My old source and good friend, Joe Erwin, heads an advertising firm in Greenville that started with three employees and has since grown into a thriving agency with major clients, hundreds of staffers and satellite offices in New York and Detroit. A few years ago he got a notion to host a retreat where people across several different fields — entrepreneurship, marketing, communication, philanthropy and more — could come together in his beloved hometown and hear from inspiring people, interact with business leaders, share ideas and do it a.) anywhere but in over-air-conditioned hotel conference rooms and b.) while enjoying memorable meals.
“It comes from the Bible, in which King David talks about being ‘at table,'” Erwin said, as he got the conference under way on in an airy bar overlooking the Reedy River. “It’s when we’re at table that we let our defenses down and do some of our best thinking.”
I was already satisfied that I got to meet interesting people, get exposed to new ideas and move from one interesting physical space to another (the FFT conference has a no hotel conference room rule). But it all the serendipitous meetings “at tables” of delicious food that made this experience stand out.
Greenville is a smallish city but thanks to the strong influence of Southern food culture, it has more delicious restaurants than places many times its size. On opening night, the attendees got broken up into groups of 10 so that each group could go enjoy a different notable Greenville restaurant in an intimate setting. My group was lucky enough to dine in a special apartment above the restaurant Soby’s, where the chef from Greenville restaurant Devereaux’s cooked up a five course meal in the private kitchen. Seated next to Joe and across from Southwest Airlines’ thoughtful marketing man, Dave Ridley, we chatted and laughed about our past experiences, our families and our passions. Sharing a meal fosters such fast, authentic connections — the conference nurtures that notion to exciting ends.
Perhaps I can’t stop gushing about this confab because I got the opportunity to eat grits at breakfast, lunch and dinner. I also enjoyed flavor explosions in my mouth at every meal. On the second (and my last) night, the whole group of 100 dined together at Devereaux’s, with a guest chef in the kitchen. The organizers flew in Chef Chris Hastings of Birmingham’s Hot and Hot Fish Club to cook for us. He was 2012’s James Beard Award winner for “Best Chef in the South” and dominated Bobby Flay in the sausage showdown on Iron Chef. Even if he hadn’t those accolades, the MAN CAN COOK. The meal he prepared for us last night instantly entered my top three most memorable dining experiences ever. Who knew rabbit pot pie or snapper jowl could be so delicious? Chef Hastings knew.
I had to jet before the final day, which looked amazing. But my short time was packed with highlights, including the amazing Carolina spring weather, my pre-conference catchup time with my inspiring journalist/momma pal Michelle, and becoming buddies with the COO of my ultimate favorite fast food, Taco Cabana. Todd Cuerver randomly sat at the same table at the conference lunch yesterday and I totally geeked out when I found out he was with Taco C. I had so many Taco C moments to tell him about! (Most of them involved drunkenness and flour tortillas.)
To stop the rambling and sum up: If you can make it next year, take a break from your boring lunches at Potbelly and your constant inbox grooming and get away to Greenville. Food for Thought fed my belly, but more importantly, it fed my soul when I needed it the most.