Life is good!”
That’s how local restaurateur Mike Croft of Kings Mountain puts it. Croft, 51, is the owner-operator of the Whiskey Mill Bar and Grill in his hometown of Bessemer City.
And for Croft, life these days is very good indeed. He and his family––wife Jessica, son Tristan, 10, and parents Glenn and Helen Croft of Bessemer City––are all doing well. And Croft’s restaurant is going great, packing in local folks seven days a week for burgs, beer and more.
Croft recently sat down with Gaston Lifestyles to tell us all about his business, his philosophy and the key to his success.
A big man (six-four and 240 solid pounds), Croft is built like a linebacker. He greets you with a big smile and a firm, manly handshake. His muscled arms, the size of many men’s legs, reveal his former lines of work. He spent 16 years as the shop foreman at a local machine shop. And for many years, he built motorcycles in the 3,600-square-foot building, just a year older than he is, where now his staffers build burgers, and he brews much of the beer.
Croft reveals that the building was once the old Bessemer City Post Office, long years ago. But after two and a half years of hard renovation work, much of it done by the knowledgeable and versatile Croft himself, the place was reborn and reopened to a new life as the Whiskey Mill Bar and Grill, eight years ago this month.
“I’ve had my hands in a little bit of everything,” he observes of the lengthy and labor-intensive process, adding, “I’ve always been a foodie, my whole life. And I used to tell myself, ‘Some day, I’m going to own my own restaurant.’”
Croft glances at up at the wide-screen, high-definition television over the bar. He likes the Food Network, and the TV is tuned to Giada De Laurentiis, making something delectable. And at the bar are bartenders Julie Brittain and Jasmin Stewart, both fetching (and very fetching indeed) some tall, cool ones for thirsty patrons. They make serving suds look like an art form.
Talking of beer, that twofold nature, being comprised of both a restaurant and a brewery, makes the Whiskey Mill, well––not your run-of-the-mill establishment.
“A lot of times, running the restaurant gets in the way of the brewery,” Croft admits, adding of his homemade beer, “But it sells really well. And I’m a big fan myself!”
Come in on a beer-making day, and the whole place is liable to smell of hops. It’s a delicious aroma for beer cognoscenti, as Croft notes, a bit like breakfast cereal. The Whiskey Mill has a staff of 20 full-time employees, including cooks, bartenders, serving personnel and management.
“We’ve been very blessed,” Croft remarks. “We do things differently, and we work very hard on our food.”
Croft doesn’t compromise, and that means a preference for only the best, including serving up certified Black Angus beef. In addition to his own secret sauce, he uses an amazing 20 pounds of Black Angus per 12 quarts of chilli. It’s thus very meaty and doesn’t feature any of those pesky beans most folks don’t care for, as Croft remarks.
“A state trooper came in recently,” he recalls, “and he told me how much he liked it. He said it had a richer flavor than any he’d ever had before.”
And making folks happy is what it’s all about for Croft. “I like it when I look around in here, and I see people eating and smiling,” he observes. “It humbles me. It makes me thankful.”
Croft is a big believer in giving back to his community, including to local churches and schools. Both benefit from toys and clothing, often packed by Jessica Croft herself.
Giving is better than receiving, as Mr. Croft notes, adding that if you do so, “good things come to you.”
A member of the Bessemer City Downtown Development Board, he has irons in many altruistic fires. Mr. and Mrs. Croft donate regularly to the St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, the Shriners and the Bessemer City and Gaston County police departments.
The Crofts are a tight-knit family. They enjoy activities together, such as camping.
“The best thing is spending time with my family,” Mr. Croft observes, looking at Tristan, a handsome lad, who has just come into the restaurant and now sits in a chair, looking up at his dad.
Think you’d like to open up a restaurant? Be prepared for an all-in effort, says Croft, and don’t go into it with a lot of debt. Getting ready could require months or even years, so you have to be committed and be in it for the long haul.
“Be ready to work hard,” he adds, “and don’t borrow money. Roll up your sleeves, and do it yourself. We worked so hard, but we beat the odds.”
Croft looks around appreciatively at his business, while the Kinks blast away cheerily on the radio.
“Yes,” he repeats, “life is good.”