Two weeks ago, Sunny Gerhart—the chef de cuisine at downtown Raleigh’s Joule Coffee since it opened in September 2013—assumed he was two years away from opening his own restaurant.
But now, the launch of Gerhart’s first-ever restaurant, St. Roch Oyster + Bar, is perhaps only five months out. Strangest of all, it will happen in the same kitchen and same restaurant he’s called home for three years.
On December 31, owner Ashley Christensen will close Joule, which has experimented with and tried to balance breakfast, lunch, dinner, and late-night cocktails over the course of its existence. She will become an investor in and adviser to St. Roch, the seafood-focused fulfillment of Gerhart’s long-running ambition to become principal owner in a restaurant of his own.
Gerhart helped Christensen open Poole’s nearly a decade ago before moving on, temporarily, to Sandwhich in Chapel Hill and Watts Grocery in Durham. Back in Raleigh at Joule, he’d helmed an audacious kitchen, sometimes spinning out three services a day with different audiences in mind for each. In January, though, he gave Christensen his one-year notice and made his purpose clear. During the last several weeks, she realized there was one unexpected way they could continue their relationship.
“I have been looking at different scenarios for Joule, and I was reminded of, for a young guy just getting in the business, all the challenges and the stuff he was up against,” says Christensen. “It hit me that, instead of just doing what we are doing, we could do this. And I’m really excited for what he is going to be able to do in this space.”
The decision will allow Gerhart to move quickly. After closing Joule on December 31, he and Christensen will work together to guide light renovations in the space. They’ll turn the coffee bar that runs the length of the dining room into an oyster bar. They’ll change the interior so that walking in doesn’t feel like entering a simulacrum of Joule. And then, perhaps by early March, he’ll begin serving locally sourced seafood alongside hearty land-based dishes, from vegetables to steak frites.
Gerhart admits that the last two weeks, during which he and Christensen agreed to pursue this approach, have moved so quickly that he’s yet to develop the menu fully. But this concept has long been on his mind. In some sense, he was even born into it. His parents grew up in the Bywater District New Orleans neighborhood of St. Roch. His dad was in the military, so the family bounced around several coastal cities in the South. This is, in many ways, an extension of the food he grew up with, updated with a decade-plus of experience in some of the state’s most lauded kitchens.
“If you want O.G. New Orleans food, then you go to New Orleans. You know why? Because it’s going to be better, and it’s going to be exactly what you want,” says Gerhart. “It’s a little nod to New Orleans, but it’s not any sort of traditional New Orleans menu. But it’s not New Orleans deconstructed, either.”
Despite his pedigree, the idea itself didn’t occur to Gerhart until he was exploring available spaces when he was out of the kitchen. When he was touring one building, he looked out the window across the street and saw a simple, cinderblock building. The sight stirred him.
“I suddenly thought it would be cool to do a divey place, with oysters, Po’ boys, and cold beer, with no bullshit,” he says. “I’d never thought of trying to represent where my family and I are from until then, and then it went above and beyond oysters and Po’ boys and cold beer. It’s a representation of where I am from and things that are important to me.”
In Joule’s three-year lifespan, Christensen and her staff sometimes struggled to develop a sustainable formula for the space. The hours shifted several times, for instance, as management tried to tease out the best approach for everything the space hoped to be. From the start, Christensen aimed to serve nightly dinner, in part because she felt she could enhance that corridor of Wilmington Street by being open for longer hours. But several different attempts at jumpstarting the dinner program failed.
“We could not get it to become a place where people felt like they wanted to have dinner. It was crazy to me that we couldn’t overcome that,” she says. “After we tried it so many ways, we just decided it would cost us less money to close earlier and not do dinner.”
In the years since opening, too, many more places serving coffee and breakfast have sprouted up in close proximity. There’s 42 & Lawrence, two blocks away on the ground floor of SkyHouse; Carroll’s Kitchen, visible from the wide front windows of Joule; Bittersweet, the dessert-and-drinks bar with an excellent morning coffee program in PNC Plaza; and Café Lucarne, tucked away in nearby City Market.
“There were coffee shops, but we wanted to bring that concept of full service and actual meals for breakfast. And now that’s happening,” says Christensen. “If that wasn’t happening, I would be much more committed to this concept. And I would figure out a different way to help Sunny.”