The Calm Amid the Culinary Storm

Bob Ashby has carefully built a hospitality empire. Now—he says—he’s retired.

Name a culinary star who has made a difference on the local dining scene, and you will likely think of a chef. Unless, that is, you’re an industry insider. Those in the know will put Bob Ashby, a seasoned restaurateur, at the top of the list.

“Bob is a great operator,” says Xavier Teixido, founder of Harry’s Hospitality, which has three Wilmington restaurants. “He’s very engaged in initiatives that keep our industry healthy.” Ashby is a past president of the Delaware Restaurant Association and a recipient of the DRA’s Cornerstone Award. He’s also served on the board of the National Restaurant Association.

If you haven’t heard of Ashby then you’ve undoubtedly heard of his restaurants: Ashby Management owns three McGlynns Pub locations, the Deer Park Tavern and Cantwell’s Tavern. It’s a successful track record for the University of Delaware graduate, but as of Jan. 1, Ashby says, he’s retired.

Those who know him aren’t so sure. “For a man who eats, sleeps and breathes the business for as long as he has, I find it hard to imagine him not having a hand in it, in some regard,” says his son Brian, chef and owner of 8th & Union Kitchen in Wilmington’s Little Italy.

Cooking Up a Business

Bob Ashby didn’t set out to become a restaurateur when he was growing up in Caldwell, N.J., but he had a keen interest in business. However, it was his football skills that brought him to the University of Delaware. Unfortunately, his athletic career was short-lived. He broke his leg during his freshman year and blew out his knee as a sophomore.

By that time, he’d met wife-to-be Sandy. She first spotted him in 1974 at a football game. (He was not playing.) “I said: ‘Who is that guy? I’m going to marry him,’” she recalls. When she met him one evening at the Deer Park Tavern in downtown Newark, then a local watering hole with beer-stained floors, she thought he was conceited. She told him so and then fell off the barstool, giving the expression “falling in love” new meaning.

While studying business at UD, Ashby started working at the Stone Balloon, which was another local watering hole that was better known for live music than its beer. Ashby had already decided he wanted to open his own business, and the young owner of the Balloon at that time, Bill Stevenson, was an inspiration.

After graduating from UD, Ashby and Sandy got jobs at H.A. Winston & Co., a restaurant chain. Sandy was waiting tables until she began teaching school in the fall. Ashby had his eye on management.
The company trained its managers “from the kitchen out,” he says. “I learned how to cook, sauté—everything. The manager was the extra hand in the restaurant when needed; it’s your job to jump in and help.” Ashby Management follows the same approach in its restaurants.

While scouting for a new location for the chain, he visited the old Drummond Ale House in Newark, another haunt from the Ashbys’ college days. It was too small for H.A. Winston but just right for the Ashbys, who purchased it in 1983. McGlynns Pub & Restaurant was born.

Growing the Brand

He tested new waters in 1986 when he opened Ashby’s Oyster House, which is located off Main Street in Newark. At that time, seafood restaurants were few and far between. The price point and the menu items called for cocktails, but Newark only allowed beer and wine licenses. There were other issues. In the 1980s, Main Street was deserted when the students weren’t in town. The restaurant closed in 1990.

Ashby had more luck with his original concept, McGlynns, which he duplicated in 1999 in Peoples Plaza and in 2008 in Dover. All three are neighborhood restaurants. The Dover restaurant, however, was built from the ground up and has the look of an upscale Victorian public house, complete with woodwork from a pub-centric specialty shop in the United Kingdom.

In 2001, the Ashbys purchased the Deer Park Tavern. Using a vintage postcard as a guide, they elected to renovate it to its glory days. It was a bold move. A landmark since 1851, the three-story structure was the object of fond memories for generations of UD students—including the Ashbys. Many did not appreciate the newly gentrified façade, which includes a two-story porch with ornate spindles all capped by a corner cupola. But the majority embraced the change. Alumni now feel comfortable taking their children and grandchildren to the Deer Park for nachos or a burger.

In 2011, the Historic Houses of Odessa wanted to put a working restaurant in a circa-1822 tavern, once known as The Brick Hotel. When the first operator backed out, Ashby picked up the project and opened Cantwell’s Tavern in the space.

Though both the Deer Park and Cantwell’s are in historical sites, they couldn’t be more different. There was no retail traffic in the historic complex. “You couldn’t spend a dollar in Odessa before Cantwell’s opened,” Ashby says, jokingly. Fortunately, area residents embraced the restaurant, and Cantwell’s has become the locals’ choice for lunch, dinner and special occasions, including weddings.

The Hospitality Guru

By now, Ashby knows the secret to a restaurant’s survival. “You have to constantly be aware that your customer is the only reason you’re there. It’s like throwing a party at your house: Every time you open the doors, you have to have everything ready, and their experience has to be a good experience.” If customers aren’t happy, his managers are told to do whatever it takes to make the customer want to come back.

That approach, plus fresh ingredients, he says, will help the casual full-service segment compete against the fast-casual restaurant, such as Panera Bread, which appeals to those who want a kale Caesar salad with grilled chicken in five minutes or less.

Ashby is generous when it comes to sharing the lessons he’s learned. Merry Catanuto, a former chef at the Deer Park, turned to Ashby for advice when she and husband Bill Hoffman decided to open The House of William & Merry in Hockessin. (The couple met while working at McGlynns.)

“He was very honest about the restaurant business and its highs and lows,” she says. “He let us know that we could lose our investment. He was a great resource. He is one of the first people I go to, and he’s always helpful.”

She’s not the only one who seeks his counsel. “He’s one of those people I will call to say: ‘What do you think about this?’” says Teixido, the past president of the National Restaurant Association. Carrie Leishman, director of the Delaware Restaurant Association, would agree. “He was always my go-to guy,” she says. “He always has a way of cutting through the chaos to think clearly about all the decisions he makes, and I really respect him for that. He’s been an institution on our board.”

Brian Ashby says his father—an avid reader—always had a word of encouragement when his children needed it. “When I would ask him for advice because I was feeling overwhelmed, his reply was: ‘How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.’”

Brian was 14 or 15 when he started working in the family business, scraping gum off the bars and scrubbing tobacco stains off the wall. He cooked, washed dishes, bussed tables, served and bartended. But Ashby never told his children they had to work at the restaurants. “We were very lucky to have such supportive parents,” Brian says. “They just wanted us to be successful at whatever it was we chose to pursue.”

The well-traveled Brian, who wanted to explore the cuisines he experienced while abroad, opened 8th & Union Kitchen in 2015. In addition to their other son, Marc, the Ashbys’ daughter Lauren works for Ashby Management, overseeing the company’s charitable giving.

It will be interesting to see how Bob Ashby handles retirement. Says Brian: “I know he plans to take full advantage of spending time with my mother and being on the water—two of his greatest joys.”

But decades of habits are hard to break, and the hospitality business is a lifestyle, not just a job, Teixido says. It’s challenging to detach from the industry. As of February, Ashby was still going into the office a few days a week, and he serves on various boards. “I’m still trying to figure it out,” he says about retirement. No doubt, he will do just that.