Cultivating Corners: The Ashley Christensen Effect

Ashley Christensen put down roots in Raleigh — and spread them wide. We take a look at the people who’ve risen up the ranks under her mentorship.
by Catherine Currin | photography by Bob Karp

Ashley Christensen in her first restaurant, Poole’s Diner that she opened 15 years ago.

Don’t forget kindness. These three simple words mean a lot to chef Ashley Christensen. For almost two decades, the Kernersville native has been spreading kindness — along with delicious food — throughout Raleigh. Over the course of 15 years, Christensen has expanded her vision for the city through Ashley Christensen Restaurants (AC Restaurants, for short): today her stable includes Death & Taxes, Bridge Club, Fox Liquor Bar, Beasley’s Chicken + Honey and Poole’side Pies. “I certainly didn’t envision a restaurant group when I started Poole’s, but I did envision a growing city,” Christensen says. “There wasn’t a lot going on at the time, but you saw things happening, and they were happening fast. I realized that this was a city that really wants to be something.”

When WALTER first featured Christensen 10 years ago, Poole’s Diner had been in business for five years, and Beasley’s Chicken + Honey and Fox Liquor Bar had recently opened. Within a few blocks of one another, her restaurants sit proudly within the framework of downtown Raleigh, often at high-traffic intersections. Christensen calls it “firing up the corners.” “It’s important to me that things exist in the center of the city,” she says. “I wanted to do things on corners to get people excited about what’s inside and what’s outside.” 

“She creates a place at the table for everyone to feel welcome,” says Lauren Ivey, executive chef at Death & Taxes, who, like many on Christensen’s team, got her start as a line cook at Poole’s Diner, then moved up the ranks. Ivey says that with Christensen, there’s an attention to detail with everything — from the way she talks about ingredients to how she teaches cooking techniques. “​​She takes the time to explain the ‘why’ behind everything.

It’s usually simple, but done really well,” says Ivey. Over the years, Ivey says, this back-to-basics approach has graduated her from student to collaborator; now she’s presenting her own ideas and working with Christensen to develop the menu at Death & Taxes. “Now, the meals we offer speak more to me and the space I’m in,” Ivey says.

Ashley Christensen at Poole’s Diner, the first restaurant she opened in Raleigh.

That mentorship is part of Christensen’s ethos. “One of my biggest goals is to make people feel seen, and to help them find their voice,” she says. Her talent pool — from line cooks to bartenders to general managers — has been with AC Restaurants for years, even decades.

Among them: Alan Brown, who’s been a server and bartender at Poole’s for 14 years; AC Restaurants director of operations Emily Berry, who started as an assistant manager at Beasley’s nine years ago; and culinary assistant Charlotte Coman, who started as a line cook at Poole’s 11 years ago. Pastry chef Britny Stephenson and savory chef Chris Tobin have each been with the company for eight years; line cooks Teresa Sanchez and Rosa Cruz have each been there for nine.

“Ashley hires, empowers and makes space for talented employees,” says Lesley Anderson, the district general manager of Poole’s Diner and Poole’side Pies.

Anderson started with AC restaurants as a server at Beasley’s Chicken + Honey, and says that she’s learned a lot from Christensen after eight years with the team. “She taught me to always leave your environment better than you found it — whether that’s through a friendly interaction with an employee, a quick tidying of the dish pit or sweep through the dining room, or simply watering the plants,” Anderson says.

Sometimes, that empowerment takes folks beyond AC Restaurants. Christensen serves as mentor and friend to many former staff who have made their own way in the restaurant industry here in Raleigh. “I love being able to stay in the conversation with folks,” she says. “My goal was to take some chances to inspire people, and if they love this city as much as I do, to take a chance on it, too.” 

Christensen with Sunny Gerhart on his first day at Poole’s.

One of those people is chef Sunny Gerhart. He cooked alongside Christensen at Enoteca Vin and helped her open Poole’s as its sous chef from the very first night of service. Gerhart says she taught him how difficult, yet rewarding, running a restaurant can be. “To see Poole’s grow and develop, and to be able to watch it from the outside as a friend and a guest is a very humbling experience,” he says. 

By 2013, Gerhart was running Christensen’s former concept, Joule Coffee + Table. And when Christensen decided to move on from the space in 2016, Sunny was conveniently looking for a spot to open his own endeavor. The serendipitous timing led to St. Roch Fine Oysters + Bar. “Ashley and her restaurants are my north star for where I want to go in terms of the values and standards that are important to me,” says Gerhart. “I hope to have that same sort of legacy.” 

Matt Fern worked with Christensen for years, first at Poole’s and eventually as beverage director at AC Restaurants. Last year, he opened (ish) delicatessen, a casual sandwich shop he envisioned thanks to, in part, Christensen’s mentorship. “The biggest distinction with Ashley — I never felt like I worked for her, but with her.

That’s a sign of a good boss and a good owner,” he says. In working with Christensen, Fern realized he didn’t need all the answers — if you hire the right people, you can usually figure it out. 

Fern and Gerhart are among dozens of folks — including Ashley Noonan at North Street Beer Station, Ryley Eckersley at Jarana PDX, John Upsal of Scratch Catering and James Johnson at the new Fullsteam at Boxyard RTP — who cut their teeth at AC Restaurants then went on to support Raleigh’s growing food scene at other venues. “I’m proud of every person that’s ever left this company,” Christensen says.

Christensen’s gift to allow her team’s talents to shine — at no cost to her own light — aligns with her vision to keep evolving. “Ashley embraced our ability to be trusted,” says Fern. “It helped a lot of us — and Raleigh — grow.” 

This article was originally published in the September 2022 issue of WALTER magazine.