Former Wells Fargo IT worker now feeds ex-colleagues in cafe

After his 25-year career in information technology ended with a layoff in 2009, Fritz Knack was at a crossroads: Try to find another job in a shrinking field that was making him miserable, or take a chance on turning his love of food into a new career.

Today, the 47-year-old Cornelius resident says he’s making a tenth of his previous salary. He’s working in a cafe that serves – of all people – the same bankers who were once colleagues. But he says he couldn’t be happier.

Knack is the lead production cook at Compass Group’s Eurest cafe, located in the Wells Fargo Center near University City on West W.T. Harris Boulevard. He and his wife, Suzette, often live paycheck to paycheck – but Knack said there’s more to life than a large salary.

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An “army brat” growing up, Knack said his family moved a lot and the closest thing he has to a hometown is Blacksburg, Va.

Knack got his degree in mathematics from Radford University with a minor in computer science and trained as a computer maintenance technician during his four years of service with the U.S. Air Force.

During the next two decades, Knack worked for a variety of companies in a number of capacities and different places. He came to Charlotte when he joined First Union Bank in 2000 and said he was a generalist in his field. He’d done everything from PC maintenance to tech support and stayed on when the company merged with Wachovia, and later Wells Fargo.

When he was let go in 2009, Knack said he wasn’t surprised.

“They were a bigger bank with better systems and processes. Everything I did was obsolete,” he said. “But I left on good terms.”

Into the kitchen

Knack had realized about six years ago he enjoyed spending time in the kitchen. While he was still in IT, he took a few courses at Central Piedmont Community College. “I learned a lot but realized I am a pretty good cook.”

Knack spent the next few years working as an IT contractor at jobs that ranged from five weeks long to a year. His first marriage had ended years earlier, and Knack said he continued on the IT path to keep up with child support.

He and Suzette married in 2005 after meeting online, and he credits her with keeping them afloat during the transition.

“She’s had to carry a lot more of the financial burden. I’m making $9.75” an hour, Knack said. “We’ve learned to tighten our belts.”

Suzette is a contract management specialist for a company that deals with medical supplies, maintenance and insurance. She said they realized there would never be “a good time” for him to transition away from IT but was happy to take on the role of breadwinner.

Knack said he briefly considered teaching high school math but had always toyed with the idea of working in a kitchen. He took some more culinary courses, and in 2012 he shadowed his cousin, an executive chef, for a month in Virginia Beach.

Last September, he got a job in the dish pit at 131 Main in Cornelius, one of his favorite places to eat. Though managers told him he’d probably spend three to six months working that job, he advanced to prep cook in 59 days.

Knack spent five months there before he joined the Compass Group in April, where his primary role is to prepare breakfast and lunch for a facility that sees more than 3,000 customers a day.

Knack said he thinks of himself as a home cook in a professional kitchen and has no aspirations of becoming an executive chef.

“That’s just not how I want to live,” he said, adding the long hours and high pressure aren’t appealing.

Suzette said watching the change in her husband has made it all worthwhile.

“We knew at home he was a great cook. He was willing to start at the bottom, learn the kitchen and work his way up,” she said. “Seeing him exhausted, but so happy, with no complaints or frustrations I’m so happy he finally figured out what he wanted to do.”

Now, 20 pounds lighter and no longer suffering from back pain from hours at a computer, Knack wants his future to be in food. Whether it’s writing the great American cookbook, working in food service management or teaching kitchen skills to students as a home economics teacher, he’s leaving his options open.

But Knack knows this much: “If parts of my life hadn’t fallen apart, I’d have been suffering more and more instead of falling into this and being happier and happier every day.”