Labor of love: Charlotte couples share a culinary passion
January 29, 2023
by Sharon Smith
photographs by Richard Israel
These Charlotte couples fell in love and started a culinary (or in one case, beer) business together, building a life around their shared passion. So what’s their secret sauce? Each couple shares their recipe on making it work behind the counter and at home — and yes, it involves a careful balance of the right ingredients, just like their favorite dishes.
Alyssa and Andrew Wilen
Owners, Chef Alyssa’s Kitchen
Andrew and Alyssa Wilen opened Chef Alyssa’s Kitchen in 2013. Over the last decade, the business has expanded from cooking classes to include corporate catering and family meals, summer camps and more.
Alyssa and Andrew met at a young professionals’ happy hour at the rooftop of Plaza Midwood’s Whiskey Warehouse. Andrew says he knew instantly when he saw her that Alyssa was the one. The concept for Chef Alyssa’s Kitchen, which the couple launched in 2013, sprouted from their two skill sets. At the time, Andrew was planning events and Alyssa was leading a restaurant kitchen. They recognized a lack of cooking classes in Charlotte, coupled with a strong desire for guests to interact through food-based events.
“We are always together! And we love it,” Alyssa says. “Initially, I thought we had to draw distinct lines of separation between work and personal,” she says, but then realized they are more comfortable not doing that. It’s common for conversations to bounce back and forth between work and their two children, Aubrey, born in 2019, and Arlo, in 2021. And like all working parents, their schedules — navigating pickups, drop-offs and work events — are always in flux.
“The best part is that you feel fully supported and comfortable going through some of the tough situations,” Alyssa says. “But also, the person you want to share the great news with is right there next to you … accomplishing it with you! I think all of these things push you together to do better. … I think the toughest part is you’re fully exposed and there’s no hiding from each other, especially when you own your business and you wear many hats.”
“I love sharing our day together,” Andrew adds. “All of the stories, frustrations, success and funny moments are either happening to us at the same time or ones we easily understand together. We’ve gotten really good at mixing our conversations for the day between ourselves, kids and the business. We also know each other so well and can often speak for the other person on answers. Though please, do not ask me anything more than basic cooking questions.”
Qian Zhang and John Nisbet
Owners, The Dumpling Lady
Qian Zhang started The Dumpling Lady as a food truck in 2015. “Her food is great, and people loved it, so it grew organically,” says John Nisbet, her husband and business partner. Nisbet left a demanding career to join the company full time in 2019.
Starting a business centered around Sichuan cuisine was not initially on the menu for John and Qian. They met in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province in southwestern China, while John was attending Sichuan University. Qian is from the area and was immersed in running an English school that she had started.
Qian learned traditional Sichuan cooking from her grandmother. She honed her cooking skills with family and with John during their time together in China. When John moved back to the United States to pursue his MBA and landed a job in Charlotte, Qian made the decision to sell her school and move to the Queen City in 2015. Soon after, they married.
“Qian wanted to bring a little piece of her home with her, and food has always been her way of sharing a bit of her culture and showing her love,” John says. The Dumpling Lady started as a roaming food truck and now has a permanent food stall in Optimist Hall. Expansions to South End and uptown are in the works.
Balancing work and family can be challenging, and having a reliable staff is key. “We just make it happen,” John says. “There definitely was not a balance in the beginning, and I’m not sure how much of one there is now. We have a 2-year-old little girl and another one on the way, so that makes us step back from the business more and give our team more opportunities. We couldn’t do anything without them.”
Trust is essential. “We love each other, and we are building something from nothing,” John says. “That’s awesome. At the same time, we live and work with each other 24/7. For work things (which never really turn off), she has her areas that she runs, and I have mine. I don’t really question her, and vice versa.”
Amanda and Phillip McLamb
Co-founders, Resident Culture Brewing
Amanda and Phillip strike a balance by carving out different roles at Resident Culture; she’s chief executive officer, while he leads operations. The original brewery in Plaza Midwood operates out of a warehouse on Central Avenue that was previously home to a business owned by Phillip’s dad.
Amanda and Phillip met in New York City through friends. While Phillip says he was into Amanda early on, it wasn’t until he helped her move that sparks started to fly. “I ended up realizing how much I liked this wonderful person who had spent his day lugging boxes around for his friend,” she says. Charlotte, Phillip’s hometown, was a natural fit for putting down roots and raising their children, Piper and Isla. They opened Resident Culture Brewing on Central Avenue in 2017 and expanded with a second location in South End in January 2022.
“The best part about working together is that I have long been in love with my partner for the person that he is and the way he loves and supports the people in his personal life,” Amanda says. “Getting to see him in his professional space and sharing … a vision together — even when we don’t align perfectly — it has given me a greater depth of love and appreciation for his brain and the way his mind works. We’re also very different in some of the ways we operate, and they hugely complement each other.”
The hardest part, Amanda says, is learning how to turn “work” off when they leave the office. “We are still the final point of contact for emergencies and issues that come up, so one of us (and usually both of us) will have to step in to problem-solve in real time.”
“It is challenging for sure because our minds are always thinking about the business, how we can be better and how we can grow smartly and efficiently,” Phillip adds. “That being said, Piper and Isla are more important to us than anything else, so we make time for them regardless of how much the business pulls us in one direction or another. We want them to know that it is possible to have a healthy balance between work and family.” He says working together helps their marriage, too. “Getting to see Amanda lead our business with empathy and compassion has only strengthened my love for her.”
Miriam and Dalton Espaillat
Co-founders, Raydal Hospitality Group
The Espaillats are pictured at Sabor Latin Street Grill, which has locations across the Charlotte area. Dalton focuses on his work as CEO of Raydal Hospitality Group, while Miriam leads community engagement.
Miram and Dalton are two UNC Charlotte grads who came to the Queen City initially in pursuit of different paths, but a desire to share their love of Latin culture and food won out. Miriam was born in El Salvador, grew up in Queens in New York City, and met Dalton soon after moving to Charlotte in 2006. He was born in the Dominican Republic and moved to Statesville as a teenager. This year, they’ll celebrate 15 years of marriage and have two boys, ages 9 and 14.
While Miriam earned a master’s degree in social work and Dalton set his sights on using his engineering degree to build a construction business, they pivoted toward hospitality after seeing opportunity in Charlotte. They leaned on Miriam’s small-business experience in working with her family’s longtime bodega in Queens. Dalton says they both worked other jobs while starting their first restaurant. They wanted to create a business that would build on their immigrant experience and help them put down roots, he says. Today, Raydal operates multiple locations of Sabor Latin Street Grill, La Caseta and Three Amigos Mexican Kitchen & Cantina.
Striking a balance is a delicate dance, according to Miriam. “We have learned throughout the years that we both have different sets of skills, passions and that our differences complement each other. It is not always easy to find balance … We seek help from professionals — including mental health, pastoral care, friends and family because we realize we can not do it all alone. We are fortunate to have a strong support system,” she says. The couple makes vacations and mini-getaways a priority for their family life.
Working together keeps them in tune with the business and helps them provide mutual feedback and support, especially when tough situations arise. “It’s always great when we are able to complete projects together, because it reminds us of how hands-on we have been in building our business together,” Miriam says.
Kim and Jon Dressler
Owners, Rare Roots Hospitality
There are intrinsic sacrifices in the hospitality business, Jon Dressler says. “Sacrifice of time, holidays, special occasions, weekends and privacy. When the kids were younger, we made sure that one or both of us was always present in our kids’ lives, every day. We always made sure to hire competent people, pay them above industry standard and ensure that they had the tools to succeed.”
The Dresslers met more than 20 years ago on his first day in Charlotte. They both worked for an upscale steakhouse: Kim as the catering and sales manager, Jon as assistant manager. They joke that Kim is a “type A” planner and a note taker; Jon wings it — with notes written down in his head.
“I always knew when I was young that I wanted to own my own business,” Jon says. “After 15 years in the restaurant industry, I approached Kim with the hair-brained idea to open a restaurant. Kim’s reply was: ‘Is it your life’s passion to open a restaurant?’ I responded with: ‘No, it is my life’s passion to sit on the sofa and play golf. However, I have yet to win the lottery, so I might as well try what I know and love — restaurants!’” Today, their hospitality business includes two Dressler’s locations, Dogwood: A Southern Table, Fin & Fino and The Porter’s House.
“Jon and I came to an understanding early on — he would have to call me the ‘boss,’ and I would be there to assist,” Kim says. “Twenty years later, it works! When we opened Dressler’s at Birkdale Village in 2003, I tried to work a few nights to help out, but having someone put your kids to bed three to four nights a week was hard.” Eventually, Kim ceded control of the operations to Jon while she stayed involved in other aspects of the business, including designing their new restaurants.
“The best part of working together is the shared struggles and triumphs,” Kim says. “It has also allowed us to teach our children great life lessons regarding humility, service to others, passion for what you do, empathy, sympathy, responsibility, how to win with dignity and lose with grace.” SP