afford to live, I used the money I saved by cooking from scratch to become more creative with the food I prepared. A love and appreciation formed that has never dulled.”
In 2015, Sam was toiling away at an ad sales job from the confines of a bleak cubicle. His living conditions had improved since his homeless days, but something was still missing. He was meeting his basic physical needs, but lacked emotional and psychological fulfillment. So, Sam took a chance; he quit in order to become a dishwasher at a Charlotte restaurant. It wasn’t his dream job, but it would sustain him as he attended CPCC’s culinary school and pursued his love of cooking.
Five years later, that act of courage paid off. Sam has successfully launched Counter-. It’s a novel restaurant experience inspired by Chef Grant Achatz’s creative combination of art and food at Alinea in Chicago. Sam created Counter- to answer the question of how food can interact with all of the senses, not just taste. At Counter-, he is also exploring how food can tell a story.
There are a few things to know about Counter-. Sam and his team offer a new dining experience each quarter. Every experience includes multiple courses, each of pairs with a piece of music. There are two seatings per night, both of which require tickets. Most importantly, the Counter- team will ask guests to leave all preconceived notions about restaurant dining at the door.
“We wanted to create a space that was counter-intuitive, a work environment that was counter-cultural, and an experience that is the counter-balance to the common,” explains Sam. Every element of guests’ dining experience is intentional, from the tastes to the plating to the ambience. “We wanted to be a unique addition to the national platform with our imaginative stance on full sensory dining, without sacrificing the most important element: highest quality food,” says Sam.
Just Getting Started
Despite meeting resistance from fellow chefs and restaurant investors when he prepared to transform his vision of Counter- into a reality, Sam’s restaurant has thus far been a local success. Ultimately, he intends for its success to catapult the restaurant to the national stage. Doing so will require not only creativity but also an unwavering commitment to excellence.
“We tell our staff that it is not about the ceilings and awards here at Counter-,” says Sam. “Instead we have exceptionally high floors. On our worst day, the expectation is that we provide a memorable and impactful experience for each of our guests.”
Although Sam’s vision and goals for Counter- are lofty, his number one priority is actually quite simple. “This industry is full of people giving every fiber of their body, spirit, and mind for the common goal of feeding people, without receiving any glory, pay, or rest. Our number one priority when designing the restaurant was to create a space where our staff felt appreciated.” Sam provides his team with a living wage, health insurance, and vacation. He offers the opportunity for a career in the industry, rather than a job that barely pays the bills.
His commitment, though seemingly common sense, is woefully absent throughout much of the restaurant industry. It’s just one more example of how Sam Hart is carving out a space in the restaurant industry that is counter to the status quo.
“To both our supporters and naysayers,” says Sam, “all we have to say is ‘we’re just getting started.’”
Check out some of the other new restaurants in Charlotte.