North Carolina company Vietri celebrates 40 years of setting the perfect Italian table
Tucked away in the hills of Hillsborough, North Carolina is a warehouse full of some of most stylish handcrafted Italian dinnerware in the world. It is shipped all over the country from this spot, and it’s been that way for 40 years at Vietri.
Holli Draughn is the President of Vietri. She says they are looking to expand because business is booming.
“Our company has grown almost three times in the last several years,” Draughn said. “Eventually we will have to build on to our warehouse, possibly 30,000 more square feet.”
Much of the credit goes to Susan Gravely, who founded Vietri shortly after a family trip to Italy in 1983.
WUNC’s Leoneda Inge talks to Gravely about her life, Vietri and her new 40th Anniversary book, “Italy on a Plate – Travels, Memories, Menus.”
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Gravely: “So I never — nor did my sister, nor did my mother — ever feel that we couldn’t do this. We didn’t know what we were going to do. None of us knew how to get plates from Italy to the United States and where we were going to put them and how we were going to sell them. But you could do it for tobacco so you could certainly do it for plates.”
Inge: “First of all, Happy 40th."
Gravely: "Thank you. I feel only 40 years old. Though, I started the company at 32. So, 40 plus 32... Hmm..."
Inge: "Well, you don't look it... I enjoyed finally taking a tour of your facility and I hear that business is booming, 40 years later.”
Gravely: “It’s incredible. Business is booming. Like any business it goes up and down but we have pretty much stayed on an incline for 40 years. And now having such a young, passionate, bright management team makes all the difference because they are so impassioned. It’s great for me.”
Inge: “Well, I’m sure people ask sometimes, what’s your secret? But I guess when you have something pretty and it’s shipped out of the South, it can’t go wrong, right? Your dinnerware, flatware, even your linens, they seem to be a hit in all the big Southern magazines.”
Gravely: “Right. Well, Southerners love to entertain and they love to plan for entertainment. They love to set a table. And our philosophy from day one was the metaphor of ‘the table.’ Being together to bring joy, to talk, to have comradery and for people to leave feeling happier.”
Inge: “Please tell me, what are the similarities between a Italian table and a Southern table, because I hear you definitely favor mix-matched dinnerware on the table. It just doesn’t have to match to be perfectly put together.”
Gravely: “Oh you are so right. I think one of the biggest things that I learned early, was that having people in your home and eating together and enjoying each other does not have to be something you get stressed out about. Italians pull the plates that they have. They will put something simple in the center of the table. And they cook whatever they have that’s fresh in their kitchen right there.”
Inge: “So when you were 32-years-old, was that your first trip to Italy?”
Gravely: “Yes. I had traveled a lot. My father had a third-generation family tobacco company, being from eastern North Carolina. So, we had foreigners in our home always. So, eating together, setting a table for the season. Me putting on a dress serving cigarettes, or their drinks was the way I could listen and be around them. This trip came about because my father sold CATCO (The China American Tobacco Company). He went down and introduced the Italian conglomerate to the new owners because tobacco was owned by the government. He came home, felt bad and had a heart attack and died at 60. So, the trip I took with my mother and sister was the trip planned by my parents because my father loved Italy so much."
Inge: “I just love hearing, even after your father passed and letters in a will that he left you with a little money and said, 'Do whatever you want to with this.'”
Gravely: “He did. After he died, I guess the attorneys talked to Momma (Lee Gravely) about the will and everything was left to her. Daddy (Lloyd Lee Gravely) early on said to these four of us, 'Don’t think you’re going to be left anything because I want your mother to spend every nickel.' But he had written a letter, and the letter was to the four of us — Frances, Susan, Steve and Page — and he said, 'I leave to each of you $2,000 to just go blow on having a good time.' And that was from a man who was strict. Who expected a lot from us, as most Southern parents did. And when we went on that trip and found the first dinnerware and decided to start Vietri, my sister and I spent our $2,000 each. Momma put in $16,000. So, we started a company with $20,000."
Inge: “Well, look at it today. And it sort of surprises me it took this long to get a book done. This is your first book, right?”
Gravely: “No it’s not. I’ve written five children’s books that were based around a dinnerware pattern that we have called Old St. Nick. The other books are somewhat moral stories. One about saving the earth, one about good friends, one about caring for others, all ages.”
Inge: “But this is your first cookbook. This tells your story. This is for the adults.”
Gravely: “It took this long because I’ve been so busy for Vietri and loving what I do with Vietri. But many times when I’m speaking to groups or speaking to leadership groups they say, you should write a book, write a book. And finally for this 40th Anniversary, my young team said, it’s time.”
Inge: “So what’s next?”
Gravely: “I am, amazingly to me, in my twilight years. Again, working with a group of young, passionate professionals, mostly women, but some fabulous renaissance men, as well, they are giving me permission to take time to think, to maybe write another book, to keep creating new product. To be a mentor. To lead by giving thought, not lead by demand or a set expectation. And so, I’m hoping I’m going to continue down this road. This is what I love. I have a great husband (William Ross) that says go for it. So how does that sound?”
Inge: “That sounds great, Susan.”
Susan Gravely celebrates 40 years of Vietri with her new book, “Italy on a Plate – Travels, Memories, Menus.”
Vietri opens its doors May 5-7 in Hillsborough for what they call their biggest spring warehouse sale in years.