First things first
Hunger is a human need that trumps even sleep. So perhaps it’s not surprising that one of the first Asheville businesses Julian Price funded got its start as a small vegetarian lunch counter in the basement of the YMCA. Joan Cliney-Eckert had borrowed $10,000 from her mother to launch the venture in 1991. It caught on immediately, and Price became a tempeh-sandwich regular.
“One day, Julian asked if I’d thought about expanding,” Cliney-Eckert remembers. “He said, ‘I’ll send my lawyer to talk to you.’” Cliney-Eckert’s then husband, Joe Eckert, found Price’s interest “fishy,” she says. And when Pat Whalen showed up and said Price wanted to lend them money, the Eckerts listened politely but did nothing.
Whalen pressed harder. “With our faces 2 feet apart, he said, ‘Look at my eyes,’” Eckert recalls. “‘Come to a meeting at PIP at 3 this Thursday.’ I started to laugh. He said again, ‘You’re looking at my eyes, right?’”
At the meeting, Price sat quietly while Whalen explained their proposal: PIP would lend the Eckerts money to open a vegetarian restaurant (preferably within two blocks of Price’s apartment, which backed onto Wall Street). “The arrangement was casual: no background checks, no signed documents,” Cliney-Eckert recalls. “‘If it doesn’t work out,’ they said, ‘you don’t have to pay the money back.’”
Whalen and Karen Ramshaw, vice president of Public Interest Projects, studied the restaurant business so they could pass on information to the Eckerts. “We had restaurant classes at PIP once a week,” says Cliney-Eckert. “And we were learning from a guy [Whalen] who knew nothing about restaurants except that he had 12 books on the subject!”
The restaurant, renamed after an Indonesian seed said to make people laugh, opened on Wall Street in June 1993. On the first morning, Eckert swung back the doors to find 12 hungry people waiting outside.
“The biggest thing was the encouragement of Julian and the solid business sense that Pat had,” says Eckert. “We were blessed.”
Since its inception, the Laughing Seed Café has been named the best vegetarian restaurant in WNC by readers of both the Asheville Citizen-Times and Mountain Xpress and has been written up in national publications, including The New York Times, Southern Living and Vegetarian Times.
A roost for readers
In 1995, rumors flew that Barnes & Noble was arriving in Asheville, making the staff at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café blanch. The downtown icon had occupied a cramped space on Haywood Street since 1982. Perpetually crammed with books and customers, there was no room for offices, except for the bookkeeper’s cubbyhole. Jane Voorhees, then the store’s manager, held one-on-one meetings by the mailbox outside the front door.
But just as owner Emoke B’Racz was despairing of shoehorning one more book onto the shelves, Pat Whalen appeared. “He said, ‘Someone is interested in buying the corner building if you move into the first floor,’” remembers B’Racz. “It was in shambles. No one had been in it for years but pigeons and tiny creatures.”
She could imagine Malaprop’s in the old Asheville Hotel building but feared she couldn’t afford the space, says Ramshaw. Meanwhile, B’Racz, Voorhees and Mel Nelis, the bookkeeper, considered converting Malaprop’s into a specialty bookstore. “Pat said, ‘That has bankruptcy written all over it,’” recalls Voorhees, now a watercolor/pastel artist.
Believing that Malaprop’s was an essential part of downtown’s appeal, Julian Price and Whalen offered a rent that would drop in slow times and rise in flush ones. B’Racz and her colleagues agreed to move, but other hurdles remained. When B’Racz applied for a loan to pay for fixtures and increased inventory, she was turned down. “Banks don’t like bookstores,” says the business’s founder, who responded by closing her bank accounts.
Refusing to admit defeat, B’Racz wrote to longtime customers asking for money. Some made short-term loans; others prepaid their accounts for the coming year. If they’d spent $600 in the store during the previous year, for instance, they might prepay that amount, Voorhees explains. Within a week, customers had lent B’Racz thousands of dollars. And during the actual move, devoted patrons formed a human chain to relay the books from the original store to its new space half a block away.
“What Julian understood is that small businesses need help from time to time,” says B’Racz. “Our kind of bookstore is a cultural center. If it thrived, none of the corporate stores could take the soul of our city.”
In 2000, Publishers Weekly named the store Bookseller of the Year. And after repeatedly scoring Best Bookstore and Best Place to Hear Poetry honors in Mountain Xpress’ annual readers poll, Malaprop’s won entry to the paper’s Hall of Fame.
Ear to the ground
In 1998, Be Here Now, a 235-seat music club on Biltmore Avenue, closed, dealing a serious blow to Asheville’s downtown club scene. Pat Whalen, a music lover, knew that a club big enough to draw national acts had to be on Public Interest Projects’ wish list. Music clubs weren’t Julian Price’s passion, but he trusted Whalen.
“Julian said, ‘I’ll put in the money, but I’m not going,’” remembers Karen Ramshaw, PIP’s vice president. “Julian wasn’t trying to create his personal Disneyland.”
With Price’s understated blessing, Whalen began to hunt for a building. A boarded-up auto parts warehouse on Biltmore had had as many lives as a cat — as a National Guard armory, a roller skating rink, a rhythm and blues nightclub, and finally a warehouse. Looking past the shag carpet and dropped ceiling, Whalen saw potential: Above the ceiling tiles stood impressive barrel-vault steel trusses that allowed the big space to be clear of columns, providing great sightlines from anywhere in the room.
PIP leased the building and began renovations, turning it into a club with room for 950 on-their-feet music fans. Whalen hired Jack and Lesley Groetsch, formerly of top-rated New Orleans music venue The Howlin’ Wolf, to manage the venture.
“The couple was instrumental in thinking through things like equipment and layout,” says Liz Whalen Tallent, the Asheville club’s marketing and special events manager since 2006. The Groetsches rechristened the space The Orange Peel Social Aid & Pleasure Club, reviving the name of the former R&B club.
But if The Orange Peel’s music was smooth, the income stream was rocky. “The club was slowly going out of business,” says Tallent, and “the Groetsches agreed to step out.”
At that point, Whalen was running the music venue, assisted by six managers, each with a different expertise. “When Pat hired me in 2007, he was working at the club from 10 a.m. to 2 a.m.,” remembers operations manager Justin Ferraby. The youthful new management team was determined to earn Whalen’s trust.
The turning point came in May 2007 when The Smashing Pumpkins, one of the ’90s most successful alternative rock bands, agreed to a nine-day residency. “It put us on the musical map,” says Ferraby.
These days, PIP shares the profits with managers via annual bonuses, says Melissa Buerckholtz, a PIP accountant who oversees the club’s books. The Orange Peel now sells 110,000 tickets a year, and half of its patrons are out-of-towners who also empty their wallets on lodging and food.
“Julian Price could have gone anywhere to invest his money,” says Ferraby. “His foresight was to see Asheville for what it was. Pat has taken that responsibility on through respect for Price. And the next generation has that respect for Pat. Our goal, too, is to support local businesses and rally behind each other.”
In 2008, The Orange Peel was named one of the top five music clubs in the United States by Rolling Stone, and in 2014, the club was nominated by Pollstar for Nightclub of the Year honors.
Back in 1997, Don Davis owned NewEraCom Technologies, a computer installation and repair business on Ravenscroft Drive. At the time, local Internet access was dial-up only. “I thought, there’s opportunity here,” says Davis, so he created the area’s first wireless link for the Mountain Area Information Network, a local nonprofit.
Soon after, Davis installed wireless for Public Interest Projects, impressing both Pat Whalen and Julian Price, “even though, technically speaking, Julian was a Luddite,” says Davis. At Whalen’s suggestion, Davis started a second company providing wireless Internet service, and Whalen recruited Jane Hatley and Eleanor Ashton, who owned a marketing consulting company called Business Works.
Whalen hired Hatley as CEO and Ashton as director of marketing. Davis became president and chief technical officer. “NewEraCom was like a frat house with a bunch of geeks, but we realized the great potential,” says Hatley. “Don had all these fabulous ideas about getting wireless to different markets.”
The new company was named Skyrunner, a play on Roadrunner, a popular Internet company launched by Time Warner Cable in 1995.
“We went to ISPCON, a major Internet conference, and Don dressed up as Skyrunner Man,” remembers Hatley. Using old Legos and action figures belonging to Ramshaw’s son, Whalen created a diorama in which Skyrunner figures battled dinosaurs (representing large companies like Motorola). “Hardly sophisticated marketing,” says Ramshaw. “But the tech geeks at the conference loved it. It was also cost-effective, one of Pat’s favorite things.”
The next two years were heady, with Davis literally climbing mountains to reset antennas. “It was the Wild West days of the Internet,” says Hatley. “We were the first company to put wireless in cafés and in airports. People from all over came to woo us.”
Still, the company was spending more than it made, and Davis was concerned about PIP’s $1 million investment: “I knew how generous Julian was, and I wanted him repaid,” Davis explains.
In 1999, Nupremis, a Colorado venture capital startup, offered to buy Skyrunner for about $1.3 million. “They saw us as a small tool to put in their pockets,” says Davis. The buyer agreed to hire Davis and Hatley at double their salaries plus stock options. “We were going to be millionaires,” remembers Hatley.
But in 2000, the dot-com bubble burst. A limping Nupremis sold Skyrunner back to Davis for $45,000. Today, the company serves 3,000 customers in Western North Carolina and part of South Carolina, and its growth has been a key aspect of Price and Whalen’s legacy.
“We called Julian ‘The Wizard of Oz,’” says Hatley. “We weren’t always sure he existed. I expected a master puppeteer pulling strings. Instead, he was this gentle, kind, shy person. I admire him tremendously for what he did for this town.”
— Dorothy Foltz-Gray