It started during his morning commute – a tightness in the chest, shortness of breath, clenched jaws and an overall sense of disorientation. So by the time Charlotte-area restaurant owner Kirk Weaver got to his shop, he knew something bad was happening.
Aside from death itself, sudden and debilitating illness is one of the threats that small business owners generally fear most. Who will do all the necessary work if the owner goes down sick?
But not all such stories end in despair. In the case of Weaver, majority owner of Lebowski’s Neighborhood Grill on East Boulevard in Charlotte, when a heart attack clipped his wings in late 2014, his family – especially his two daughters who own a minority stake in the business – rallied to save what they had built collectively.
Weaver, now 62, said the ordeal confirmed what he had long suspected.
“I have an awesome family, and I picked the right business partners,” he said.
A move from Buffalo
Weaver, who grew up in a Polish-Italian family on the west side of Buffalo, N.Y., moved to Charlotte in 1978 on the leading edge of what would become a large, southward migration.
A year after his arrival, following in the footsteps of his father back home, he opened a sandwich shop on Tyvola Road near Interstate 77. He called it SRO for Standing Room Only. The business did well, he said, and two years later he expanded, renaming the business Standing Room Only Pub & Deli.
“It was a little shout out to my Buffalo days,” he said. “We were kind of known for being the first with wings in town – Buffalo wings.”
Weaver said he owned that business for seven years, then sold it to start a second restaurant, Township Grill in Matthews, which he owned for the next 10 years.
“It was a great success with the community,” he said. “A lot of the expats from the Northeast found it to be a lot like what they were used to back home.”
As more Buffalo residents moved South, Weaver said, his Matthews restaurant became their hangout, a place to watch their beloved Buffalo Bill play football each Sunday via satellite.
But after a while, Weaver said, operating the restaurant began to take a toll, so he sold it and took a corporate job, where he perceived the work would be less stressful.
Then came the Great Recession of 2008, which led to a layoff and long-term unemployment.
It was during that time, Weaver said, that he approached his daughters -- Jessica Van Tassel, now 40, and Amy Winchester, now 31 – about opening a restaurant they’d jointly own.
“We were all looking for something beyond what we were doing,” he said, “so we decided to try something together.”
A family affair
Lebowski’s, patterned after the neighborhood grills Weaver knew growing up, opened in 2009, smack into the teeth of an economic storm.
“We were uphill against the wind in two feet of snow, it felt like,” Weaver recalled. “We had to get some traction, and it took a little while, but everybody was in the same boat we were in, and we just stuck with it.”
Van Tassel and Winchester said they had no concerns about going into business with their father.
They agreed in advance on a division of labor and how they’d settle potential conflicts: Weaver would have the final say and oversee the kitchen; Van Tassel would keep the books and help on the floor; Winchester, the youngest daughter, would hire the floor staff and oversee floor operations.
“He had done this before, and we had not,” Van Tassel said. “So we definitely leaned on him a lot. He knew what he was doing.”
Eventually, as the economy improved, so did business at Lebowski’s, which has also become a gathering spot for Bills fans.
A new thing in Indian Land
With the restaurant doing well, Weaver said he decided to step away somewhat to start another of his own, in Indian Land. He called it Trifecta Grill.
Less than a year later, he suffered a heart attack.
Winchester said she had just come back from buying olive oil when her older sister broke the news.
Later that day at their father’s hospital bed, the sisters and their father began to talk business.
“We were all in the room making a list of what we needed to do, how we needed to prepare, what kind of changes were going to take place and what we needed to help him with,” Winchester recalled.
The first decision they made was to close Trifecta.
“He was running that place with very minimal staff, and his hours were from open to close, every day,” Winchester said. “It wasn’t possible for it to be run without him.”
As for Lebowski’s, the sisters were now on their own.
“Everybody stepped up and took everything to heart and helped me relax through my rehab…took some of the pressure off and made it easier for me to focus on getting better,” Weaver said.
“It was an amazing instant, like, ‘We got this,’” he added. “Their focus was as much on me as the business, making sure I didn’t worry and that they had my back. So I did not, from the beginning, have any doubts.”
Van Tassel credits the training they already had received from their father.
“We were motivated to keep him as stress-free as possible and have this ‘we can do this’ mentality,” she said.
Winchester gives credit as well to the restaurant’s staff.
“The staff was so inspiring,” she said. “We have so many loyal people who have worked here from the beginning, and they sat with us through really low down times and stuck it out.”
As Weaver continues his recovery, his daughters say they try to shield him from the daily stresses. He goes into the restaurant weekly, he said, but not nearly as often as he typically would.
“It’s more of a short-distance thing – touching base, watching the numbers, doing marketing,” he said. “I’m still active, but at a minimal level.
“Some families, this would have torn them apart or worse,” he added. “With us, we just responded and worked together.