Today we chat with Sara Abernethy and Chris Borreson, owners of Wye Hill Kitchen & Brewing in downtown Raleigh.
This Q&A is a part of our series called interviews with locals where we interview local Raleigh business owners and entrepreneurs to share their story with our community.
If you know us, you know we love Wye Hill. And as they say, come for the brews and stay for the views!
Where did you grow up and go to school? How long have you lived in Raleigh?
Sara is a Raleigh native, Chris hails from Los Angeles. They originally met in the theater industry in San Diego and bring a unique blend of creativity, handy skills, hospitality and event expertise to the table.
Prior to Wye Hill, Chris had a 15 tenure as Technical Director for La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, where he managed a team of over 70 engineers and craftsmen in the execution and fluidity of detailed set designs for Broadway-bound full scale productions including Jersey Boys, Memphis, Jesus Christ Superstar, Come From Away, and Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. For this venture, Chris Borreson will serve in the role of Executive Director.
Sara is a classically trained musician, attending the vocal performance program at UNC-Chapel Hill on her way to perform across the US and Europe. This background translated nicely into a sales and marketing career, but Sara could never fully shake the hospitality bug, always finding a spot to guest bartend or a side hustle involving service.
How did you get into the industry you are in now?
After much discussion and dreaming, Chris and Sara made the decision to make the move back to Sara’s beloved home town of Raleigh from San Diego in 2017, so we could be a part of all the amazing growth we had witnessed from afar.
Chris and Sara have spent the last three years developing, launching and operating Raleigh’s premiere patio location at Wye Hill Kitchen & Brewing.
Under their leadership and commitment to genuine hospitality, Wye Hill has not only pivoted to accommodate a whole new dining reality, but is now thriving during the industry’s darkest days.
Give us your 30 second elevator pitch for your business?
We offer a damn delightful space for real life connection that reflects our love for Raleigh.
Here on our patio with legendary views of the Raleigh skyline, or in our cozy tap room, you’ll find chef driven bar food, small batch craft beer and cocktails, all served with care and intention.
Most popular item that you sell at your business?
While our customers love our Sea Change IPA that has returned by popular demand 4 times, it’s clear that the star of the show is our location overlooking the Raleigh skyline more than anything else.
Your favorite item that you sell at your business?
The mussels! Chef Bobby McFarland who helped us create our menu came up with a delicious brewery-inspired twist for this dish.
Instead of the traditional white wine, garlic and butter, our mussels are served with beer, kielbasa and a touch of mustard. They are absolutely phenomenal.
What would a traveler learn about Raleigh by coming to your business?
How quickly our city is growing and evolving into a Southern cosmopolitan city.
If you had a friend visiting, where in Raleigh would you take them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner?
Best thing about living in Raleigh?
It’s a big little city. Raleigh has the perks and conveniences of larger urban areas, but it’s so often that we run into people we know all over town. The community vibe is very strong here.
And, the food and beverage community is unbelievably supportive of one another.
Least favorite thing about living in Raleigh?
There is a serious desert of tortillas, they are just not the same here as they are in California.
How did you pivot in your business during the 2020 pandemic?
We are fortunate to have abundant outdoor space, so the first thing we did when we were finally able to begin processing the reality of the situation was to make our space habitable year round. That included installing a roof over the pergola, as well as tripling our capacity for space heaters.
We also enclosed the patio space partially with some plastic covering to protect from rain and capture as much heat as possible. It was, and still is, so important to us to offer a space where people can come in real life and feel comfortable and safe.
We’re so glad we can offer our guests ample outdoor seating and a chance to connect with each other. Even just being around other humans at a distance can be really helpful during a time like this.
In hindsight, what do you wish you had in place before the pandemic hit to better prepare for it?
I don’t know that anything could have truly helped us feel more prepared for a blow like COVID-19.
What we have learned through the last year and what we are carrying forward is to continue to be flexible in our approach, and not too attached to “the way its’ always been done”. In order to survive, we’ve had to be comfortable with pivoting at a moment’s notice.
Can’t miss attraction in Raleigh for an out-of-town visitor?
The patio at Wye Hill, of course! We also love walking through Dorothea Dix Park any time of year.
Your favorite business in Raleigh that you like to frequent?
Any time we have a special occasion, or we need a pick me up, we love having dinner at The Stanbury. Their cocktails, wines and dishes are always done so well, with so much intention, and everything we’ve ever tried there has been nothing short of fabulous.
What are you reading right now?
Always reading a few things at a time.
Right now, Sara’s preparing for her WSET Level 2 Award (Wine, Spirit Education Trust) so we’re going through quite a few books on wine – The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil, Drink This by Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, and The Sommeliers’ Atlas of Taste by Jordan Mackay and Rajat Parr.
What is one book every budding entrepreneur should read?
We have three!
Profit First – Mike Michalowicz. Traction – Gino Wickman. The Power of Now – Eckhart Tolle.
What excites you the most about doing business in Raleigh over the next 5-10 years?
The growth of the city, particularly the residential growth near downtown. The more people who are looking for an urban environment to live in, the more vibrant our downtown community will become.
What concerns you the most about doing business in Raleigh over the next 5-10 years?
We probably have to say that our previous answer is a bit of a double edged sword. With such rapid growth comes demand for key pieces of infrastructure to support that.
Also, access to affordable housing in Raleigh is certainly a big concern.
Which local Raleigh entrepreneur inspires you to do better?
If you had $1 million dollars to donate to a charity, who would you give it to and why?
We’d have to divide that up among causes we’re passionate about.
First, we’d give to NC Restaurant Workers’ Relief Fund. The restaurant industry has been decimated this year, and there are so many who are out of work and under a great deal of duress trying to survive.
Secondly, we’d donate to A Place At The Table to support the work Maggie and her team are doing to feed everyone in our community, and to provide a space where anyone can share a meal with dignity.
Thirdly, we’d give to both Theatre Raleigh and the North Carolina Master Chorale. We met in the theatre industry, and fostering human connection is something that we are all starving for right now. We really do need each other, and we also need experiences that transcend us beyond our day to day to recognize all the beauty there is to the human experience.
We feel that theatre and music are vital to our well-being as human beings, and these two wonderful organizations play a huge role in our local arts scene.
What’s advice would you would give to someone wanting to start a business in Raleigh?
Your mindset and your trust in yourself has everything to do with what is possible for you to accomplish. You must learn that you can choose what you believe, you can choose what thoughts dominate and create your reality.
Don’t worry about “what will happen if you fail”, because you absolutely will fail. Over and over again. But within every single failure is a lesson that future you really needs to learn in that moment, if you can be brave enough to recognize it.
Surround yourself with other people who amplify positivity and bad-assery, who will cheer you on and hold you accountable. You absolutely need community. Don’t try and do it all on your own.
What is your favorite task that you perform in your business each day?
Working with our team on how we can offer an even better improved guest experience, and of course, meeting and greeting guests during service.
Which activity do you hate most doing in your business each day?
Reminding everyone to please keep their mask on at all times inside the building.
Drink of choice? Which bar in Raleigh do you get it at?
Favorite drink experience is an arctic-level chilled vodka martini, straight up, at Hayes Barton Cafe.
How do you relax and destress?
We are big “DIY”ers and always have a project of some kind going on at the house. Currently, we’re working on re-landscaping our backyard. Sara’s a musician, so she usually has a performance or gig she’s working toward (all virtual these days.)
What is your “WHY” for doing what you do?
As a team – we are super driven by seeing and elevating potential.
Chris’ Why (Wye? Hah!) – I love doing things that are really, really hard, that most other people consider impossible.
Sara’s Why/Wye – I am driven by experiences that are bigger than the sum of their parts by way of human connection.
Do you plan on retiring?
Favorite getaway spot in North Carolina?
Surf City. Our dog, Roo, loves to play fetch on the beach!
Favorite American city?
Favorite international city/country? Or dream destination?
Again, can’t pick just one dream destination. On our short list:
When you hear the words “THIS IS RALEIGH” what comes to mind?
Go say hi to Sara and Chris and tell them This Is Raleigh sent you: