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“I found a beautiful old farm on the Eno just outside of Hillsborough and bought it. It seemed like the perfect combination. The restaurant would focus on natural, organic, local food and I could grow just what the restaurant needed on the farm.” — Richard Holcomb.
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RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK — Life’s daily menu has become more filled with choices than ever lately for entrepreneur – and now restaurateur – Richard Holcomb.

“It’s been really hectic but in a fun and exciting way,” the co-founder of StrikeIron web services who helped launch Zely & Ritz restaurant recently on Glenwood South in Raleigh told Local Tech Wire.

Despite running his web startup, which he said is “doing extremely well”, serving on corporate boards, looking for venture capital investments and now Zely & Ritz, Holcomb reserves time for another passion — organic farming. His interest in natural food led in part to the new restaurant.

“I grew up in rural North Carolina and my family grew most of its own food,” he recalled. “My family owned a hog farm when I was young, so we ate a lot or pork or traded pork for other meats with the butcher and we grew almost all of our vegetables.

“I also worked on the neighborhood farms, mostly tobacco farms, and I loved the work and the lifestyle.

“As an adult I became a reader of organic gardening magazine — and it all just made so much sense to me. We were poisoning our food supplies with some incredibly toxic chemicals and were breeding all the diversity out of our crops in search of food that packaged and shipped well rather than tasted good.

“My response was to become an organic gardener and raise most of my own vegetables.”

Business Lunches Lead to Partnership

Holcomb maintains an organic farm near Hillsborough, but business often takes him on the road. The combination of natural food and travel led him to his fellow restaurateurs.

“I also enjoy cooking and entertaining and developed a love of really good wine over the years from my travels and friendships,” he explained. “The more I learned about commercial, industrial meat production and processing the more I found myself shopping at markets that had pasture raised, hormone and antibiotic free meats and looking for restaurants that served the same. I found just that restaurant in North Raleigh a few years ago. It was called Butterflies and the chef was Sarig Agasi.”

Agasi is one of his partners in Zely & Ritz as is Agasi’s wife Nancy.

“My favorite story from Butterflies was when I took a Dutch employee to eat there and at the end of the meal he told me that he had been traveling to America for 25 years and this was the first time he had a good meal,” Holcomb recalled.

Bees and Farming

In whatever spare time he had between various ventures, Holcomb was also a beekeeper who supplied honey to Butterflies for deserts.

Holcomb and Agasi became friends, so much so that when Butterflies closed Holcomb told Agasi that he would be interested in investing should Agasi open another venture in downtown Raleigh. At about the same time as Agasi found the Raleigh address, Holcomb found his farm in Orange County after a four-year search for the right place.

“I found a beautiful old farm on the Eno just outside of Hillsborough and bought it. It seemed like the perfect combination,” he said. “The restaurant would focus on natural, organic, local food and I could grow just what the restaurant needed on the farm.”

Holcomb has already developed a deep affection for the farm beyond the fact it provides food for Zely & Ritz.

“The farm is 35 acres and borders the Eno River. It has been a continuously operating farm for at least 150 years with a farm house that dates from 1886,” he explained. “The last 20 years it has been a hobby horse farm so I am turning it back into a working farm. The farm also has a very interesting geological feature which is a huge rock that juts out into the Eno and blocks about half the river. It’s called Coon Rock and apparently was a site with a lot of Native American activity before Europeans arrived and has been a well known landmark since then.”

Holcomb reached out to friends and colleagues as potential investors in Zely & Ritz. He sent out a letter called Sarig a “world-class chef” and promising a restaurant that would deliver “new American fare” with an interested twist — the food is served on small plates, or tapas.

Meals consist of several different items, and people can share from their plates.

“(W)e’re doing this together because we think that together we have a perfect combination of skills and experience to build a restaurant that is not only a culinary success, but also a business and community success,” Holcomb wrote in the letter. “We’re also doing it because it’s something we both love and are excited about and we hope you’ll share that excitement with us as this project gets going.”

Holcomb and his partners offered $10,000 “partnerships” in the restaurant, which included a food credit, discounts of food and wine, and priority reservations. But Holcomb describes the approach to investors as “a very soft sell”.

A Shared Experience

Ever on the look for something different as a tech entrepreneur, Holcomb has taken that same keen eye into the restaurant businesses.

“The tapas/small plates choice was a combination of responding to the ‘special occasion’ reputation of Butterflies – we want to be all the time not just special occasion – and taking advantage of the one of the latest and hottest trends in restaurants in the big cities,” he said. “One of our very unique features is the large, bar-height, communal table that lets large groups all sit together or lets lots of small groups interact with people the don’t otherwise know.

“We were uncertain if this area was ready for this concept, but it turns out that it is our most requested table. People love ordering several different small plates and sharing them and then talking with others at the table – sometimes lifelong friends and sometimes new acquaintances – about the various foods they are experimenting with.”

Sounds like a fun, entrepreneurial kind of place.

Rick Smith is managing editor of Local Tech Wire.
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(Note: If you want to check it out, Zely & Ritz is open for lunch, Monday through Friday starting at 11:30 AM, and for dinner Tuesday through Saturday starting at 6. “Late Night” is on Wednesdays starting at 10 PM. For reservations, call (919) 828-0018.)