By Sarah Mansheim
Early last spring, the buzz hit the street. The General Lewis was for sale. As the months rolled along into summer, scuttlebutt continued: Sparrow and Aaron Huffman were buying it. Sparrow Huffman’s mother was buying it for her. They were getting a small business loan. The loan fell through. Her mom backed out.
As with most rumors, half of them were true: Sparrow Huffman laughs now as she sits in a chair in the inn’s lobby – “We got a loan,” she says.
Turns out, Sparrow and Aaron Huffman did get a small business loan to the tune of $1.2 million to purchase Lewisburg’s General Lewis Inn. “We put everything we had on the line,” she says, mortgaging their home, their vehicles, “every asset we had. We were under contract for months.”
“It was terrifying,” she says, “because the SBA (Small Business Association) loan officer was located in California. He could look at our Website and see the inn, but he didn’t know what an iconic part of Lewisburg the General Lewis is.” Fortunately, they had local help through Lewisburg’s First National Bank, which served as a liaison between the Huffmans and the SBA.
Huffman says she initially called Jeff Vickers, the bank’s senior vice president and chief lending officer, when she and Aaron Huffman began talking about buying the inn. “I called him in April and I said, ‘Hey, you wanna loan me $1.2 million?’” Vickers laughed, she says, until she pressed. “No, really.”
Huffman says she and her husband shopped around for a bank before landing back with First National Bank.
“We chose to go with First National because they are a locally owned bank. They knew us; they hold our home mortgage.”
In addition to Vickers’ help, Huffman says First National Bank’s Alice Hollingsworth and Paula Wykle were instrumental in helping them get the loan. Hollingsworth and Huffman had a previous relationship: Hollingsworth is the daughter of the late Gwen Clingman, whose Clingman’s Market, another well known downtown restaurant, now houses Huffman’s successful restaurant, The Stardust Cafe.
The loan process was grueling, she says, with the couple submitting “literally 10 things a day for three months” to the SBA – business plans, hard numbers, house count data, restaurant data, college transcripts and more.
“It was like running in an election campaign. They want to know everything about you – all the good and all the dirty laundry.”
Finally, in August, the loan went through. The Huffmans bought the General Lewis property and all of its contents, but not the business, starting their own corporation.
“That led to a lot more misinformation,” she said. “Everyone thought that the whole staff had been fired.” In fact, she says, they were. At 2 p.m. the day of the sale, all employees were terminated, and then immediately rehired by the Huffmans’ new corporation. “Ninety percent of the staff was rehired at 2:01 p.m.” The other 10 percent were not asked back.
“It was a business decision. Our business plan is to be a successful, thriving business,” says Huffman. During the months the sale was under contract, the staff was under direct observation by the Huffmans. “We wanted to know what every person did in the business, and unfortunately, we knew we could do some of those jobs ourselves.”
And they dove right in. The weekend they bought the General Lewis, they hosted a wedding at the inn. Since August, the Huffmans have seen another wedding, a large baby shower and two private, large dinner events.
And again, town is alight with rumor. The menu is changing. They’re going to do a massive renovation. It’s going to be a new Stardust.
Not so, said Huffman. “The menu has not changed drastically. The ingredients have changed in that everything is now made from scratch,” she said. Most menu tweaks, such as the fried chicken now being prepared in non-GMO peanut oil, will not be noticed by the hotel and dinner guests.
“The changes are things people will never notice,” she said, “they’re just going to leave feeling good.”
The inn is now featuring 100 percent local eggs and potatoes and has added a honey glazed hen to the menu featuring cornish game hen from Rainbow Farm near Sandstone. Huffman also is serving fair trade coffee.
“It’s my passion. Coffee is the largest traded commodity in the world, and the majority of it is produced by slave and child labor,” she said.
As for the fears that the General Lewis’ menu will begin to reflect the eclectic nature of Huffman’s other restaurant, she is firm. “This restaurant is never going to be Stardust. I don’t want to change the feeling in the inn. I want it to feel like the General Lewis, and that includes southern cooking.”
Huffman has completely overhauled the wine menu to feature old world wines including St. Hilaire, a French sparkling white that Thomas Jefferson imported to America.
The inn is also featuring local distiller Smooth Ambler Spirits on their cocktail menu, and guests will soon see a bar in the hotel lobby. The historic front desk, once graced by Jefferson’s presence, will be moved into a larger space and turned into a bar. “People are obsessed with the front desk, and I feel like it will be featured more (as a bar) than it is right now,” she says. By spring, a pass-through will be created behind the bar so that guests can enjoy a drink on the front porch. The furniture rearrangement will also lead to a better functioning front lobby and greeting area and make room for a small gift shop.
Other changes are going to be like the menu: quiet and unnoticeable. New, high capacity WiFi and hotel management and point of sale systems installed by Zachary Ronin of Berkshire POS will help the inn run more smoothly; a five-year plan includes bathroom updates and some guest suites.
“I don’t want to change the feeling in here. I want it to feel like the General Lewis. The changes coming are not going to affect the guest, but they will enhance the service,” said Huffman. “I do not see why within five years we wouldn’t be a Five Diamond property.”