If that one guy hadn’t gotten so stoned, who knows where Amanda Cranford would be.
Ten years ago, the 21-year-old barista was working the front of house at a now-closed restaurant called Eggheads in the Latta Arcade when the chef walked in one day and it quickly became apparent that he was too high to function. Cranford had been begging for a gig in the kitchen to no avail, but now an opportunity presented itself.
“They had to call him a cab and send him home, and the owners were like, ‘What are we going to do? It’s 10 minutes from lunch and all the regulars will be coming in.’ They looked at me like, ‘Can you cook an egg?’ And I lied.”
Cranford made it through the shift with no complaints, getting orders out quicker than the chef on his most sober day.
“I wound up running their kitchen for them with no experience, and in hindsight, dear lord, they should not have let me do that,” she says now, laughing.
A decade later, and Cranford has continued to jump on every opportunity thrown her way, landing a job with Xenia Restaurant Group, for which she split time between an Ilios Noche location on a Red Ventures campus and the now-closed Nolen Kitchen on Selwyn Avenue.
At the latter, she studied under chef Aaron Rivera before eventually moving across the street from Nolen to Reid’s Fine Foods. She would work for seven-and-a-half years at Reid’s, spending her last four years there running an off-site kitchen where she developed retail products, including creating the products and branding behind the grocer’s TruSouth Biscuit Company line.
Now, after spending a year away from Reid’s, during which she helped her friend build up the Charlotte-based Tayste Catering company, Cranford is ready to strike out on her own. In early March, she’ll open Paper Plane Deli & Market at Hub 933 in the Belmont neighborhood, taking over the space left by the recently closed Trade & Lore.
THE PAPER PLANE
Cranford hopes to make Paper Plane a neighborhood market, similar to how Reid’s was when she first arrived there before its rapid expansion.
“It was just Selwyn’s neighborhood place to go to shop and hang out, and it drove such a sense of community,” she says. “How do you hate on seeing the same people all the time, knowing all their orders or knowing that their kid had a dance recital? I loved it, and I held onto that for so long for them, as long as I could … but I also knew that I would probably never be fully fulfilled by it because at a certain point I just had to admit that I wanted to eventually do something on my own.”
The Paper Plane name, as well as the tagline — Simple. Convenient. Kind. — come from Cranford’s penchant for making people happy with simple gestures, including her regular use of “the perfect paper plane” that she might gift someone or chuck at them to brighten their day.
As I talk with Cranford, we’re sitting inside Advent Coworking in Hub 933 where, for full disclosure, Queen City Nerve’s offices are located. She sees Advent and its nearly 300 members as a beginning point to building that same sense of community within Paper Plane.
“You guys will be what keeps my lights on,” she says, laughing, “and hopefully will be the people that I get to know and build relationships with, which is really what I want to do. I want to build a cool spot that offers good food — simple, convenient, and that people want to go to on a regular basis.”
Building that loyalty all begins with the food, and Cranford means it when she talks simplicity and convenience. Her breakfast and lunch menus will range in price from $3.50 to $11. Mornings will feature bowls of oatmeal or grits with a toppings bar, with bagel options and a few breakfast sandwiches. She hopes to introduce a pastry program later down the road.
For lunch, she’ll start with a straightforward sandwich menu including pastrami, turkey, pimento cheese, tuna salad, grilled cheese and veggie options, plus a soup of the day and an open-air reach-in fridge with grab-and-go items from Charlotte-based Beverly’s Gourmet Foods.
At night, she’ll offer a small bar menu featuring a meat-and-cheese plate called Adult Lunchables, along with a buffalo chicken or spinach artichoke dip. Local craft beers will be available from the retail market to drink on site, but behind the bar, the dive favorites of the surrounding neighborhoods will remain staples: PBR, Miller High Life, Tito’s vodka, Jameson whiskey.
“When I go somewhere right now, as somebody who’s in the mid-millennial generation, I really just want something simple that’s not complicated,” she says. “Everything else that we do all day long is just so overly complicated.”
A perfect example of her lofty yet low-key goals with the deli is her mission to offer Charlotte’s best BLT (which should definitely be called Best BLT in CLT).
“When I got into the industry, I really was into molecular gastronomy and fine-dining and the elaborate way that you can create a story on a plate, and then I got tired,” she continues, “and so many people started doing it and the pretension became so much that it’s like, can I just get a grilled cheese sandwich and a cup of soup? That’s it. Can I just get a rum and coke? That’s all I want. I don’t want to have to ask you what the 19 aperitifs are in this drink.”
Though she’ll close up shop at 9 p.m., she says she’ll be happy to stay open later if people come in late. She’d like to build the bar into a smaller version of one of her favorite dives in Charlotte: Smokey Joe’s. Specifically, she wants to bring ping pong to Hub 933. She’s been in talks with management at Advent about placing a table on the covered patio and hosting tournaments on it.
“I’m an avid ping-pong player,” she says. “I’m looking very much forward to trying to get everybody here very invested in ping pong.”
It plays into the happy-go-lucky vibe Cranford desires for Paper Plane, one that’s embodied in the piece of folded paper that gives the deli its name.
“It’s just this ubiquitous, simple thing that everybody gets,” she says, explaining the name, but somehow herself and her mission at the same time.
“Everybody’s made a paper plane at some point in their life, and they’re my version of an act of kindness in a weird way — something that makes people laugh. It comes back to, that’s really what I wanted the concept to be: Simple. Convenient. Kind. Something that was approachable and simple. The convenience factor is a bit different, but kindness, that’s really where it came from.”
That is, until you’re on the other side of the ping-pong table.