ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) — Some who switch careers midstream and get into restaurants on a lark flounder. Others seem well-suited for the transition.
Bob Byron falls into the latter category. The Naval Academy graduate and retired Navy captain once commanded the guided-missile destroyer USS Pinckney, named after a navy cook who earned a Purple Heart in WWII for rescuing crew members during the Battle of Santa Cruz.
Byron followed that job with a position at General Atomics, which manufactures predator drones, managing billion-dollar contracts with the Air Force.
Now he’s one of several owners of Rye Knot, a brewery-distillery hybrid in North Asheville with a menu of elevated pub food. This is his first hospitality project and his first formal stab at brewing and distilling since completing the Brewing, Distillation and Fermentation A.A.S. course at A-B Tech.
“It’s just another system, if you will,” Byron said. “There’s a system and there’s a process, and basically my whole life has been engineering-centric. This was a way to apply that skill.”
This was a way also to reinvent himself.
‘MOUNTAINS CALLED ME BACK’
In the fall of 2015, Byron’s middle child Bobby Byron, then 22, died after being hit by a car. “He was growing to be a hell of a man, and I’m missing all of that now,” Byron said.
“It had me reevaluate what was important, and the mountains called me back,” said Byron, who was born in Asheville.
He asked his financial guy if he could retire at 54. With his GI Bill benefits expiring, Byron decided he’d use them in a creative way: brew school.
He felt like a kid in a candy store, he said, trying his hand at making sake, wine and mead and distilling bourbon, brandy and a single-malt whiskey.
“They turned out fantastic, and I was like, ‘Maybe I can do this,’” Byron said.
Soon after, he signed on to join in on a project called Gudger’s, but the partner who favored that name backed out of the business. Suddenly Byron was the sole proprietor of a bar he never knew he wanted.
“I was kind of all alone in the middle of an island with a lot of anxiety and no partner,” he said. “I’d wake up making lists at 2 a.m. and then get up and go to work. It made me a little crazy for a while.”
Two veterans of the Asheville restaurant scene, Jimi Rentz, of Barley’s and Salvage Station, and Danny Scully, of Mountain Madre, stepped in to help, and Byron renamed the bar Rye Knot after a marketing project he’d created in his A-B Tech brewing class.
Ed Greene and Joann Hartmann round out the ownership group.
A NEW CHEF, AND THEN A NEW CHALLENGE
Shortly thereafter, Ben Dunbar, a former Biltmore Estate chef and a military veteran who worked as a parachute rigger right out of high school, joined the team.
Dunbar, a Western North Carolina native who also went to A-B Tech, was once the co-owner of The Asheville Commissary, a restaurant he ran with Farm to Fender chef Jeremiah Jackson.
After that, Dunbar joined Rise N Shine Cafe, where he worked for three years before stepping down after an ownership change.
He accepted a head chef gig with Rye Knot, with a start date in March. Then COVID-19 entered the picture.
Dunbar, a single father of 8- and 6-year-old boys, couldn’t file for unemployment because he’d just quit his job and had yet to start a new one.
Byron offered him half his salary to wait on hold until the restaurant could reopen, and Dunbar agreed. “I’d help him build tables just to get some hours in,” Dunbar said.
Now that the restaurant is finally opened, Dunbar delights in making house-ground burgers, sausages and the smoked meatloaf that’s won the North Asheville neighborhood over.
Dunbar said kitchens can be like the military in that everyone performs a crucial role, no matter where they stand in the hierarchy. The success of the team, he said, depends on finding the right combination of people.
“When you get the right group of people, it works well,” he said. “And right now we’ve got that.”
“I’m so pleased I found him,” Byron said of Dunbar. “Everything comes out first class all the way.”
WHISKEY IN THE BARREL
There are better times to open a bar and restaurant than in the middle of a pandemic. Still, Byron said the space, with its expansive patio with room for 60 and refurbished open interior, including a brand-new hood system, is safe by design.
Now, Byron said, the biggest question he gets isn’t who redid the former El Chapala space — it’s RedHouse Architecture, a favorite of local restaurants and breweries — it’s whether he plans to get heaters to keep the patio open year-round during COVID.
Meanwhile, Byron is brewing away and expects to have 4-6 of his own “Captain Bob” beers on a 16-tap system in the coming months. The first to hit the tap is a dry low-ABV stout Byron likens to Guinness, though he doesn’t have a nitro system.
There are plenty of spirits at the bar from other distilleries, with a menu of house cocktails including a smoked-rye Old Fashioned.
But Byron’s own house-made spirits are in the works. He’s in the process of aging some whiskey, with rye, bourbon, corn and single-malt styles to come. Though most of it has two years to go, a small batch of rye should be ready by Thanksgiving.
Brewery-distillery hybrids, though increasingly popular, are rare. To Byron’s knowledge, this is the first for Asheville.
“I could never had imagined myself as the captain of this ship, I’ll tell you that,” he said.