ATKINSON — In 1998, several years into a medical device career in Virginia, Cort Mendez decided he needed back-of-the-house experience if he ever wanted to realize his dream of opening a restaurant.
So two nights a week for a year, even as he kept his day job, he worked in the kitchen at a local TGI Fridays.
“I learned a lot about what I wanted to do and what I thought I would try and stay away from,” he recalled Wednesday night.
Mendez brought Five Guys to New Hampshire and is trying to do the same with Krispy Kreme. Unorthodox or circuitous routes to success were a dominant theme as he and other business owners shared their stories at a Greater Salem Chamber of Commerce Executive Exchange.
Amy LaBelle of LaBelle Winery in Amherst was also happily employed in another field — working as in-house legal counsel for Fidelity Investments — when she serendipitously stumbled on a tiny winery on a vacation in Nova Scotia, she told the crowd at Atkinson Resort and Country Club.
“I went into this place, and it just hit me like a ton of bricks,” she said. “You know, I had the angels appear, and the lightning bolts hit.”
She couldn’t focus on anything else for the rest of the trip besides planning her future business. But she had $103,000 in outstanding student loan debt and no wine-making experience. So LaBelle and her husband spent years planning and then growing the business customer by customer and bottle by bottle.
Now their campus on Route 101 includes a ballroom, a full-service restaurant and acres of vines and vegetables. But the LaBelles’ ambitions are still growing, with an “artisan culinary village” across the street — an inn, a distillery, a spa and more — in the preliminary planning stages.
Peter Egelston of Smuttynose Brewing Co. and the Portsmouth Brewery fell into craft brewing almost by chance: He was working as a teacher in New York City when he ordered a home-brew kit on a whim out of a magazine. Later, at the prodding of his sister, he opened a brewpub with her in Massachusetts.
They soon made their way to Portsmouth, which they fell for despite some warnings that it was a dying town.
And for Mendez, the idea to become a Five Guys franchise owner came when he was sitting in one of the restaurants in the D.C. area. He called the company to ask if the rights for New Hampshire, which he’d always loved, were available. By 2009, he had opened one in Nashua, and quickly expanded to 10 across the state.
Now, he’s taking a major gamble by trying to infiltrate the Dunkin’ Donuts market with some forthcoming Krispy Kreme stores in New Hampshire and Maine.
Mendez said he was persuaded by Krispy Kreme’s newly reorganized business model, the smiles it brings to people’s faces, and its focus on doughnuts — unlike Dunkin’ Donuts, whose primary focus these days is on coffee and breakfast sandwiches.
Egelston, LaBelle and Mendez all epitomized innovative thinking and entrepreneurship, said Mike Morin, who hosted the discussion. “You look beyond the obvious,” he remarked, “and see what can be.”
LaBelle and Mendez, who both have kids, said balancing work and family can be difficult. But despite the longer hours, “owning my own business gives me a lot more freedom, without a doubt, than working for somebody else,” LaBelle said.
And though all three business owners pursued their visions with drive and a lot of elbow grease, they also acknowledged the role that timing or geography can play in success. LaBelle had to go to five banks at the height of the post-recession doldrums to get financing.
Egelston said New Hampshire does a bad job of promoting its brand — in-state craft beers, for example, have a smaller market share here than in other states.
But Egelston added that he’s hopeful the situation is starting to change. “There really is kind of a growing pride of place in New Hampshire that honestly I saw no signs of 10 years ago.”