When looking for James while visiting Henley, you might be faced with a challenge.

You see, he blends in with the crowd each night, so unless you know him, he might be hard to find. He could be anywhere. Maybe assisting head bartender, Jon Howard, by helping wash some dishes on a crazy night, or he could be standing alongside a bar patron chatting about the interior design and inspiration for Henley, done by designer Abbey Plonkey, to a local Nashville reporter. Most likely he’s helping the team deliver the best culinary and cocktail experience in Nashville to its valued patrons. While sipping your cocktail and sharing small bites at Henley, you might wonder who runs the show. Well, here’s the dirty on the man that makes Henley as smooth as a Belle Meade Bourbon.

We had the opportunity to sit down and get to know James, the general manager of Henley, this winter, and mind you, he’s a very busy guy, especially since he was in the middle of voting season for Eater’s best bar, restaurant and chef in Nashville (they later won Restaurant of the Year Reader’s Choice Award and the Critic’s choice for Best New Restaurant of 2017!), so he was a little preoccupied in between questions while recruiting visitors in the Kimpton Aertson Hotel lobby to take 10-seconds and vote for Henley. But here’s what James had to say:

Give us a little bit of your background story.

I was born in Indianapolis. I grew up in a suburb called Carmel, and I loved playing hockey. So much so that I went to a boarding school on the east coast to play more seriously. I returned to Culver Military Academy to finish high school, and instead of playing hockey, I switched to rugby and helped lead the program there as captain. Sports led me to travel again, but this time I moved to England to play more there. I played in Gloucester, which is about two hours west of London.

How did you get into the food industry?

Eventually, I came back to the states and returned to Chicago, where I had once lived as a teenager. I attended Loyola but needed a job. I lived off campus, so I started dishwashing, catering, and food running in between classes to make money. I was busting my butt and ended up falling in love with the food and beverage industry. As time went on, I started serving and bartending, and then eventually managing. 

I was at the same company for six years, The Hearty Boys. From dishwasher to caterer to waiter, I just never left. Moving up, I temped in their office and did whatever was needed. I decided I would rather work for one company instead of having three jobs.

What was your favorite part?

I didn’t have a favorite job; I liked all of it. My favorite aspect was the person-to-person component. I loved working in the kitchen too, but I really responded to the beverage side of things, like cocktails, craft beers, and American wine producers. They really resonated with me. I was just nuts about it.

What challenges did you face?

We were in a time where it was hard in 2009 to get people to drink things that weren’t cosmos or Miller High Life’s. Craft cocktails were just starting to take off in Chicago back then, so it was always a challenge. Now, it’s very much a new thing; going back to these classy cocktails. So, I had a large challenge of getting people to drink things that were outside their comfort zones, and I really responded well with that. Getting our Boystown clientele to try a gin cocktail was a hurdle every single time and it was so rewarding when they, of course, ended up enjoying it.

What happened next in Chicago?

While I was making some money, I saw a path for myself that would be hard to accomplish. I left The Hearty Boys in 2014 and went to work for Kimpton at Sable, a cocktail bar and restaurant in Chicago. It was great, but I had worked at The Hearty Boys for so long that I knew I needed to get more experience if I wanted to manage and eventually own my own place. So, I took a job downtown, and I completely grew up. I worked there for just about a year, and then I helped open another hotel in Chicago, called the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel. I was the General Manager there helping manage three restaurants and bars within one building.

So how does Nashville get in the picture?

My old boss from Kimpton contacted me in February of 2017 and said, ‘Hey James, I want to talk with you about opening a restaurant in Nashville.’ I had never been to Nashville before, but all my friends loved it here and would come visit to drink Tennessee Whiskey. Nashville was the ‘it’ city and all anyone was talking about.

So, I said sure and took the job. I was down in Nashville by April.

What was it that made your old boss say, ‘This is perfect for James’?

Avi is one of the most impressive restaurant minds I’ve ever been around. The guy not only has an eye for food, beverage, and service standards, but he’s so good at motivating people. He’s ridiculously personal and incredibly kind.

He was such a great boss when I worked for him before, so I listened to him, and I kept listening and talked to the other people that he told me to talk to and they liked me. At any point this could have gone sideways. I was happy at the Chicago Athletic Association, but I was also excited to talk about this opportunity, and if it didn’t work out, I didn’t really care because I loved my job. But, well, it worked out.

What stage was Henley in when you came on board?

I was hired in February, and Henley opened in June. I had two months on the project, so when I came onboard, Henley was already formed aesthetically. I hired on our head bartender, Jon Howard, so I had an input in the direction of our spirits list and cocktail program direction. Aesthetically, Henley was really well formed, but in terms of service standards, staffing and bar, it was all up to me. The way things flow in the restaurant, the vibe, and the kind of people we hire, that is my main focus. Hopefully, I have had some positive impact on that.

What’s your managerial style?

I have always enjoyed working with creative people. I’m not a creative. I’m an operator. I’m the person that can help manage and put people in the right places to succeed – I’m a point guard. I have a passion for this industry, at large, but I also want to do things that are outside the box.

How did you find Jon Howard?

I discovered Jon through other people in this industry. A lot of people had come across Kimpton’s radar because of this project, so Jon’s resume came across our National Director of Bars, Mike Ryan, who came to Nashville a couple of times, and scouted talent. Jon stood out immediately with our conversations on sustainability and low ABV (alcohol by volume) cocktails.

We knew we wanted to work with one another. We met in person and kept talking about the kind of projects we wanted to work on and discovered we both have the same vision. He was looking for the right time to jump and take over a program. This was it.

What’s your work week like being a general manager for a hotel restaurant?

The hours are crazy – it’s a lot. You need to be available for everyone in the company that works 9-5 and then you have the wait staff and bartenders who need you until the dinner rush is over. Business typically starts for us at 5 PM, so the days are long.

What is the craziest fire you’ve ever had to put out?

At the Chicago Athletic Association, we ran out of beer after the Cubs won the World series during their victory parade on Michigan Avenue. Also, when Lollapalooza got rained out in 2015 and everyone came into the hotel at once. It was a sleepy Saturday afternoon with no one there, then all the sudden, all 13-floors of the building were at capacity. It was a live one!

With so many competitors out there, what separates Henley from Nashville and the national scene?

Farm to table has become a cliché. And classic cocktails are what everyone is doing. So here at Henley, we are being respectful of southern cuisine and pushing the boundaries of what people expect. Not only do we have grits, but we stone grind them in house. Not only are we using Tennessee carrots and veggies that are sourced locally, but we are using all of it – the scraps for sauces and tops for garnishes. We are taking things that people know and love and putting a modern touch on all of it.

Jon has a cocktail program that is near 25 drinks long. From an operator’s perspective, when I saw the drink list, I was like ‘okay, let’s edit some of these down and get this to be a really tight 14-15 drinks.’ And as I was tasting these drinks, I kept saying we can’t get rid of that one, that one is pretty amazing, well that one looks awesome, that’s a keeper and this looks similar but it’s not.

I didn’t have a single edit for him. He is awesome. I’m surrounded by incredibly talented, super creative people, and it’s my job to make sure the trains arrive on time. It’s been a real treat.

What sets Aertson Midtown apart from the rest?

It’s unique for the neighborhood for sure. Nashville is booming. We like to say that the official bird of Nashville is the (building) crane, which is of course referencing all the new high rises coming into town. With so much coming up, it’s nice to be part of a building, community, and group that has so many different things going on. There’s a spa, sports bar, fine dining, and hotel with beautiful art. It’s been a privilege to be part of this team.

Do you think Henley will ever lose its Instagram worthy excitement with local and national influencers?

Sure! The thing I’m most excited about is the next phase of Henley. Outside all the hoopla of the opening weeks and media attention is when we can tell our story person by person. Hand to hand combat with consistency, great food and friendly service, which is what we want to do.

All we want to do is work in a restaurant. It’s awesome to be hip, and it’s awesome to be in the press, which we love, but more than anything, we like serving a table and a guest. Our team enjoys making those connections. I want Henley to be a busy, consistent neighborhood restaurant. I want a tradition.

It’s not easy. It’s actually really hard to get there. Nashville is a competitive market, with lots of options of amazing restaurants. There are some insanely talented people here, so it’s a pleasure to just be a restaurant in this great town and be one that people can depend on.

There are restaurants I can go to in my head that I’ve been to in other areas that I can consistently say, ‘This place has been good every time.’ And we’re that at this point, and it’s a real pleasure.

More than anything we’re excited to serve people, and hopefully, we can keep doing this for a while.

Lightening Round:

Favorite sports team: Chicago Cubs

Favorite drink at Henley: A pour of Henley’s handpicked barrel select Belle Meade bourbon

Favorite bartender in the world (we won’t tell Jon): Tie between Griffin Elliot and Stephen Andrews in Chicago

Favorite City: Chicago

Favorite restaurant in Nashville: Rolf & Daughters in German Town

Favorite Kimpton hotel: The Grey in Chicago


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