8/8/2011 - Joe Eckert sets sights on Weaverville after adding love and life to downtown Asheville
by Dale Neal - Asheville Citizen Times
A GREAT ASHEVILLE SUCCESS STORY - local entrepreneurs have a long-standing habit of creating hundreds of jobs and fueling the economy of Western North Carolina!
ASHEVILLE -- Businesses aren't born every day out of the basement of the YMCA, next to the men's locker room. But Joe Eckert still remembers when the seed got planted that led to a series of successful enterprises that have helped revitalize this city's downtown and beyond.
Twenty years ago, Eckert and his wife, Joan, moved to Asheville from Philadelphia and bought a small snack shop in the Y. Among the lunch crowd frequenting the Eckerts' new eatery was the rather bashful, unassuming Julian Price, heir to an insurance fortune and a recent transplant to Asheville, who wanted to make a difference in his adopted hometown. Price came in two or three times a week for the Eckerts' flavorful vegetarian fare, ordering salads, tempeh melts and veggie burritos.
One day, Price came up to the counter and told the couple: "You know, you should open a full-service vegetarian restaurant, because people would love to eat this for dinner."
Eckert turned to his wife and laughed. "We just looked at each other. You've got to be kidding. From the basement of the Y?"
From that humble beginning was planted Laughing Seed, followed by the Jack of the Wood pub, Green Man Brewery, City Bakery and now Eckert's latest venture -- Jack of Hearts, a new restaurant and pub in Weaverville's up-and-coming downtown.
Looking back, Eckert says he had no master plan to become a serial entrepreneur who would create local landmarks and hundreds of jobs over the years. People he's hired for his restaurants have graduated to their own businesses, setting up eateries up and down the East Coast.
"I like to create great spaces and bring those to the community," Eckert said.
Planting a seed
Price had "an enlightened self-interest" in promoting new restaurants, Malaprop's bookstore and other businesses in downtown.
"Julian wanted to have a vegetarian restaurant in walking distance," said Pat Whalen, head of Public Interest Projects, Price's nonprofit. "He was impressed with Joe and Joan's cooking. They made great food in that little space."
Laughing Seed was the nonprofit's first business investment. "We knew it was risky, frankly, but Julian was trying to do things that banks didn't want to do."
With about a $500,000 investment from the new Public Interest Projects, Laughing Seed opened on Wall Street in June 1993. There were about eight or nine people lined up before the doors even opened, Eckert recalled.
Vegetarianism had plateaued in his native Philadelphia back in the 1970s with healthy -- if dull -- menus. "Our mission was to bring flavors from around the world and replace meat with flavor," Eckert said.
It meant hard work and 12-hour days in the kitchen, but people came, and the Laughing Seed grew in popularity as a dining destination. But bean sprouts weren't enough. Eckert soon had visions of beer and bread, and that led to new businesses.
Sitting in the storage space downstairs from his restaurant, Eckert began to dream of a community pub -- a great place for people to meet over a pint of quality beer.
He renovated the space below Laughing Seed and opened the city's first real brewpub, Jack of the Wood, on Patton Avenue.
And then Eckert reckoned: If you have a place to serve beer, you need a supply of good beer. Why not make your own? And Green Man Brewery was born in the back of the Jack of the Wood.
Along with good brews, Eckert needed quality bread for the Laughing Seed salads and entrees. He started baking loaves in his own kitchen, and invested in ovens and equipment in space downstairs. Customers and other businesses started clamoring for the freshly baked bread, leading to the rise of a separate new business, City Bakery, which moved over to Charlotte Street.
"It's the quality of the product that makes the difference," said Eckert, who has grown interested in the slow-food movement and attended a related international conference in Turin, Italy. "Why not brew your own beer or make your own bread?"
The Eckerts later sold off the Green Man operation as microbreweries began to pop up around downtown, eventually leading to Asheville's reputation as Beer City U.S.A. The couple also sold City Bakery just as artisanal bakeries began to prosper around the region.
At an age when many men are thinking about retirement and in an economy when many businessmen are hedging their bets, Eckert has just launched his latest venture, betting that a new pub could become a new landmark for the growing community north of Asheville.
Weaverville has much of the same magic Eckert first remembers in the Asheville downtown of two decades ago. He's opened up his latest venture -- Jack of Hearts -- in the former fire station on North Main Street. The building dates to 1917 and has over the years served as a stable, a livery and an auto garage before serving briefly as the town's fire station.
Eckert remade the building into a pub like the ones he remembered from his native Philadelphia. Bob Collins, a friend and marketing consultant, calls Jack of Hearts a "gastro pub" with a "quality of food you could expect in New York" or Philly.
Collins likes the feel of Eckert's operations. "It's the place you go for face-to-face conversation. It's a place to get away from behind a computer keyboard."
Jack of Hearts anchors a thriving Main Street that boasts art galleries, shops, restaurants and a bakery. "I hope they have the same success with Jack of Hearts," Whalen said. "Weaverville is on its way to being a cool little town north of Asheville."
It's that feel for community that motivates Eckert in creating businesses. It's the vibe that attracted him first to Asheville, now to Weaverville.
"We're built along small, independent businesses. People living in Chicago and New York are dying to find these kind of places. You come to Asheville to get away from the big urban stream."
And Julian Price would be proud of that seed he planted 20 years ago, offering to back the Eckerts in their first large business, according to Whalen. "Joe and Joan were our first graduates. It the end, we got everything paid off, and they own it 100 percent, and they deserve it," Whalen said.
Public Interest Projects also capitalized on a downtown thriving with interesting local businesses, Whalen explained. "Restaurants like Laughing Seed and pubs like Jack of the Wood add to that vibe of independent businesses that is a lot of Asheville's attraction for people," he said. "It's all part of that local entrepreneurial spirit that's been so important to downtown."