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From Professor to Pizza Shop Owner

One man's career change transitioning to a more appetizing life

By Chris Farrell

When you’re in your 50s or 60s and feel like your career is in a rut, you might toss caution to the wind. Or maybe a pizza in the air — that’s what Richard Williams did.

Career Change
Credit: Richard Williams, Luna Pizza Cafe, Greenville, N.C.

Williams recently left behind a tenured job as a university professor in the second half of life to start, yes, a pizza restaurant. The journey hasn’t been easy, but Williams is glad he’s on it and that he has found a new calling in his second act. “Can you be exhilarated and exhausted at the same time?” he asks, jokingly.

Feeling Wooden at Work

Here’s the back story. Williams was a 51-year-old recreational therapy professor at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C. when we first spoke near the end of 2016. (His field specializes in using recreation-based treatment for people with disabilities, injuries and traumas.) He’d been a professor for some 25 years, had job security and loved both his field and his students. Single and frugal, his finances were in excellent shape — a university pension, health insurance and ample savings.

Yet Williams felt increasingly unsettled and unsatisfied. “The longer I am a professor, the more wooden I have become,” he told me. “Do I want to challenge myself? In five to ten years I might be too tired.”

Sound familiar?

Restless in the Second Half of Life

Many people in the second half of life are restless, even those with jobs and careers that have long offered social and professional returns. They once knew the answer to the critical question, “Why get up in the morning?” But their enthusiasm has flagged with the passage of time and the familiarity of routine. Yet they know they have more to give. The haunting refrain, as the legendary jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. eloquently said, is that they’ll “die with their music still in them.”

To Williams, the music sounded like owning a restaurant. He always found it personally meaningful to come up with recipes and cook for friends. A small eatery offered the prospect of taking his creative energy to a wider group of people. “Cooking and serving good food is an artistic experience for me,” he says.

Credit: Richard Williams, Luna Pizza Cafe, Greenville, N.C.

Eager to Open a Pizza Restaurant

Just one problem: He didn’t know the restaurant business or have a business background.

But professors are great at research. So several years ago, Williams started studying the local market, searching for a gap or opportunity in the restaurant scene.

He leaned toward pizza and learned that most pizza joints in the area were in strip malls. What his growing university town lacked, he decided, was a downtown, sit-down, pizza restaurant targeted at adults, especially young professionals on a date. His new mission: creating a “small swanky Napolitano pizza café.”

Doing Some Research — in Florence

Since Williams knew he had more research to do, instead of teaching during the summer of 2016, he flew to Florence and took a three-week pizza-making course at Bivero Pizza Academy. While there, he also worked at the popular Pizzeria Zero Zero.

Like many visitors to Florence, he went to the Duomo, the magnificent Renaissance cathedral dominating the skyline. He climbed the stairs to the top of the famous cupola and, halfway up, paused for breath. Then he saw graffiti on the wall saying: “Give more than you get and be blessed.” He took that as a sign and committed to take the leap into the unknown and become a restaurateur.

“Now is the time,” he recalled saying to himself on the Duomo stairway.

Williams retired from the East Carolina University in 2017 to begin. He knew he had something of a personal-finance safety net, being vested in the state retirement plan and, as a retired professor, having the ability to stay on the school’s insurance plan. Without an income since September, though, he’s currently living off savings.

Enthusiastic, But Feeling Some Heat

We stayed in touch periodically by phone and email last year. Sometimes, his enthusiasm was apparent, such as when he sent me a picture of him working with an architect on the kitchen design.

But the pressure was intense at other times, like this email from mid-February 2017:

“I have been extremely stressed, and I get caught in moments of terror and regret.  A couple of weeks ago, I pulled over on the way to work to throw up in a bank's parking lot,” he wrote. “Now that I've resigned, I feel like Cortez and Chuck Yeager. Cortez burned his boats; there was no choice but to fight. Yeager described breaking the sound barrier as a chaotic moment where he thought the plane might break apart, then he broke though, and all became smooth. I'm almost there.”

Credit: Richard Williams, Luna Pizza Cafe, Greenville, N.C.

Rehabbing and Then an Opening

He found a location for the restaurant in an old Coca Cola bottling building. The area has been downtrodden, but Uptown Greenville and the Dickinson Avenue Arts District is undergoing an urban renaissance.

Rehabbing the space took much longer than expected, however. “Slow, slow, slow and then slow,” is how he describes the remodeling project.

The planned August 2017 debut got pushed back several times, but Luna Pizza Café finally opened for business on January 2, 2018. The small Neapolitan restaurant offers locally-sourced, artisanal pizzas baked in an 800-degree brick oven along with wine, craft beers and cocktails. Williams’ menu highlights Luna’s organic tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella, with toppings fresh and local ingredients.

“We’ve been thrilled with the response we had,” says Williams, now 53.

Credit: Richard Williams, Luna Pizza Cafe, Greenville, N.C.

Odds of Success Opening a Restaurant

Opening a restaurant isn’t for the faint of heart, but odds of success may be better than you think. An intriguing 2014 study by two Bureau of Labor Statistics researchers found that the restaurant failure rate in the first year is significantly lower than the commonly-cited statistic of 90 percent. According to their study, 17 percent of independently-owned, full-service restaurant startups fail in their first year.

Williams has taken several steps to boost his odds that Luna will be a successful enterprise.

He hired an experienced general manager, John Jefferson and sent him to the Bivero Pizza Academy for training. Jefferson handles the nuts-and-bolts of the business, such as the nearly 40 employees (almost all part-time); Williams focuses on the food and menu.

Credit: Richard Williams, Luna Pizza Cafe, Greenville, N.C.

Changing Plans for Financing

Luna’s finances are also designed for staying power. Williams figured early on that he needed around $300,000 to launch. His original plan was to put in $100,000 from personal savings and borrow $200,000 from a bank. He has since revised the plan. With sufficient savings from his frugal living, he decided to go all-in and own the restaurant outright, partly to avoid interest payments and partly to exercise greater control.

The final tab at opening was a fraction over $300,000. He has nearly $22,000 remaining dedicated to the restaurant. “This way, we keep our monthly nut to a minimum and give Luna the best chance to succeed,” he says.

Luna has been only up and running for a month, but customer traffic is good. The business is on track for its planned $800,000 to $1 million in revenue this year. Williams will start drawing a salary soon and hopes to offer employees benefits once the restaurant is on solid footing.

“All I think about is the restaurant,” Williams says. “I am at work 70 to 80 hours a week. I’m in at 11 in the morning and I’ll be there at 11 at night. It’s fun.”

The sweet music, for Williams, plays on.

Photograph of Chris Farrell
Chris Farrell is senior economics contributor for American Public Media's Marketplace. An award-winning journalist, he is author of the books "Purpose and a Paycheck:  Finding Meaning, Money and Happiness in the Second Half of Life" and "Unretirement: How Baby Boomers Are Changing the Way We Think About Work, Community and the Good Life." Read More
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