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Markiss Stone has only been an influencer since late 2021, but the 39-year-old car salesman can speed-read a restaurant dining room for its Instagram appeal.

There’s no question that the Tupelo Honey Café in Indianapolis, where Stone lives, has plenty. When the company invited him to check out the location shortly after its April opening, he noticed the fizzy, sunset-hued sangria named in homage to a Kendrick Lamar song, and the mac-and-cheese waffles capped with dill pickles.

“They’re hitting the majority of the must-do lists for 2023,” Stone said after his visit, the centerpiece of a reel now viewed more than 250,000 times. “They have the flower walls, since people in the 25–34 age range don’t want just four pieces of drywall, a nice selection of food, and a patio.”

“Whoever is on the marketing research team knows how to attract a younger, more affluent audience,” he concluded. “I didn’t think country food there.”

Since opening in Asheville 23 years ago, Tupelo Honey has morphed from a quirky late-night restaurant dressing up Southern ingredients for locals to a gargantuan restaurant chain simplifying Southern classics for the entire country. Having traded its signature sweet potato pancakes for stackable fried chicken, Tupelo Honey Café now has 22 locations from Boise to Pittsburgh, with plans to open another half a dozen locations each year.

Fried chicken is a mainstay of Tupelo Honey’s menu. (Hanna Raskin for The Assembly)

Earlier this year, the restaurant trade publication FSR Magazine reported that Tupelo Honey is projecting $100 million in revenue in 2024, based on an annual-unit-volume of $4 million. To put that more simply, each location rakes in more money than the average McDonald’s.

“We’re right there with Chili’s and Olive Garden,” CEO Stephen Frabitore told FSR. “That tells you that when we do our jobs right, the guest responds to us in a meaningful way.”

Frabitore has carefully managed Tupelo Honey’s growth since buying the brand in 2008. The one-time trapeze artist didn’t have any restaurant experience, but did have a deep understanding of expansion: In the late 1990s, Frabitore was a top executive at Rexall Sundown, a Boca Raton-based vitamin and supplement producer acquired by a Dutch conglomerate for $1.8 billion in 2000.

“Sundown has identified a category need, articulated it and executed it with its retail partners, and the consumer continues to vote positively,” Frabitore told Chain Drug Review in 1997.

Tupelo Honey declined to make a representative available for an interview or answer any questions for this story, but it appears that Frabitore and other Rexall alums on his company’s board are intent on giving Southern hospitality a taste of their medicine.

In late December 2000, Tupelo Honey opened its doors across from downtown Asheville’s Pritchard Park, then on the cusp of becoming the backdrop to the city’s notorious drum circle. Within its weeks, the restaurant’s “upscale Southern cuisine with a twist,” received its first rave review.

Asheville Citizen-Times correspondent Susan T. Parke had only one complaint in her January 12, 2001 writeup: Her editor restricted her to one use of the phrase “to die for” when assessing a restaurant. Accordingly, the goat cheese grits were “amazing,” the pimento cheese omelet with roasted red peppers was “incredible,” and the filet mignon on homemade sourdough was “mouthwatering.”

Behind the scenes, though, the crew was struggling. Owner Sharon Schott went through three kitchen managers in 10 months as they hustled to pull off Schott’s vision of New Orleans-accented comfort food for hungry crowds. “It was a baby restaurant just learning to walk,” said Brian Sonoskus, a New Jersey native who was cooking at Magnolia’s Raw Bar & Grill when he saw Tupelo Honey’s classified ad seeking a chef.

As Sonoskus remembers it, the all-woman team in Tupelo’s kitchen was relieved to see a 30-something Deadhead fresh off a recuperative wander through Latin America. “They had been interviewing a chef coat, clipboard guy,” he said.

Brian Sonoskus on the patio at Star Diner, the restaurant he runs in Marshall, North Carolina. (Hanna Raskin for The Assembly)

Instead, Schott hired Sonoskus, who brought his laidback attitude and sweet potato pancake recipe to the fledgling restaurant. At that time, Tupelo closed at 3 p.m. He pointed out how many customers were tugging on the locked front door after hours. Before long, Tupelo stretched out its schedule to meet the demands of both early bird breakfasters and workers from other restaurants in search of post-shift drinks.

It wasn’t uncommon then for Tupelo to serve upward of 500 people a day. In 2004, one of those people was Rachael Ray.

After Ray featured Tupelo Honey Café in an episode of her popular Food Network show, $40 a Day, regular customers got used to waiting in even longer lines. Area reporters, half flabbergasted by the restaurant’s commanding success, sometimes polled tourists to see if the restaurant lived up to their expectations.

“We are 700 miles from home, and this has been the best all the way,” a visitor from Kosciusko, Mississippi said after an order of pancakes.

Travel writers across the Southeast alerted their readers to Asheville’s must-eat restaurant—the Tampa Bay Times recommended the crab meat omelet with edible flowers and the Miami Herald praised the candied ginger cornbread.

There’s no way of knowing whether Stephen Frabitore saw either feature. But he and his wife, Jennifer—both alumni of Florida State University’s circus performance program—bought a Biltmore Forest home in 2008. The acquisition was announced in June, via a Citizen-Times brief that said Tupelo’s new leader had no plans to “change the style” of the restaurant. 

“He’s a very motivated gentleman,” Sonoskus said of Frabitore after the 2008 ownership change.

A little over a year later, Asheville got an idea of what Sonoskus meant: A second Tupelo Honey was in the works. While Frabitore pledged the South Asheville location would retain the aesthetics of the original, it was designed to accommodate 150—three times as many guests as the downtown location. And for the first time, Tupelo Honey would take reservations.

Another first was a Tupelo Honey cookbook, issued in 2011. Sonoskus and marketing director Elizabeth Sims collaborated on the book, which formalized the restaurant’s brand as “sassy, scrumptious, [and] representative of the New South.”

The following year, Frabitore confirmed the rumor that Tupelo Honey was expanding to Knoxville. “It boils down to the fact that we have a good product in an underserved niche,” he said at the time.

All new Tupelo Honey locations, such as this one in Myrtle Beach, have bars furnished with televisions. (Hanna Raskin for The Assembly)

For Sonoskus, the first opening was terrifically fun. Tupelo Honey fans in the habit of schlepping two hours through the mountains for sweet potato pancakes couldn’t believe they’d lucked into immediate access to their favorite restaurant. The Knoxville restaurant brimmed with the same can-do Appalachian spirit, and some wonderment that Southern food was suddenly saleable.

But then Tupelo made its way into markets where diners didn’t have warm memories of the little restaurant on College Street. Sonoskus went from slinging black bean burgers to making PowerPoint presentations to potential investors, always starting his pitch with the same line, guaranteed to make the bigwigs chuckle: “I’m from the South. South Jersey.”

While fileting flatfish and simmering fumé as a student at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Sonoskus never imagined ending up in a windowed office overlooking Mount Pisgah. He couldn’t fathom supervising 900 employees or living out of a suitcase as he traveled from one new location to the next. They opened 10 new locations in quick succession, including in Greenville, Charlotte, Myrtle Beach, and Raleigh.

“After Knoxville, it got old fast,” he said. 

By the time the Raleigh location opened in early 2015, Tupelo Honey had overhauled its image. The chain came up with a salad menu, scaled back portion sizes, and retired its mustard-yellow dishware, even though the color was so synonymous with the restaurant that it backgrounded the dust jacket on that first cookbook. 

“We were photographing food and I was like, ‘We can’t make things look good’,” Sims told the Citizen-Times.

Looking good was very important. When Tupelo’s “latest and greatest thinking” was unveiled at its new Atlanta location in 2016, one of its exemplars was a fried chicken tower, assembled from two breasts, two thighs, four biscuits, and blueberry jam. Almost nothing on the menu was ordered more frequently.

Fried chicken has remained central to the Tupelo Honey brand, albeit not always arranged vertically. Brunchers these days can choose among fried chicken on a biscuit, fried chicken on a waffle, and fried chicken on a bun. The menu also lists avocado toast, a bacon-and-egg scramble, and shrimp-and-grits, but it’s the rare table at which someone doesn’t order the consistently tender chicken with a honey-sweetened crust.

The Tupelo Honey Cafe location in Myrtle Beach, S.C. (Hanna Raskin for The Assembly)

When Tupelo Honey declared its Las Colinas, Texas restaurant ready for guests on June 13, it illustrated its Instagram post with a reel of an influencer sampling the chicken and waffles—and “doing a little dance because it was so delicious.”

“I thoroughly enjoyed it,” Stone, the Indianapolis influencer, said when we talked. “I don’t know what seasoning they’re putting on it, but I loved it.”

The secret swaying factor in this case might not be salt or paprika. It could be the fruit-bright cocktails, the “Kiss my grits” written in cursive neon light near the entrance, or the data tracking that allows Tupelo Honey servers to scrutinize guests’ dining histories before going over the nightly specials.

None of those elements are at Star Diner in Marshall, North Carolina—the restaurant Sonoskus opened in 2017 after leaving Tupelo Honey.

Leveraging his relationships with local growers and his facility in the retrofitted service station’s all-electric kitchen, he and his wife, Kate, have made Star into one of western North Carolina’s top special occasion destinations.

Star isn’t a cheap meal. Sonoskus buys the best ingredients he can find and lets guests linger at their linen-covered tables for two or three hours. And diners don’t seem to mind paying $28 for seasonal mushroom linguine with roasted red peppers or $35 for scallops atop goat cheese grit cakes.

Sonoskus says he’s the most content he’s ever been, and western North Carolinians who miss the early, scrappy, offbeat Tupelo share his satisfaction. But for diners who prefer the contemporary iteration, there’s another Tupelo Honey Cafe opening in Knoxville next year, as well as one in Rogers, Arkansas. And Columbia, South Carolina. And Gainesville, Georgia.

By the end of 2024, Tupelo Honey will have locations in 17 states.

Hanna Raskin is editor and publisher of The Food Section, a newsletter covering food and drink across the South. You can reach her at