When Miki Loomis and her then-husband signed the lease in April 2010 on the building on Merrimon Avenue that would become HomeGrown restaurant, her first child was only 6 weeks old. A few months later, just two weeks after the restaurant opened, Loomis found out she was pregnant with the couple’s second child.
“I picked my office chair with arms that made it comfortable for nursing,” she remembers. “You do whatever it takes; you have no choice if you’re starting a business. Strap the baby on and go. You just roll with it.”
Opening their own restaurant is a decision many women who have spent years in a kitchen working for someone else come to as a means of exerting more control over their lives on and off the line. Doing whatever it takes and rolling with unanticipated hurdles — or pregnancies — is a start.
In hindsight, Loomis reflects that as daunting as it was bearing two children within 18 months and simultaneously birthing a business, it was also a blessing. “I couldn’t work for two weeks after Magnolia was born,” she says. “I couldn’t be that micromanager restaurant owner. I had to trust my management staff, and that was a good lesson to learn.”
One of the people she entrusted to make decisions for Homegrown — which had absorbed Loomis’ busy catering company — was Terri Terrell, who came on board as catering chef while Loomis was pregnant with Magnolia. Nine years later, Terrell is director of operations for the business. Though she does not have children, her gender is one of the challenges she has faced in building a career in the restaurant industry.
“In certain situations, it’s a double-whammy, being a woman and the lack of a culinary degree,” she says. Her degrees in theology and sociology are helpful when it comes to managing people, but she learned to cook and honed her kitchen skills through years on the job, including a stint as a traveling chef on the American Le Mans sports car racing circuit.
“Miki gave me a lot of culinary freedom, creating menus and leading the kitchen,” says Terrell. “She can do both of those things really well, but her leadership skills are more overall management of the company and front of house.”
“We’re not into titles or degrees much here,” Loomis says with a shrug. “It all works as a collective, with a lot of teamwork.” She mentions chef Erica Rowe and prep chef Liza Myers, whom she calls “the backbone of our kitchen.”
Home bakery to restaurant
As many women — and men — in the industry have proved, lack of a culinary degree can be overcome, and having one isn’t a golden ticket. Achieving success as a restaurant owner requires grueling hours and single-minded dedication. If you’re a parent — especially a single parent — you also need a support system to take up the slack for a lack of professional child care geared to the odd hours of the hospitality industry.
When Sweet Monkey Café & Bakery owner Hollie West was a child, she wanted an Easy Bake oven for Christmas. “My mom said, ‘We have a real oven you can play with,’ and so I did.” The old-school Betty Crocker cookbook from which she improvised a recipe for crusty white bread eventually led her to culinary school at the Art Institute of Seattle.
West focused on the savory track in school but ended up with postcollege internships and jobs in baking, including a stint as pastry chef at The Savoy in Asheville. She went on to start a bakery out of her home in Marshall, providing breads and desserts for restaurants.
After taking a short break when she had her son, West expanded her client base to include retail. “I was doing five tailgate markets a week, plus catering and some wholesale. I was working in a commercial kitchen at the [Madison County Cooperative] Extension office and running out of physical space to do all of that,” she says. “It was never my goal to own a restaurant, but I needed a bigger place to work, and this space was available.”
With help from her parents, who had moved to Madison County, West launched Sweet Monkey in July 2014. “We opened with the intention of breakfast and lunch because I had a 5-year-old and wanted to still function as a normal human being, which is actually not possible in the restaurant business,” she admits. “Everybody has to adapt.”
Create your own job
Jamie Wade had long held a dream of having her own restaurant, with a specific concept in mind. “I always wanted to open a breakfast and lunch place,” she says. “I love cooking breakfast.”
It was something the Arizona native with a degree in photography did a lot of in the 1990s while working in the massive kitchen at the landmark Commander’s Palace in New Orleans. She remembers that, of the 40 cooks on staff there, usually only four or five were women. “Kitchens at every level of service back then were not friendly places for women.”
From New Orleans, Wade moved to North Carolina’s Outer Banks, spending 12 years working at The Blue Point, a sea-to-table restaurant in the tiny village of Duck. After a divorce, she and her then almost 7-year-old daughter moved to Asheville to be near her parents who could help with child care.
Despite her strong resume and experience, Wade had a difficult job search (which she blames on ageism even more than gender bias). So she tightened up her catering skills working at The N.C. Arboretum and took business courses at Mountain BizWorks, where she was mentored by Short Street Cakes founder Jodi Rhoden.
When the old Asheville Sandwich Co. space inside the Roadrunner/BP Market on Sand Hill Road became available, Wade jumped on it, receiving financing through Mountain BizWorks. “There was a kitchen and equipment, but it all had to be cleaned, and I did it all myself,” she says. “I had three weeks to clean, do the menu, get signage, order product and hire staff. I was so exhausted that the woman who does all our baking and cooks our breakfast basically hired herself in her interview.”
That was three years ago, and on a recent rainy weekday afternoon, half of the 22 seats in Wade’s Sand Hill Kitchen were filled with regulars. The takeaway business for the restaurant’s burgers, Reubens and mainstay chicken sandwich is brisk. “It wasn’t like I always wanted to open a restaurant in a gas station,” Wade admits with a laugh. “But it was a great place to start my first business. It’s affordable, it does well, and there was a real need in this neighborhood for a place like this.”
Although Wade loves her little eatery and its all-scratch-made menu, she does envision bigger things. “Eventually, I also want to open a place with more seats and a more comfortable environment with a bigger kitchen,” she says.
Quality of life
It’s important to chef Robyn Ziegler that customers of her eponymous Ziggy’s Bakery & Deli, which she co-owns with life-partner, Joshua Widner, know her as well as her food. “I like to visit the tables and introduce myself,” she says. “People are surprised that I’m the owner, I think, because I’m a woman and how young I am [she’s 28]. I love that personal touch in a small place.”
Armed with a culinary degree from Johnson & Wales in Rhode Island, the Pennsylvania native came to Asheville to work first at the Biltmore Estate, then The Market Place, where she met Widner. When the two decided to create a healthier quality of life for themselves, they devised a concept to fill a vacuum.
“I thought Asheville was missing a traditional, Northern-style deli with a deli case where you could get fresh-sliced meats and cheeses, pick up a pint of potato salad and get a loaf of fresh-baked bread,” she says. “Or have your deli sandwich built to perfection. I love sandwiches, and Josh loves to bake, so it was perfect.”
The business allows them to set hours that work for them. “We’re still putting in about 80 hours a week each, but we’re actually home eating dinner by 7:30 and have a couple hours to decompress and not talk restaurant,” says Ziegler.
She still dreams restaurant, though. “My strongest food memory is a little restaurant I went to in Paris. There was a chef and two sous chefs, it had less than 20 seats and does a one-seating, seven- or 12-course tasting menu that changes every day. I made so many notes and drawings of the plates on the back of the menu. That is my dream restaurant,” she says. “I’ll get there one day, but meanwhile, I’m putting stuff in between sandwich bread and making it work.”