Ben Peters' career as an architect evaporated amid the recession, but he and his wife bounced back to start a successful restaurant.
The man’s passion was design. He had worked as an architect for 20 years, and then received the shock of his life. He was laid off.
He was not alone. Forty percent of the architects in the Twin Cities area lost their jobs three years ago when the bottom fell out of construction. The firm for which this man worked trimmed its staff of architects and draftsmen by more than 50 percent.
Wanting to remain in the field, he created a website and set up a home-based architectural business. Unfortunately, it brought in only 50 percent of the income he needed.
He and his wife discussed his situation at length and concluded that he would have to change careers — an unsettling proposition given that he was approaching middle age.
Ben Peters is his name, and the man was more fortunate than most because he had a second passion: Ben loved to cook for others.
When he noticed a new vacancy in Prior Lake’s South Lake Village Mall, he thought it would be the perfect place for the restaurant he had always wanted to open.
His wife Nan was all for it, because she also loved to cook. They had hosted many dinner parties when they lived in Nevada. Nan also had managed the restaurant at a large steakhouse in Carson City, and had the requisite accounting background.
Ben contacted the mall’s property manager about leasing the space. He was not receptive. “Restaurants are too hard to put in and take out,” he scoffed.
Not to be deterred, Ben prepared a business plan and did a 3-D computer-graphics rendering of how the restaurant would look. The property manager relented, and Ben and Nan got to work.
Four months later, on Feb. 9, 2012, “Artisan Coffee Bistro” served its first customers.
I asked Ben about his design work and his budding second career as a restaurant co-owner:
Jerry: What were some of the highlights of your first career?
Ben: I helped design several casinos in Las Vegas. That was lots of fun. After we moved to Minnesota, I was one of the two designers who designed the McKenna Crossing senior living community in Prior Lake.
Jerry: What were the initial challenges when you decided to change careers?
Ben: It takes a lot of money to turn an empty space into a restaurant, to include buying expensive equipment. Then, after the opening, you have to keep putting money into the business for many months. Some restaurants close within weeks of opening because the owners mistakenly expect to turn a profit right away. Also, there are state and city permits to obtain and requirements to abide by. If you don’t do it right, you can get into trouble.
Jerry: How did Nan and you get along during the process?
Ben: Quite frankly, I could never have done this without what Nan brought to the table. Except for one time, we worked together very well. But we simply couldn’t agree on the menu. For example, I wanted to serve three kinds of hot dogs, and Nan didn’t want to serve any. It got to be pretty hairy.
Jerry: So how did you resolve it?
Ben: I suggested to Nan that we have two separate menus: Ben’s and Nan’s. She surprised me by saying, “That’s probably the best idea you’ve had in your life!”
Jerry: And you do have two different menus today. Which one has the most sales?
Ben: Nan’s. Most of our customers are women. They especially like her turkey Panini.
Jerry: There’s a saying that if you find a job you love, you will never work another day in your life. Does that describe you?
Ben: Absolutely. The hours are extremely long, but I don’t think about that. I just enjoy being there and doing what I am doing.
Jerry: Artisan recently celebrated its one-year anniversary, and you are already expanding. Isn’t it a bit early for that?
Ben: We thought so, but when a vacancy appeared adjacent to our restaurant, the San Diego-based mall owner flew out to see us. He liked what we had done and had taken note of the favorable reviews we were receiving on www.yelp.com. He wanted us to expand and offered to help.
Jerry: When will you open the new space, and how will it look?
Ben: With booths and soft lighting, it will have a cozy ambience. When it opens in about three weeks, we will introduce an expanded menu. Keep checking www.artisancoffeebistro.com for the latest information, to include a firm opening date.
Countless men and women are experiencing the shock and trauma of having to change careers in midlife. Ben Peters offers hope and inspiration for these people.
Now “designing” food instead of buildings, he is living proof that misfortune can present opportunities to pursue something equally or more rewarding.
Jerry Goodrich is a Prior Lake resident.