He is remembered as a risk-taker with a vision, a leader in the West Asheville renaissance and a successful restaurateur. The community suffered a great loss when Roland Knoll, owner of the Lucky Otter and co-owner of both Nine Mile restaurants and The Trailhead in Black Mountain, passed away Aug. 11 after an extended struggle with cerebellar ataxia. He will be greatly missed.
According to Knoll’s obituary in the Asheville Citizen-Times, he loved hot sauce, “Dancing Outlaw” Jesco White and cutting the sleeves off his T-shirts. And it was reported that he made the best smoked meat you’d ever taste. But those who knew him well also remember him as one of a select few who were willing to take a risk several years ago on opening a restaurant in the part of town once known as “Worst Asheville.”
“I’ll always remember Roland as the embodiment of change in West Asheville,” says Jonas Cole, general manager at the Lucky Otter. Cole describes Knoll as a “pioneer.” The Lucky Otter’s website states that the goal of the restaurant when it opened was to be a “neighborhood place.” Nine years later, after having helped kick off what is now West Asheville’s booming culinary scene, it is still a hub for the Haywood Road community. Knoll encouraged his employees’ ideas with zest and excitement, Cole says, and this support no doubt aided in the success of not only Lucky Otter, but the other local eateries he co-owned.
Marc McCloud, owner of Orbit DVD on Haywood Road, says that over the course of 13 years, he and Knoll shared a long and intertwined history. Many times he turned to Knoll for encouragement and advice. “He was a straight shooter who definitely affected the path I’m on now,” McCloud says. “Roland was a few years older, so I leaned on him many times for business advice. He helped to cheer me up during some tough patches, and we almost became partners.” McCloud adds he will always remember Knoll as one of the first to take a chance on “Worst Asheville.”
Mike Flanigan, co-owner of The Trailhead in Black Mountain, moved to Asheville from New Mexico about nine years ago and landed a job at the Lucky Otter when it opened. “It was a great time to be there,” says Flanigan. “Aaron Thomas, the now owner of Nine Mile, and I worked there together and learned a great deal.”
He too recalls the guidance Knoll readily served up. “When I moved to Black Mountain, I was approached with the opportunity to open a place, and it has always been a dream of mine, so I opened The Trailhead,” he says. “I immediately turned to Roland for guidance and he was like, ‘OK, this is how you open a restaurant.’ If I ever had a problem, I’d put Roland on the job. He was the muscle. He knew everybody in town.”
Along with his contributions to the community, Knoll is also remembered for his joyous spirit and friendly personality. “Aside from a good cocktail and/or wine, Knoll drank Busch Lite with pride, and his favorite meal was probably anything that he cooked at home for guests,” Cole says.
One of the first things that pops into Cole’s mind about Knoll was a look of wonderment and a smirk on his face when he was either telling an amazing story or hearing one, always followed by his signature laugh. “Roland was of the dwindling breed where life and adventure sought him out as much as he sought it out,” he says. ‘We worked together for almost nine years, and as you can imagine, that resulted in some yelling, tons of laughing, a little hugging and crying and boatloads of shared adventures.”
A reception at The Trailhead that followed Knoll’s funeral service on Aug. 20 is a testament to that statement. “We must have had more than 300 people there,” Flanigan says. “The back deck, parking lot and all points in between were just swarming with people. Some of those folks were wearing cut off T-shirts and others were quaffing down — yes — cans of cold Busch Lite.”
The community also came out en masse to support recent efforts by of one of Knoll’s friends, Casey Pond, to take Knoll’s oldest son, Jackson, a huge Green Bay Packers fan, to see the pro football team play the New York Giants in Wisconsin in October. Pond launched a GoFundMe page to secure some financial backing for his plan, and the project reached nearly 100 percent of its $1,900 goal in only two days. “The whole family has been through a lot over the last few years, and I would love to help create a really great memory for my good friend’s son,” Pond says on the fundraising page.
So, even though Asheville changes daily with a constant influx of new places and people, many will not forget that Knoll was a man who took chances and cared about people. McCloud says he will be forever grateful for the man, his advice and the conversations they had. “And, man, those Christmas parties,” he adds.