Business Profiles - Star DinerApr 10, 2023 03:36PM ● By Randee Brown
After taking an extended time off of work to be with family, former chef of Tupelo Honey Brian Sonoskus met with the owner of an old Gulf gas station in Marshall in 2016 to chat about new venture possibilities for the building.
While the owner imagined a true diner-style restaurant featuring burgers and hot dogs, Brian Sonoskus envisioned something a little more unique.
“I wrote a mock-up menu featuring finer menu items,” Brian Sonoskus said. “The owner liked the ideas and decided to go with it.”
The restaurant started by serving only dinner, then added weekend brunch to their schedule. Co-Owner Kate Sonoskus said that having the business open during weekend days helps the entire business community in Marshall by bringing people into the area.
The unique history of the old building is a connection to local history, according to Kate Sonoskus. She said that it’s interesting to meet people who used to work in the space or knew the place come back to see what it’s become. The highway used to be a major route from Asheville to TN, and the old building holds memories for a lot of people.
“When people do stop in at the diner for the first time, they are surprised by what they find,” Brian Sonoskus said. “We have seen a lot of ‘deer in the headlights’ looks from people taking their first look at our menu. They often expect to see those burgers and dogs.”
As Mr. and Mrs. Sonoskus designed the menu, they said that they took into account what dining options the town already offered and what else it might need. They also had to figure out how to produce revenue from the small 24 seat space, and the fine dining menu helped to support that.
The restaurant sources high-end ingredients and buys local when they can, according to Brian Sonoskus, but they won’t compromise quality. Since they don’t serve a massive volume of people, they have a couple of main purveyors that they depend on. Relationships built with local farm partners allow suppliers to call the chef directly when they have seasonal ingredients they know the Star Diner may want to use.
Brian Sonoskus said that sometimes ideas for dishes sometimes come to him randomly. “I’ve been a chef for 37 years,” he said. “I have lists of favorites to rotate through. We do have some staples as well as a good variety, mostly of classic Euro-Americana dishes and seafood. I can also get really creative with what we offer at different times, and I wouldn’t be able to do that if I were working for someone else.”
The intimate space and the slow, intentional method of seating helps keep a close-knit staff for the business. The couple said that they are fully staffed with 12 individuals, including themselves. They also said the entire kitchen staff is local to Marshall. Their last two hosts hired were daughters of customers, and that they typically have interested hires coming to them asking for work instead of the other way around.
Mr. and Mrs. said they love to see conversations and relationships between their guests and their staff. “I was the main chef in the kitchen for every plate for the first five years,” Brian Sonoskus said. “People liked that they could see and get to know their chef.”
The couple said that while their location is small and unique, they would never move to another location. They noted that a second location is possible further down the road, but right now the small number of staff and their hands-on approach keeps their hands pretty full.
“We are really content just doing what we are doing,” Kate Sonoskus said. “You never know what the future holds. I think every town should have its own Star Diner as far as a place for the community, but not as a means to simply make more money for ourselves.”
Kate Sonoskus said that as a member of the Marshall Downtown Association, she is really involved with the town, and it means a lot to be able to volunteer and give back to the community. “We are not just here to profit from the community, but to be a part of it,” she said. “All of the businesses work together to keep the businesses open.”
The couple said that when they made the cover of Our State magazine in February of 2020, people were traveling from all over the state to visit the Star Diner. They said that while the popularity started out with the local community, other towns caught on and more people started coming.
Kate Sonoskus said the restaurant attracts visitors from Raleigh as well as other towns across North Carolina. “We see a lot of visitors from the Piedmont region,” she said. “There are also many new and regular customers coming here from neighboring communities like Weaverville, Burnsville, and Biltmore Park.”
Before the Star Diner was established, people in Marshall and neighboring outlying communities looking for a fine dining experience had to drive to Asheville. Now, the couple said, people in Marshall and surrounding communities are happy that there is a fine dining option in the small town where it is easy to drive to and easy to park. They said that customers have a great chance of getting a reservation, and the reduced ‘hustle and bustle’ after a scenic drive creates a peaceful experience.
Mr. and Mrs. Sonoskus said that they do not advertise for their restaurant. “There is a large retiree demographic of return guests who like to come back and hang out with their neighbors,” Kate Sonoskus said. “It’s mostly word-of-mouth, and people feel like they have discovered something special. We are a rare gem with an interesting atmosphere; it’s a little bit of a secret.”
Brian and Kate Sonoskus are the owners of Star Diner in Marshall. Learn more at StarDinerWNC.com.