To The Nines: Aaron Thomas

Co-founder of Nine Mile

To The Nines: Aaron Thomas

Written by Shawndra Russel | Photos by Evan Anderson

Acclaimed Asheville Nine Mile restaurant continues to expand, most recently opening a third location in South Asheville.

Upon meeting Aaron Thomas, the hard-hustling co-owner of Asheville’s Nine Mile, there’s an instant likability that defines the Nine Mile culture and keeps employee turnover low in an industry that typically sees at least a 61% turnover rate (even higher for front-line workers). Now with three locations—the original in Montford, which doubled its footprint in 2017 when the owners acquired the next door space formerly occupied by Harmony Interiors; the West Asheville location, in the central section of Haywood Road, which opened in 2013; and the newest in South Asheville in Biltmore Park Town Square that opened in the spring of 2019—Thomas takes it all in stride even as they embark on two new ventures: a line of sauces, and the Nine Mile brewery, both slated to be up and running in 2020.

With so much going on, you might think Thomas would be showing signs of stress, but he continues to just “roll with it all… My mom asked me recently, ‘When are you gonna stop?’, and I said, ‘If opportunity comes and I have the energy, I am going to give it a shot. We take what the universe gives us.’” He and his business partner, Nate Ray, whom Thomas met in Colorado and then happened to end up in Asheville shortly after Ray made the move here, continue to run the show, stepping in most days wherever they’re most needed and still rolling up their sleeves in the kitchen to fill in that day’s gaps.

“There’s no formula really,” he continues. “We just do what needs to be done. We’ll wash dishes, we’ll plunge toilets, dust ceiling fans, clean the dirtiest, nastiest corner, grease, whatever. We cover shifts: ‘I will work for you Thursday night, no problem’ approach. We do whatever it takes.”

They’ve opted not to hire a GM in their 11 years in business, even with the three locations, and prefer to keep their fingers on the pulse of what’s going on with the business day-to-day and trust their senior employees as managers. “I’ve always been the kind of guy where I don’t want to talk bad about positions, but I have never understood the guy with the clipboard and tie who never cooked, doesn’t do any dishes,” Thomas explains, adding, “We say, ‘We’re all in this together.’ If I have to step into the battlefield, I’m not wearing my fancy shoes. We’ll battle with our people. The ones that are most responsible get a key, anything they need. Eventually, we might have to hire a regional manager, who has worked here and come up through the ranks.”

In some ways, their story has been a dream, with everything seemingly falling into place every step of the way, but it really boils down to Thomas and Ray having built a positive company culture and trusted brand that keeps all three restaurants busy regularly. Now, with around 100 employees, Thomas recalls the early doubters when he told people he was opening a Caribbean-inspired pasta joint in the Montford neighborhood. “There was a lot of chatter in town: ‘They’ll never make it, who’s going to eat Caribbean pasta…’, chefs making bets on how long we would last. People were saying, ‘You’re in Montford, you gotta do sandwiches and fries,’ and we just said to the doubters, ‘Come see us when we open,’” he says.

Red Lobster Beginnings

Thomas’ confidence came from years of cutting his teeth at Red Lobsters, Little Caesars, Hardees, and a corporate steakhouse, but he credits four gigs in particular for getting him to where he is today: “My first job was cleaning kennels. They would have me clean up all the poop out of all 50 kennels and 2/3 of the animals were not house trained—literally, shit everywhere—scoop it all up, clean them all out, then come back through and clean again. I can still smell it!” he says, laughing. But it was his job at Rasta Pasta in Colorado, where Thomas moved after graduating from Penn State, that inspired the menu and flavors found at Nine Mile today. “The owner and I were supposed to do some restaurants together—that’s a whole other story—so I moved to Asheville thinking we were going to do something. After a while, I thought, ‘Nah, forget about it.’ Nine Mile is modeled after that restaurant; our flow and kitchen setup are similar to the Rasta Pasta setup. The whole idea came from it.”

His love of reggae music and an inspiring trip to Jamaica during his junior year of college piqued his interest to experiment with Caribbean cuisine after growing up “eating standard American food—my mom taught me all that—then after moving here, I went to the Asheville library and checked out every book on pasta Caribbean flavors. I would tinker around the kitchen and had my test eaters that would say yay or nay.”

But it’s his job working as a line cook at a locally owned waffle shop during college that he credits for preparing him for anything the restaurant business can throw his way. “That place was crazy. I’d go in at 5AM after falling asleep at 3AM. It was always so busy, line out the door, one-half a block long, all day, every day. You worked until 5AM to 3-4PM. I’m surprised I made it through that,” he says, grinning. A gig cooking for a dude ranch in Colorado was also influential. “Those owners were pretty crazy. I would just cook six days a week, stayed for free, no bills, had about 80 seats in it. There was a neighborhood behind it, and those people had nowhere else to go.” He proudly shares that most cooks only lasted for three months: “But I made it eight.”

That grit came in handy at his arguably most important restaurant experience at the former Lucky Otter in West Asheville, located just a stone’s throw from Nine Mile’s West Asheville location. He started out making just $5.50 an hour and within a year was running the place. It’s here that Thomas met whom he credits for making Nine Mile possible, Roland Knoll, who passed away in 2016 after battling cerebellar ataxia. Knoll had asked Thomas if he wanted to start a restaurant early on after a buddy had raved about the food at Rasta Pasta, but it wasn’t until Thomas and Ray had already decided to try and do it on their own—after being denied loans by three banks—that Knoll approached him again about finally opening a place. “He did his thing, got us the loan, and helped us buy the Montford building. We had an equal partnership; Roland had knowledge of restaurants with two successful places, Nate was a nice guy who had a good work ethic, and I had the idea.”

The Right Team

Knoll also convinced Thomas to buy a house in 2004, which became instrumental for pulling out capital after they purchased the building; the partners quickly ran into all kinds of hiccups after the building had sat empty for one-and-a-half years and the owner had turned down their original offer, only to come back a couple of months later and accept it. “We thought it was going to be easy,” reflects Thomas, “but there were broken pies, leaks, no water barrier paper… There was a little bulge in the floor, so we had to replace the whole thing!” Knoll also convinced Thomas and Ray to keep going when they hit a rough streak in 2008 after Hurricane Gustav hit and forced Asheville to close its gas pipelines.

“The Montford Music Festival happened three days after we opened, and customers had no idea how bad the kitchen was, but people liked it and came back. Then, the economy crashed, and the phones stopped ringing. Then, the gas was turned off, and we only did $300 in business one day, so we had a powwow and talked about closing, but Roland said, ‘Keep going,’ and every year since has been nonstop growth. He was a role model for us—whatever Roland said, goes. He was a big personality.”

Thomas says Roland’s legacy certainly lives on through Nine Mile’s continued success, and he gives big props to his family, too, as both his sisters and his mom work with him. His wife, June Thomas, is a graphic designer for national brands who designed Nine Mile’s original menu about five years before Nine Mile even opened; she serves as Aaron’s first sounding board. (“She’s the saver. Without her, I wouldn’t have had the capital.”) They share a brightly painted Montford home next to Nine Mile as their offices, and she’s the reason Thomas went for opening location number three. “We were down at Biltmore Park on a movie date, and I see the burger place, BT Burgers, was closed, and I turn to June and say, ‘What do you think about Nine Mile down here?’ ‘That would kill it,’ she said.”

Then, as Thomas puts it, it was as simple as having the lease manager come over to eat at Nine Mile: “He said, ‘It was packed, and we loved it, and we’d love to have you.’”

June and Aaron initially started off as just friends, as June was living with her then-boyfriend along with Nate and Nate’s partner. “I saw this little dreaded girl come down the steps,” says Aaron, “and asked Nate about her, but they didn’t break up for a few years.” Soon after Aaron and June had started dating years later, Knoll pushed Aaron to buy that house, so he asked her to move in, and she quickly started urging him to finally open the restaurant he’d been talking about. “‘You’re doing it’,” he recalls her saying, soon after they moved in together. Today, they have two sons, ages nine and four, who Thomas says have “diverse palates” and like to cook. “If they were to pursue this,” he explains, “they could, but I just want them to be happy and be nice to people—whatever they do, that’s all I care about. I’m also trying to teach them how success takes hard work, sacrifice, and dedication.”

A strict no-drama policy has also been crucial to their success, and that has encouraged employees to stay on and work their way up through the Nine Mile ranks. Explains Thomas, “I think Nate and [my] persona and energy have attracted like-minded people. I have worked in a lot of kitchens with lots of drama, yelling, wars, disrespect between front and back houses… If we ever sense that, we squash it immediately. If you want to be a part of this, you need to straighten up or get fired.” He also shares a favorite phrase one of his first employees shared with him: “‘You know what they say about restaurant workers: They’re one step away from carnies!’ Good people. I love them.”

Thomas will, however, readily admit that sometimes, running the business side of things can be trying. “My whole thing is, I am a kitchen person. I love the high pace, I love making beautiful food, but I have a hard time managing people. I’m such a nice guy and don’t want to tell them what they are doing wrong. That’s the hardest part for me—being the bad guy. We’re too nice, but it’s what makes us successful, too. We’ve often heard, ‘I don’t want to leave you guys,’ when employees move on.”

The nice-guys reputation has certainly worked in their favor with the opening and staffing of their latest location. “In the beginning, no one ever left, but with so many restaurants—and they’re all so good—it’s hard. But I think with [Nine Mile South] opening up and winning awards for most popular restaurant, people are coming over to us. And then we’ll get a new employee from somewhere, and they’ll bring over friends from their old restaurants because they like working here.”

Building A Team

Nine Mile started off with just eight dishes, but today, the menu features more than 30 items consisting of chicken, seafood, and vegetarian dishes—no ‘hooves or grooves,’ aka pork or beef. It’s a concept that stems from the Rastafarian culture that has influenced Thomas so much. They source ingredients from local outlets like Smiling Hera Tempeh, and they tell Mountain Foods to give them as much local product as possible. Thomas has also noticed the trend of Sysco getting more local goods, too. “We also use a local salmon fisherwomen who [sources her catch] in Bristol Bay, Alaska. We probably don’t do as much as others, but we do our best, with how involved Nate and I are in the day-to-day operations.” He adds, with a laugh, that he had tried to pare down the menu a bit over the years, but every time he tries to take a dish off that menu, staff and fans shut him down.

He has also given his chefs some leeway with the daily specials, especially at the new South location. “The new chefs are really gung-ho; they’ve been trying a lot of new stuff. They did grilled octopus recently, and I don’t even know how to cook that! I say, as long as it looks good and tastes nice, go for it, but be sure to take care of the Nine Mile dishes before you start getting really creative.” Their most popular dish continues to be Cool Runnings, a combination of chipotle gouda queso, mushrooms, peppers, tomatoes, and Cajun chicken.

Thomas notes that Nine Mile’s future brewmaster has worked at the Montford location for years; he recently finished up the brewing program at Blue Ridge Community College and is now doing an internship of sorts at Oyster House Brewing. “I said, ‘Harry, you’re representing a very big brand here and they need to be exemplary.’ He gets it. We’ve tried two of his beers so far, and they got Nate’s approval—he’s the beer guy.” (Thomas adds that he’s always wanted to brew beer, but didn’t know how to go about it until he nudged Harry to go through the Blue Ridge program. When asked if he’s concerned about entering the already-crowded local craft beer scene, he shrugs his shoulders: “Nine Mile has some pull. We’ve been building this reputation for 11 years.”)

The future is certainly bright for Nine Mile as the owners are open to employees rising through the ranks and opening their own Nine Mile locations. Thomas has even toyed with the idea of starting a Nine Mile hemp company. But, he confesses, “I think I’m stressed every day because my mind never stops. Now it’s three restaurants, life—Nine Mile things. I am learning to let things go and try not to fix every problem in my head, but I’ll be laying there at 2AM with another big idea.”

Nine Mile fans—and there are plenty of them in Asheville, the larger Western North Carolina region, and beyond—certainly hope Thomas, Ray, and their crews continue to churn out the tasty ideas for years to come. The occasional long waits for customers to be seated during busy hours at all three locations suggests just that, and Thomas doesn’t take the support lightly.

“I always give thanks to Asheville for being so loving to us,” he says, “because in the beginning, like I said, people were taking bets against us, my mom said I was crazy, in-laws are like, ‘What are you doing?!?’ Montford residents were saying, ‘We want sandwiches and french fries!’ I just give thanks to Asheville for the love and the support. And I feel like we’ve earned it by perfecting our menu and process and everything.

“And I’m never one to leave well enough alone.”

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