Aimee Diaz Talks Business, Hot Sauce and All Things Asheville

Hector and Aimee Diaz are the proprietors of 3 of Asheville's hottest restaurants. Bomba, Salsa's and Modesto. Besides being one of the only family-owned restaurant groups in a city full of buzzy-food and corporate interest, they are possibly the only business with multiple offerings that take you on a journey rather than a homogenous experience at different markers. The Diaz Restaurant Group is near to the JAWBREAKING family. Not only are Hector and Aimee friends of my parents, but I went to high school with their daughter. Add on to it that our agency represents them and you've got a bias so big that you could stick a 26-year-old restaurant smack dab in the middle, so why don't we. Why? Because it doesn't matter. No matter who is asking the questions, the facts stand on their own. Aimee Diaz is a gracious host and mother of 4 who tends to her business much like her husband tends to his garden - with care, precision, and great ambition. She is passionate about feeding her community, protective of her employees, and loyal to her cause: really great food. How did you get into the Restaurant business?

My family owned and operated The Stone Cross Inn outside of London for over 300 years. Hospitality must be in my blood. I'm interested in the evolution and forms of service from continent to continent, style to style, era to era. I graduated Botany in college, and as part of a Ph.d scholarship program, I studied grapevines, which dropped me into the wine business in my early 20s.

One of my favorite stories of Hector is of him selling little croquettes outside of a baseball stadium in Puerto Rico when he was a very little boy. He made and sold them himself. Hector was a little businessman as a child. He’s a born entrepreneur.

So, hospitality and food fell in love, so to speak... We were young, we were reckless at times, but somehow always responsible... This is what we do and who we are.

Why did you decide to become a restaurant group, rather than a chain?

Hector's greatest pleasure each day starts at the farmer's market. Everything we serve is hand selected. We live with dynamism, passion and creativity, so I’m not sure that a templated way of thinking about this business would work for us. Our little tribe moves like a bunch of food and service fanatics. We're all deeply relational. Our interests, styles, and our temperaments are suited for working with people, with fresh ingredients, and through the seasons.

We love to go home, cook and eat with our children. We’re locals.

How would you describe your restaurants? How are they separate, what does DRG keep consistent with all of them?

Each has its own unique cuisine and service.

Bomba flirts with the traffic and vibe of Pack Square and our little corner of it. Organic coffee, filling sandwiches, chicken al carbon, breakfast all day, and with Veuve Cliquot and crispy beer, it’s busy. It’s celebratory. We call it our 'Bougee Bodega'.

Salsa's is an icon. We’ve hosted loyal locals, returning tourists, traveling musicians, critics and creatives to our huge plates of Mexican-Caribbean food for over a quarter of a century. Everyone knows the way to Salsa's.

Modesto is elegant, yet it's whimsy and completely Asheville. Chic and Italian in all things, and located in the Historic Grove Arcade, it’s inviting and upscale. Guests come for a milestone dinner, before the symphony, or for a Negroni after work. I love to see families of all generations diving into pizzas and pastas together. And the thrill of watching people fall in love over their courses...

What is consistent is our mission to stay grounded in family history, to keep focused on a global scale, and to remain invested in Asheville.

How has Asheville’s food industry changed?

I remember Asheville in the ‘90s. There was this little corner bagel shop where the bagel guy (I don't remember his name) would be smoking a joint while smearing cream cheese on my bagel. The dry little ashes would sprinkle themselves on top. Having moved here from Colorado, it didn't seem too out of the ordinary. Things have changed [laughing]. We’ve seen many phases since then. For a while, Jerry Garcia was President and Asheville was about that grateful spirit and tempo. I remember Asheville's pedestrian traffic being barefooted. And then, in the early 2k's, Britney Spears became President for a bit. That presented the battle to keep half shirts and belly button piercings apart from tableside service. And then a wave of gentility blew through this town, and nothing was out of its reach. What is remarkable and important to us is that the gritty, the “real,” true culture of AVL still shines through. No more ash in your food, hopefully, but this is still a cool, edgy, mountain town. We're collaborating, interested in each other's ideas and innovative thinking, all while managing international attention.

How has COVID-19 changed your business?

From supply chain to banking, operational set-up to guest services. Our objective is to stay current with hazard assessments and to maintain the Governor's orders, as a minimum.

The restaurant industry is notoriously fickle, and difficult to maneuver. Yet, you all have been succeeding in the industry for 26+ years. What is your secret?

Be nimble.

Hector’s Hot Sauce is legendary and is available at Salsa’s. Any chance you’ll take it mass-market?

We’re being deliberate. We want responsible, sustainable growth along with the fun that comes with making something people want. Right now, we're scheduling a bottling date and it will be available at Bomba and Salsa's. We also ship internationally.

If you’re not eating at one of your restaurants, what's your favorite meal?

One shared with my family.

As a working mom, you’ve got a lot going on and a lot to balance. What keeps you going? Is it a love for food, a desire for success?

If I find a cake mix on the counter, I'm going to bake a cake. Is it a love of food or a desire for success? Maybe smiling children? I'm not quite sure, perhaps those answers will come with age; when I am able to look back.

As a minority-owned business in a predominately white city, what are your thoughts about the current discussions of inequity and race?

Let's zoom out for a moment and consider a Human Race. What our Human Race will do to one another through violence, dishonesty, and injustice is frightening and oppressive. Consider a Human Race dedicated to acts of grace, empathy, and compassion. We can make that our Human Race. It's time. We've got to run forward. Michael Franti just dedicated an album to, "Work Hard and Be Nice". Not to simplify things, but if you are called to do it, please... we need you.

Wine or margarita?

Wine. No contest.

Pizza or Pasta?

Right now, I'd eat both at the same time.

If you could map out a day where you’re eating at each of your restaurants… what would that look like? What would you order?

I would start with a hot cup of coffee at Bomba. The Shade Raised Organic coffee roasted with love is what the morning calls for. Salsa's for lunch, chips and salsa, with some sparkling water and lime. I like to eat dinner late. It's sexy. So, I would take the last dinner reservation at Modesto and select a white wine in advance so that it was waiting for me. I love the octopus and caesar salad; a seafood dish with lemon risotto. Formaggio and limoncello... tiramisu.