Deedee Mills is synonymous with the Charlotte restaurant scene. Whether you want a quick, filling chicken salad sandwich at The Mayobird, comfort food at The Packhouse, a pick-me-up coffee at Joe and Nosh or a date night meal at The Summit Room, she has you covered. But beyond offering an impressive amount of culinary depth, the Charlotte restaurateur has lived many past lives. She’s been a PR professional, started a non-profit that fosters positive development and provides arts education for urban youth, and even scaled Mount Kilimanjaro. What’s her secret ingredient to finding success in a broad range of ventures? Find out and get to know her better — we’re thrilled to feature Deedee Mills as our newest FACE of Charlotte!
Your restaurants are equally delicious, but so different. How do you continually find inspiration?
Although the restaurants are different as far as aesthetics and the food, I feel like they all lean to the Southern-inspired. I’m from the eastern part of North Carolina, so that’s what I grew up eating and that’s what I love to eat. Honestly I feel like it’s just more classic-type stuff that’s almost timeless and all-purpose. I try not to do trendy, fad-y stuff.
Before you opened your restaurants, you worked for the Panthers and started a non-profit called The Behailu Academy. How did you make the switch?
I think that hopefully my forte is I know my limitations. I feel like I’m pretty good at creating the vision, and I’m pretty good at knowing that I can’t be the one running something on the day to day. For me it’s all about hiring the right people to do a great job. I didn’t grow up in the restaurant business; I didn’t have any ties to anyone else that was in the restaurant business. It was just something I wanted to do, and it was something I knew I could do if the right personnel were in place.
How do your non-profit and your restaurants co-exist?
Since the inception of The Mayobird, we’ve always given back to The Behailu Academy, and that’s been the case with all four restaurants. We give 10 percent off the top, but then our customers have the opportunity to round up to the nearest dollar too. I started the restaurants because of The Behailu Academy, and I love thinking about new ways to continue to give back to them with whatever we do.
How is the restaurant business different from your previous professional experience?
My whole previous life was working for a sports team, and it’s a 180 a little bit in terms of we were all business at the Panthers. You have files and emails, and when I first started the restaurant I was like, “Okay well shoot me an email. I need that in writing.” And they were like, “What are you talking about?”
I was used to working with people who were in suits, and here people are way more laid back. They’ll start at 3 p.m. instead of 7 a.m., so that’s different. I was a little bit nervous that my skill set wouldn’t transfer, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much it transferred in terms of making sure it does run like a business.
What’s something you wish you had known before getting into the restaurant business?
My son is adopted, so it’s funny to me when I hear friends who were pregnant when they’re like, “We watched the videos of delivery!” and I’m like, “Okay, if I’m pregnant the last thing I’m going to do is watch a video. I’m pregnant. I’m going to have the baby. I don’t need to be watching a video about how it’s going to go down.” The same thing when I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. The friend who I climbed with was like, “We’re gonna watch a video!” and I was like, “If I’m already committed, then I don’t need to know.” I do way better not knowing and just doing it.
Why is Charlotte the perfect place for your restaurants?
What I love about Charlotte is that it’s a big city, but I think it’s the best family city. It’s so community-oriented, and in the restaurant business that’s what we thrive on. It’s got nice, hospitable people, and we’re a melting pot.
What are some of your other favorite foodie cities?
I love San Francisco, Chicago, New York, L.A. and Dallas. I love New Orleans. Good Lord, I love New Orleans food. When I travel, that’s what I like to do. Yes, I want to say I’ve seen the Golden Gate Bridge, sure, but I want to ask the local people where they go eat. I love nothing more than going to a small town and eating at the local greasy spoon or the local farm-to-table diner.
Besides your own, of course, what are some of your favorite restaurants in Charlotte?
I love Fenwick’s, and a lot of the reason is because it’s a local, neighborhood place. I love Bernardin’s. I love going to The Roasting Company. I love going to Persuasion, which is a Thai restaurant. What makes the place is Chi, who owns it. He knows everyone who walks in there by name. That’s the kind of thing to me that makes a huge difference.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
In my previous life, the attention to detail had to be there, and it was almost exceedingly so. So for me it’s all in the details. You can ask anybody in here and they’ll probably say it’s too much attention to detail in terms of, “That’s a little brown spot on that, that’s not going out.” I think whether people realize it or not, for them it’s in the details too.
Was there a specific moment in your career when you felt like “I’ve officially made it!”?
I don’t think I’ll ever feel like that, because I think we all have the opportunity to get better and improve upon something. I think when someone is like, “I’ve arrived,” then you’re done. For me it’s about the next challenge or the next opportunity.
Let’s talk about your Mount Kilimanjaro climb. How did that come about?
My friend said, “It’s my 40th birthday. Will you climb Mount Kilimanjaro with me?” I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I come to find out she’d asked her sister, her best friend from home and everyone she worked with, and everyone said no. I’m the sucker who ended up saying yes. I try to exercise daily, but I’m not some freakazoid about it, so a couple times I filled my backpack up with canned goods and I’d walk around the neighborhood. Throughout the climb I was like, “I cannot believe that I let you talk me into this!” But of course by the end I was thanking her for talking me into it. My son was born in Ethiopia, so to be at the top of Africa was a big deal and for me to tell him, “Buddy, I was at the top of Africa!”
What are three things you couldn’t live without besides faith, family and friends?
With the whole cellphone thing, you think you could want to live without it, but I don’t think I could. I will say a cellphone, a pet and [she asks staff member to weigh in] … sweet tea! He’s right. I tried to give it up for Lent one year and I couldn’t.
Thank you, Deedee, for sharing insight into your life. And thanks to Piper Warlick Photography for the beautiful photos of Deedee!
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