Lake Norman & Mooresville

Starting over in a half-baked economy

Three years ago Eric Greenwell was flying on an airplane when his cell phone rang with news he'd lost his job. The victim of a corporate merger, the career newspaperman (a printing production manager) spent months staring into a jobless abyss.

His three-year road to reinvention led the Huntersville native, 50, to the Midwest and back, before he settled in downtown Mooresville in June, opening Black Velvet Patisserie.

"The first thing you do when you lose your job is panic. I spent seven months looking, and there was just nothing," said Greenwell.

He decided to retrain, moving to Chicago to pursue his lifelong passion for baking. With the full blessing of his wife, Dona, an insurance underwriter in Charlotte, Greenwell studied for six months with world-class pastry chefs at The French Pastry School. They lives off of Shinnville Road.

"I've always baked at home. I enjoy good breads and chocolates. I don't really care for the savory portion of the meal, but I've always enjoyed making desserts," said Greenwell.

Upon graduation, and possessed of elite training from French culinary experts, Greenwell returned to Charlotte, where he again faced long odds and daunting job prospects in an economy that continued to sour. Part-time and as-needed work as an assistant pastry chef among some of Charlotte's finer restaurants left him disillusioned.

"I didn't go to school to pull a dessert out of a box," he said.

When no one would hire him full time, Greenwell knew he had to do something. Take a risk; take that next step, he said to himself.

Since his 2008 layoff, he had been amassing industrial kitchen supplies including ovens and refrigeration. Harboring hope of someday opening his own pastry shop, Greenwell counted himself lucky after he learned of a prime retail space across from the Charles Mack Citizen Center in downtown Mooresville that another bakery had recently vacated. Kitchen sinks were already installed.

Greenwell signed a lease in the spring. And while he consistently turned away a stream of job-seekers looking for supporting roles on his staff, he knew he'd found a match when Megan Cashman walked in.

"I had a lot of people come in looking for jobs, and to have someone come in who's on the same page as you - I know the importance of surrounding myself with good people," said Greenwell.

Cashman, 23, who lives in the Allison Park neighborhood of Mooresville, studied and worked with the chefs at The Biltmore Estate in Asheville before becoming a 2009 graduate of the distinguished pastry program at Johnson and Wales University in Charlotte. Cashman's expertise lies in creating cakes: big cakes, small cakes, wedding cakes and cupcakes, Greenwell said.

"I've found a lot of differences where our backgrounds complement each other," said Cashman, now assistant pastry chef at Black Velvet Patisserie. "My training was all Euro-American, and because (Greenwell's) was very specialized - because it was all French - we've found areas our schools looked over."

Inspired by a pop song title that hints of fine pastry, Greenwell opened Black Velvet Patisserie June 16 at 248 N. Main St.

During the bakery's first three months, profits have steadily increased from week to week, Greenwell said. Some of Mooresville's finer restaurants have discussed having the bakery supply their bread.

"From an entrepreneur's standpoint, I have nowhere to go but up," said Greenwell.

Greenwell's bakery has wi-fi and a giant glass see-through kitchen window, where customers can watch Cashman, bakery coordinator Kathryn Lathrop and Greenwell prepare the shop's signature delicacies.

To lounge inside the bakery's indoor café is to watch Greenwell engage in nearly constant interplay with merchants and local who stop in for a chat or in constant hand-waving at pedestrians on the sidewalk outside. In June Greenwell was guest speaker at the Quilter's Loft, which hosts a monthly gathering of downtown merchants.

"Marketing is more important than I ever thought it would be," he said.

Inside his shop and baking by 5 a.m., Greenwell keeps the bakery's doors open 52 hours each week.