Many restaurants known for their atmosphere proclaim they’re offering you a trip back in time.
But how many can take you simultaneously back into the past and forward into the future? Downtown Gastonia’s Webb Custom Kitchen does just that. How? As owner and veteran restaurateur Jim Morasso recently told Gaston Lifestyles, this unique establishment represents not only an important part of Gastonia’s history but also the shape of things to come.
“This used to be the old Webb Theatre,” Morasso explained, noting the 91-year-old, 6,500-square-foot building’s vaulted ceilings, multiple levels and other features revealing a ravishing relic from the Roaring Twenties, when cinemas were works of architectural art; truly a time when movie houses were art houses, maybe more like opera houses, perhaps, in terms of their opulence.
And the connection with the future couldn’t be more important. As Morasso explicated further, the Webb Custom Kitchen––located at 182 S. South St., just across from Gastonia City Hall––is but one part of a multi-faceted effort that he and his business partners, Tom Cox and Bruce Shrake (also Morasso’s brother-in-law), are involved in to help revitalize downtown Gastonia. It’s a massive undertaking, a dramatic facelift with artistic, cultural and economic ripples that will be felt throughout the whole of the city itself, Gaston County and the region.
As Morasso informed, he, Cox and Shrake are helping turn the former Citizens National Bank building––once the home of Arts on Main––into a powerhouse of downtown culinary, oenological and artistic activity. Plans are to devote one floor to culinary education; another to viticulture, complete with a wine-tasting parlor, naturally; and still another to an art gallery, banquet space and a business incubator, encouraging and helping the county’s many local artists, all under one roof and within a sprawling space of nearly 31,000 square feet. Plus, Morasso, Cox and others plan to make their homes in the building in a matter of months, getting a literal lift out of loft living.
“We want to redefine living in downtown Gastonia,” Morasso declared. “We want to hear people say, ‘I can’t believe this is downtown Gastonia!’ My goal is to inspire other people to invest in downtown Gastonia.”
He is quite the character. You might call him “Mr. Gastonia.” The 50-something Morasso––tall, handsome, charming and charismatic––doesn’t look or sound his age. A larger-than-life figure––rather like the stars on Turner Classic Movies, their chiselled visages projected on the screen of the movie house-turned-chophouse––he gets a gleam in his hazel eyes when he talks about this project and how it and the Webb Custom Kitchen all tie into one great, shining, big-picture vision for Gastonia.
“I’ve been in the Charlotte area for almost 30 years,” the New Jersey native observed. “And not so long ago, I never once would’ve thought about walking into downtown Gastonia. But I was wrong.”
There’s that word again: “downtown.” A big part of Morasso’s mission is to give the area a real renaissance, to reverse its fortunes and change its course as our region emerges from the Great Recession, making the downturn an upturn and downtown, uptown.
“I wanted to help redefine this city,” he said. “When you think of cities, so often you think of restaurants. And when I saw this place (now the Webb Custom Kitchen), I said, ‘This is absolutely beautiful.’ It has a lot of character.”
And so, like the avid student of history that he is, Morasso researched Gastonia’s storied past. He consulted City of Gastonia staffers about the old Webb property. Then he made his move, and he hasn’t looked back. And he’s been happy ever since.
“A restaurant is your community,” he observed. “We are regrowing this city. A restaurant is where you celebrate getting married. It’s where you mark the milestones in life. It’s where you go when you want to create a business or talk business. Restaurants have a big influence on how people feel about your city. You give me a chance, and I promise you: I’ll create a restaurant that reflects well on our city.”
Morasso has an excellent pedigree as a restaurateur. In his nearly 40 years in the business, he has held leadership positions at Manzetti’s, Bistro 100 and Harper’s, all in Charlotte, and at the Chillfire Bar and Grill in Denver.
Back in the late 1970’s, as Morasso recalled, it was much less common to attend culinary school.
“I went to the school of hard knocks!” he joked. “And I got my doctorate after that!”
As a teenager, he began working in restaurants to pay for his higher education. But that idea soon fell by the wayside.
“I just made far too much money waiting tables,” he recalled. “And back then, hospitality management wasn’t really taught. It was learned firsthand.”
Going from being a dishwasher to a waiter to a cook and finally to management and ownership, Morasso learned the ins and outs of the restaurant business from the ground up. Like most such people in the biz, he knows all about every single job in and facet of a restaurant and how to run everything successfully.
“I told my sons (Jamie and Billy), ‘Learn this trade, and you’ll never be without a job,’” he recalled. “I had to learn every aspect of this business. Working at Steak and Ale (early in his career) taught me a lot. You start out washing dishes, and you go through the whole thing. You have to be in those shoes. You have to learn how to talk to people from all different levels.”
And talking is something Morasso does very well indeed. Perhaps he has a wee bit of the Irish somewhere in his Italian family tree, for he’s certainly an unforgettable storyteller. An excellent raconteur with a gift for sharing memorable anecdotes and humorous recollections, he seems perhaps less like a restaurateur and businessman than a history professor at a small liberal-arts college. His love of history––especially Gastonia’s––just pours out of him. It’s a passion he learned growing up in Westfield, N.J.
“It was the most beautiful historic town,” he recalled. “I walked through Revolutionary War history every day, just onthe way to school.”
He is the son of Alfred and Betty Morasso and the brother of siblings Janet, Nancy, Peggy and Alfred, Jr. Jim Morasso and wife Charlotte are newlyweds, having just married in September. The two reside in Fort Mill, S.C., but plan to soon call downtown Gastonia their home. Charlotte’s son, Harry, works at the Webb, and her son, Andrew, works for Cox.
“I married a woman with bad eyesight and poor taste!” Morasso quipped with a hearty laugh. “I’m a very lucky man.”
Get drawn into the Webb
For Morasso, a sense of place is mighty important.
“It’s all about the power of community,” he remarked of his restaurant. “The whole idea is to recreate a history of the building and a feeling for what was. It’s important to be a good restaurant. But it’s even more important to me to be my guests’ favorite restaurant.”
A big part of the Webb’s success is executive chef and partner Jon Spencer.
“Jon is a CEC or a certified executive chef,” Morasso informed. “He has worked in restaurants all the way from Miami to Charlotte. He has worked as a chef for both country clubs and restaurants. He’s one of the most creative people I’ve ever worked with. He’s a ‘How can we do it?’ kind of guy, not a ‘Why can’t we do it?’ type.”
The affable Aaron Samole is the Webb’s general manager. And rounding out the leadership roles are chef-de-cuisine Dylan Ferguson and sous-chefs Madi Warren and Lizz Giaccomucci.
Looking round the restaurant at its plush, wraparound booths, several levels, private dining room and so much more, one gets the impression that, given its decidedly distinctive ambience––maybe if you squinted a bit––you could just see the likes of John Barrymore or Al Capone or other figures from the Jazz Age enjoying cocktails in the dim light.
The restaurant was recently covered in Architectural Digest magazine in an article about cities with erstwhile cinemas converted into restaurants. Gastonia was listed along with Boston, Chicago, Knoxville and New Orleans. The Webb is attracting national attention and has garnered quite the reputation in the less than three years of its existence. Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles recently visited, and she noted thateven the Queen City had nothing like it.
Morasso pointed out how Cox––a talented woodworker, whose own beautiful residence nearby resembles something out of the California wine country in more ways than one–– created the Webb’s cabinetry and other features, including its entrance and a wine cabinet.
“This is a wonderful example of local Gaston County businesses helping each other,” Morasso noted. “We’ve hit it off very, very well.”
Since opening, the Webb has more than doubled its staff,going from 24 to more than 50 employees now.
“I like to hire people who are smarter than I am,” he said with a smile. “I like to inspire others.”
And the restaurant brings in a whopping 20,000 customers on average each month.
So what gives Morasso the greatest pleasure about his stupendous success in the restaurant business, serving the members of the local public and making them happy? He reflected on this for a moment.
“It’s the relationships I’ve developed,” he said, launching into a bit of poetic metaphor: “I wear the biggest coat you’ve ever seen. It’s woven with the fabric of all the people I’ve ever met, and it features everything from the finest silk to barbed wire. I want to know the people in this business, and I want them to know me.”
Having and maintaining one’s personal integrity, as Morasso remarked; that is what life is all about. That and perseverance. And dogged determination. Such are the keys to his success.
When not working, the world-traveled Morasso enjoys smaller-scale journeys these days. He likes to travel to small towns and derive inspiration and ideas from that.
“How do these mill towns, these towns of the past, make themselves more relevant today?” he rhetorically asked. “It has to be a matter of culture. If a city has no defining culture, there’s nothing to attach to. Now me, I like every cuisine under the sun. Let’s get our cultures together and talk about them.
“I love traveling, dining, museums and artwork,” he continued. “I have an appreciation of but no skill for art. And I enjoy spending time with true friends.” Morasso believes in an empowering leadership approach.
“I empower my managers,” he said. “I teach them my culture. Once I’ve done that, I let them manage. And I don’t mind being wrong, because it allows someone else to be right. I like turning things around, going from an ‘I can’t’ to an ‘I can.’ I like to disprove the naysayers. Several years ago, a lot of people said, ‘Why go to Gastonia?’ Well, because I’m a businessman, and I proved them wrong.”
Indeed he did. Look up the restaurant on the Internet, and you’ll find five-star ratings and excellent reviews. One such recently came from Rhonda Anderson ofGastonia, the practice manager of TotalBond Veterinary Hospitals’ Paw Creek Clinic.
“We were well taken care of at the Webb Custom Kitchen today,” Anderson stated. “Went for a back-to-school lunch with my boys, and we all had different things. All were delicious. But the prime rib soup that was the chef’s special that day was probably the best soup I’ve ever eaten! Our waiter took great care of us and made our experience flawless!”
Morasso said he hopes you’ll soon join him and his friendly staff for an unforgettable dining experience.
“This is a place where the requirements are just to be hungry and to have great taste,” he said. “Come on in and join us!”