Chapter two: Getting a late-life second start in Asheville’s food and beverage industries

SOMETHING NEW: Chiesa owners Robert and Melissa Willingham, front, worked a combined 50 years in the restaurant business in Baltimore before opting for a change of pace with a move to Asheville five years ago. "It's a ton of work and a ton of hours, but it's also a lot of fun," says Robert.
SOMETHING NEW: Chiesa owners Robert and Melissa Willingham, front, worked a combined 50 years in the restaurant business in Baltimore before opting for a change of pace with a move to Asheville five years ago. "It's a ton of work and a ton of hours, but it's also a lot of fun," says Robert. Photo by Nick Wilson

Before becoming the executive director of the Asheville Independent Restaurant Association, Jane Anderson worked in health care for 23 years in Erie, Pa., then another 10 years at the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce. Nowadays, as part of her leadership role at AIR, an organization that describes itself as “an association of local, independent restaurants dedicated to keeping Asheville’s food scene eclectic, authentic, interesting, fresh and flavorful,” Anderson interacts regularly with many of Asheville’s restaurant owners — some of whom started new careers after moving to Asheville, just as she did.

“There really are some great stories about people who looked around and decided to plop their businesses down here,” she says. “I think it’s these interesting individuals that really keep Asheville’s independent vibe going. Many people deliberately chose to move here, in some cases even giving up a higher-paying job, for that unique lifestyle change. … There are a lot of people in many different professions that I think help create a richer community because they’re here.

“A lot of people came here as part of this second phase of their life. … Even though they may be nearing retirement, they’re still leading very active lives and creating really great businesses,” she adds.

Crossing over

Among the diverse group of local restaurant owners who relocated to Asheville to start a new chapter is Pete Waissen, owner of Pete’s Pies, a British pub that opened downtown in December. Waissen moved to Asheville from England last May to be closer to his two sons, Jack, a 2012 graduate of N.C. Central University in Durham, and Matt, a 2013 UNC Asheville alum, both of whom came to the country on collegiate tennis scholarships and remained stateside.

Before opening Pete’s, Waissen didn’t have any experience in the restaurant business. A mechanical engineer by trade, Waissen started out designing manufacturing equipment then spent more than two decades in the plastic injection molding business, working his way into management.

STARTING OVER: Pete Waissen left behind a long career in mechanical engineering when he moved to Asheville from England last May. In December, he reinvented himself as a restaurateur when he opened his Lexington Avenue pub, Pete's Pies. Photo by Nick Wilson
STARTING OVER: Pete Waissen left behind a long career in mechanical engineering when he moved to Asheville from England last May. In December, he reinvented himself as a restaurateur when he opened his Lexington Avenue pub, Pete’s Pies. Photo by Nick Wilson

In transitioning from mechanical engineering to the world of food service, Waissen found that some of his accumulated knowledge applied. “I’ve always been able to do what I need to do to get by,” says Waissen. “And actually, the mechanics of any small business are the same as a big business, because you’re dealing with all of the same facets. You’ve got accounts, you’ve got marketing, sales, all the same things … except here we’re not making plastics, we’re making food.”

Waissen, who has enjoyed cooking since he was a kid, approaches the process of making food with the same attention to detail required in a large-scale manufacturing facility. The savory meat pies at the heart of Pete’s menu are something that Waissen holds to a high personal standard. “We’ve probably sold 6,000 pies since opening, and I’ve made about 5,000 of them,” he says. “Each day we taste everything here together before it goes out.”

Hard work

So far, Waissen says he’s been enjoying life as a restaurateur. “The whole thing has been a good experience,” he says.

But he isn’t blind to the challenges of starting a new business in a thriving food town like Asheville. “Is it a stressful thing? Oh yeah, I think I’ve lost 35 pounds since I got here,” he says with a touch of his characteristic dry wit.

Stress and hard work are a common theme among restaurant owners. Baltimore transplants Robert and Melissa Willingham, owners of Montford Italian restaurant Chiesa, say it’s just part part of the job.

“Between the two of us, we have 50 years experience in the restaurant business, so you’d think we’d know better than to do this again,” says Robert with a laugh. “A friend of mine always refers to money earned from a restaurant as ‘blood money’ because you work so hard for it. Sure, you make some money, but you don’t make that much money. … That said, it’s definitely been pretty good to us, and we can’t complain.”

Before relocating to Asheville when they were in their mid 50s, the Willinghams owned a Mexican taqueria in Baltimore. “We just decided we wanted to leave and try something different. So we went to check out a few places to look around — California and then up north,” says Robert. “But when we came to Asheville, we just really felt that this is what we wanted; we love it. In the five years that we’ve lived here, I don’t think there’s been a week gone by that one of us doesn’t look the other one in the eye and go, ‘Man, I just love it here.'”

Before opening Chiesa in 2014, the Willinghams had planned to do something small, but then the idea morphed into a full-blown restaurant.  “It’s a ton of work and a ton of hours, but it’s also a lot of fun,” says Robert.  “I’ve never had as many good friends as we have now, and it’s mainly because of the restaurant — we just meet so many really interesting people who come through.”

The restaurant business, he says, is something that “just gets in your blood. Once you do it, I think it becomes really hard to get a normal 9-to-5 job or go work for someone else.”

Brewing a new career

Working for someone else suits 67-year-old Mark Janes just fine. Janes, who had a 25-year career in the transportation industry in both Illinois and New Orleans, found himself in the world of craft beer at the age of 60. “I had friends that said, ‘You know, your avocation is craft beer — maybe you want to make that a vocation,”’ says Janes.

AFTER-PARTY: Following a decades-long career in the transportation industry, Mark Janes, left, found a new professional home in Asheville's craft beer scene. He works in the taproom at New Belgium Brewing, where he is known to co-workers as "Party Grandpa." Pictured with Janes, from left, are Becca Hardin-Nieri, Courteney Foster, Justin Quinn, Ross Yates and Cassie Miller Giles. Photo courtesy of Janes
AFTER-PARTY: Following a decades-long career in the transportation industry, Mark Janes, left, found a new professional home in Asheville’s craft beer scene. He works in the taproom at New Belgium Brewing, where he is known to co-workers as “Party Grandpa.” Pictured with Janes, from left, are Becca Hardin-Nieri, Courteney Foster, Justin Quinn, Ross Yates and Cassie Miller Giles. Photo courtesy of Janes

A love for craft beer clearly runs in the Janes family. His daughter, Stacia Janes, and son-in-law, Tyler Foos, both work for New Belgium Brewing Co. in Asheville. Stacia Janes is a Southern Division field quality manager and Foos is the Asheville Liquid Center manager.

After several years of bouncing around the craft brewing industry in various cities, Mark Janes relocated to Asheville 3½ years ago. Though he initially started working at Appalachian Vintner, he ultimately ended up getting hired by New Belgium.

Mark Janes now works in the brewery’s Liquid Center taproom, pouring beer, helping guests and leading tours of the facility. “I really wanted to work for New Belgium,” he says. “Because my son-in-law and daughter work there, I had been an extended family member of New Belgium for a long time; I knew how they operated. I was just like, ‘This is the place I want to work.'”

Dubbed “Party Grandpa” by New Belgium employees before he even started working there, Janes can hardly hide his enthusiasm about the job. He appreciates everything from the company culture to the people he works with to his daily routine, including the opportunity to ride his bicycle to work every day.

“What I tell people is this is the best post-retirement full-time job I’ve ever had,” he says. “It’s an amazing thing — you come to work every day, and what do you do? You talk to people, you serve them beer, you turn them on to our production, obviously, but even grander than that, you’re turning them on to craft beer in general. It’s just really such a unique experience. I’ll probably work here until I’m dead and gone.”

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About Nick Wilson
Nick Wilson is a free spirited guy who enjoys curious adventures and seeing his consciousness evolve. A native of the Midwest, he attended Indiana University and recently moved to Asheville after 8 years in Los Angeles to focus on writing and deliberate creation. Follow me @njdwo

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