ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) — Some who switch careers midstream and get into restaurants on a lark flounder. Others seem well-suited for the transition.
Bob Byron falls into the latter category. The Naval Academy graduate and retired Navy captain once commanded the guided-missile destroyer Pinckney, named after a navy cook who earned a Purple Heart in WWII for rescuing crew members during the Battle of Santa Cruz.
Byron was, in fact, the commissioning commanding officer of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer when it was delivered to the Navy in 2003, but his Navy career effectively ended when he was relieved of command in June 2004.
“Relief is due to loss of confidence for professional performance as a commanding officer,” a Navy spokesman told the San Diego Union-Tribune at the time. “It was not due to personal conduct or leadership issues.”
Following his Navy career, Byron went to work for General Atomics, which manufactured MQ-1 Predator drones, managing billion-dollar contracts with the Air Force.
Now he’s one of several owners of Rye Knot, a brewery-distillery hybrid in Asheville with a menu of elevated pub food. This is his first hospitality project and his first formal stab at brewing and distilling since completing the Brewing, Distillation and Fermentation A.A.S. course at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College.
“It’s just another system, if you will,” Byron said. “There’s a system and there’s a process, and basically my whole life has been engineering-centric. This was a way to apply that skill.”
This was a way also to reinvent himself.
In the fall of 2015, Byron’s middle child Bobby Byron, 22, died after being hit by a car. “He was growing to be a hell of a man, and I’m missing all of that now,” Byron said.
“It had me reevaluate what was important, and the mountains called me back,” said Byron, who was born in Asheville.
He asked his financial guy if he could retire at 54. With his GI Bill benefits expiring, Byron decided he’d use them in a creative way: brew school.
He felt like a kid in a candy store, he said, trying his hand at making sake, wine and mead and distilling bourbon, brandy and a single-malt whiskey.
“They turned out fantastic, and I was like, ‘Maybe I can do this,’” Byron said.
Soon after, he signed on to join in on a project called Gudger’s, but the partner who favored that name backed out of the business. Suddenly, Byron was the sole proprietor of a bar he never knew he wanted.
“I was kind of all alone in the middle of an island with a lot of anxiety and no partner,” he said. “I’d wake up, making lists at 2 a.m. and then get up and go to work. It made me a little crazy for a while.”
Two veterans of the Asheville restaurant scene stepped in to help, and Byron renamed the bar Rye Knot after a marketing project he’d created in his A-B Tech brewing class.
Shortly thereafter, Ben Dunbar, a former Biltmore Estate chef and a military veteran who worked as a parachute rigger right out of high school, joined the team.
He accepted a head chef gig with Rye Knot.
Dunbar said kitchens can be like the military in that everyone performs a crucial role, no matter where they stand in the hierarchy. The success of the team, he said, depends on finding the right combination of people.
“When you get the right group of people, it works well,” he said. “And right now we’ve got that.”
“I’m so pleased I found him,” Byron said of Dunbar. “Everything comes out first class all the way.”
Byron’s own house-made spirits are in the works. He’s in the process of aging some whiskey, with rye, bourbon, corn and single-malt styles to come. Though most of it has two years to go, a small batch of rye should be ready by Thanksgiving.
Brewery-distillery hybrids, though increasingly popular, are rare. To Byron’s knowledge, this is the first for Asheville.
“I could never had imagined myself as the captain of this ship, I’ll tell you that,” he said.
Navy Times staff contributed to this story.