Like a reel of disintegrating nitrate film, only vestiges still remain of the Asheville that Mike Rangel, co-owner of Asheville Pizza & Brewing Co., encountered 25 years ago.
In 1997, the restaurateur and his then-wife, Leigh Oder, were running the company’s precursor, the Asheville Pizza Co. shop, situated on the northern end of Merrimon Avenue near the Fresh Market. That year, they were hired as consultants by the owners of the Two Moons Brew-N-View, who operated out of the site where today’s Asheville Pizza & Brewing Co. is located. Formerly the Merrimon Twin Theaters, Two Moons Brew-N-View had rebranded as a brewpub the year before but was struggling financially despite a gradually growing fan base for its house-made beers.
As the business’s brewer, Doug Riley, showed Rangel and Oder around, they crossed paths with some local color at the building’s entrance.
“There was a group of people on the patio, and they had a baby goat, and they were all dancing. And the baby goat was dancing,” Rangel recalls.
Rangel, who’d long wanted to own a movie theater, says he “just kind of fell in love with it.” And when the Two Moons owners proposed selling the place, he and Oder pounced and made them an offer.
On Jan. 1, 1998, following significant renovations, Rangel, Oder and Riley reopened the business as Asheville Pizza & Brewing Co. A quarter of a century later, the theater continues to program big-screen entertainment — work that the ownership team is ready to pass on to someone new.
In an Oct. 19 video posted on the business’s social media accounts, Rangel, his wife Allison Brown-Rangel, Oder and co-owners Lisa Leokum, Cory Gates and Pete Langheinrich announced that they were selling the Merrimon Avenue portion of their business. The group also owns Asheville Brewing Co. and Asheville T-Shirt Co., and are part owners of the outdoor concert venue Rabbit Rabbit (with The Orange Peel) as well as Ninja Spirits distillery and its ready-to-drink bottled/canned arm, The Buckminster Cocktail Co. (with Little Jumbo co-owner Chall Gray).
“We’re obviously not going anywhere. We have other businesses that are going to keep us hopping,” Rangel says. “But I’m realizing that it’s getting more and more difficult to keep your hands on the wheel of a few different businesses. And Merrimon and our staff and our customers deserve the full attention.”
Up for sale are the Asheville Pizza Co. and Asheville Pizza & Brewing Co. names; the restaurant’s food recipes; and all the kitchen and movie theater equipment. The land and building are not part of the deal, but Rangel says the current lease runs through 2029 and their “friendly landlord” is committed to working with the new owners.
“Our first thing is trying to do everything we can to have some sort of an easy, logical transition of keeping the staff that we’ve got, as much as possible, and then also keeping the cinema going,” Rangel says. “My hope would be that someone would come in and would want to keep it as Asheville Pizza because of the tremendous amount of sales and customer loyalty and reputation. But that will ultimately be up to the owner.”
Those liberties extend to what’s programmed for the first-run and $3 second-run/repertory screens, as well as what’s on tap. While Rangel says he’d love the new owners to carry exclusively Asheville Brewing beers, they can serve whatever they’d like.
As for finding a buyer, Rangel and the ownership team are in no rush. After seeing the new owners of fellow local businesses such as Moog Music and Catawba Brewing Co. lay off large numbers of employees and drastically alter operations, the Asheville Pizza group is determined to take whatever time is necessary to vet prospective buyers.
Since the Oct. 19 announcement, Rangel has received numerous emails from interested parties — many of them local. Though the sale would be a turnkey situation, he says the current owners are willing to serve as consultants or otherwise help with the transition.
Once the sale is complete, Rangel and his colleagues plan to run their remaining operations out of the Coxe Avenue location. He says that move would mark the first time in 20 years that the owners have worked together under the same roof. The change will also result in a shift in food offerings at the South Slope restaurant.
“I have some menu ideas for some different stuff that I’ve wanted to do for a long time that we really haven’t been able to do,” Rangel says.
Where Asheville Pizza & Brewing started and where it has ended up are significantly different from what Rangel and Oder had planned. They originally envisioned the movie theater with an upscale cocktail lounge, but less than two months after buying Two Moons, they learned Oder was pregnant and decided to make it a family-friendly establishment.
As Asheville has become a more desirable tourist destination and place to call home, its reputation as Beer City has been a boon for the Asheville Brewing side of the business. But Rangel says the funky, idiosyncratic nature of the Merrimon location has consistently been popular with locals and visitors seeking the town’s more offbeat side. And as the city has grown, Asheville Pizza has remained one of the few entertainment-centric businesses that cater to all ages.
“Asheville kind of pushed us in the direction that our business needed to be in,” Rangel says. “We just had to learn how to listen.”
Aiding that welcoming vibe is an aesthetic that features Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and other pop culture imagery from works that Rangel and his colleagues love. He says the intention behind the interior design is “to not, in any way, be seen as a corporation,” and they’re continually working in new details. More recently, they’ve added components such as a James Bond mural.
“We have fun and try not to take ourselves too seriously,” Rangel says. “On busy nights when we’re slammed and all hell’s breaking loose, we remind ourselves that we’re not brain surgeons — we’re making pizza.”
That sense of joy extends to such value-added bonuses as giving attendees inflatable swords for the “Game of Thrones” series finale and red beanies for folks who bought tickets for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Introducing audiences to oddball films has been one of Rangel’s favorite aspects of owning the theater, and he says he’d rather have a half-full auditorium for a quirky indie film than a capacity crowd for the latest Adam Sandler movie.
“If you show it, they will come,” Rangel says. “Asheville should get its props, too, because for a town this size in the South, it has an experimental edge to it. People want to take a gamble on a movie. And the early days of Fine Arts [Theatre] and [the] Cinematique [film society] helped foster that, too.”
Other highlights for Rangel include hosting the cast of The Hunger Games for multiple parties while the production was filming in Western North Carolina; getting to meet future Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman in the late ’90s when he was in the area filming Patch Adams; and surprising attendees at a Donnie Darko screening with Asheville resident Gary Jules performing his cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” from the film’s soundtrack.
Built to last
Over the past 25 years, Asheville Pizza & Brewing has also weathered significant challenges within the movie industry. In 2012, film distribution switched from celluloid to digital, forcing theaters to purchase expensive new projectors. According to Neal Reed, manager of the Fine Arts Theatre, the move killed about 35% of independent theaters in the U.S., but his and Rangel’s establishments survived.
Then in 2020, restrictions stemming from COVID-19 shuttered nonessential businesses. Once pandemic rules eased and Asheville Pizza & Brewing could welcome customers back, Rangel was faced with a new challenge. The shrinking window for second-run films in the age of streaming all but forced Rangel’s hand to convert his theater into a first-run establishment in late 2021.
But he and the community alike quickly missed the $3 screenings celebrating anniversaries, tributes to recently deceased performers and other unorthodox titles that defined the business. In 2022, Rangel transformed the building’s game room into an additional theater and brought back the venue’s former idiosyncratic programming.
The shift to first-run films has also led to robust ticket sales in 2023. Rangel wisely booked current box-office champ Barbie over the summer and screenings of the concert film Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour have consistently sold out this fall. In addition to Asheville Pizza & Brewing withstanding the streaming boom and advancements in home theater systems, Rangel is feeling bullish about the future of the communal film experience.
“I feel like the nostalgia of movie theaters is just going to get stronger because there’s less and less opportunities to meet up with people, unless you’re really talking sports or live music. The only other thing is really theaters,” he says. “That sense of community — watching Elf for the 800th time but watching it with 75 people who are also laughing, that feeling is irreplaceable.”
Continuing that tradition is of utmost importance to Rangel and the ownership team as they vet potential buyers. But as confident as they are in whoever takes over operations, there remains a chance that a bleak future awaits.
“I’d just be heartbroken if I drove down Merrimon and it was a huge dry cleaners,” Rangel says.