Did you always want to start a business? Yes, I realized it when I was in the army. After my commanding officer almost got me killed twice through his in own incompetence, I realized I never wanted someone stupider than me to be in charge of me again. So I wanted to start my own business, and I went to law school to prepare myself.
Do you/did you have other ideas of businesses you want/wanted to start or that you think someone else should start? Any that you’d be willing to share? To be frank, we’ve gone through a pretty creative phase at TOPO with the Great Room and the distillery. We are still in the launching phase with all of this.
I think that Chapel Hill needs a bakery: a full-on artisan bakery. That would be nice.
I like the idea of local products. With our distillery, I can imagine trying to do a Chapel Hill/ Carrboro version of Irish Cream using Maple View Farms‘ cream and our whiskey. And the best thing is that products can be local and organic without compromising on quality. That’s what fascinates me about the distillery: we make a truly local product. I hope the local factor gets people to try the product, and then the actual product gets them to come back for more.
What’s the best thing about owning a business? There are two things: (1) I love all the people I get to meet. Whether it’s folks on my own team or customers, I get to meet a great group of people. (2) The other thing I like is the endless problem solving. No day is the same, and I really enjoy that.
And then it’s really feeling part of the community, like you’re doing something for the community. The thing that I am absolutely adamant on is that independent restaurants are the repository of our culture.
Any failure or hardship that you’d be willing to share? First of all, I think entrepreneurs are optimists, and optimists never have failures, only learning experiences. One of my biggest learning experiences that was a guiding moment for me was when I opened Top of the Hill on Glenwood and Peace [in Raleigh] in 1999. I realized that I didn’t like being in the restaurant business, but that I liked being in the Chapel Hill business. I ended up selling that business and focusing my efforts on Chapel Hill, because that’s what I love. I love being a part of the community, and splitting my time between both didn’t allow me to truly be part of the community.
What’s the best piece or two of advice you would give to entrepreneurs just starting out? There’s the business of what you do, and there’s the business of running your business. People: don’t ignore the business of running your business because that’s not the sexy part. It’s rarely why someone started their own business, to get into the running the accounts receivable. But you need to really get into that and staff accordingly. And see where your best role is. When I started, I had to do it all. But I’ve been able to attract the best of staff. I’ve seen people who ignore payroll. How the hell can you ignore payroll? You’ve got to have an honest conversation with yourself.
What do you like best about owning a business in the Chapel Hill? The great community; there are lots of interesting people. I feel like we are a large enough community that we have diversity and lots of things going on, but small enough to grasp it, and that’s nice.
It’s inexpensive enough, time and money-wise, that you can personally do more. Without fail, I’m at The Carolina Inn on Friday nights and Weaver Street on Thursdays. It’s just what we do. Carolina football games, all that stuff, is a blast.
What do you like best about being a part of the food community here? I’d be surprised if there is a more supportive and helpful community. I’ve always received a lot of support. I hope I am perceived as someone who gives a lot of support as well.
Anything else you would like to share? In 2004, Top-O became the first southern brewery to put microbrew in a can. I wanted to give an alternative for customers.
Then, I found a canning machine at a beer show. I was shocked to find out the minimum order for cans was 160,000 cans. And so I ended up getting into the beer distribution business. And I realized that I needed to start exploring the idea of expanding and building another brewery. I started to look at building another brewery, much larger than Top-O from a packing perspective. I even seriously debated buying the old Dogfish plant up in Delaware. It was a fifty barrel plant, 250,000 barrels a year. I said to myself, that’s a lot of beer to sell and to develop into a successful marketing plan.
At that point, a minnow of an idea started to swallow the whale of the idea.
After that, I came up with the idea that we could have a true world-class local product. It was a logical step. We are one of the first vodka distilleries and one of the first from-scratch distilleries in the state.