When Joe Watson enlisted in the Air Force out of high school, he was told his work was in "weapons communications systems."
What he wasn't told was that was Air Force-speak for loading bombs. He would be a "load toad," making sure F-15s were mission ready.
It is a dangerous job, Watson said. Even the most minor of mistakes can lead to blown-off fingers, hands, or worse.
It is even more dangerous when flight operations are at maximum tempo - such as they were on Sept. 11, 2001, minutes after terrorists crashed planes into the World Trade Center.
Watson, who had arrived at Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia just two days before the attack, watched on TV as the second plane crashed into a tower.
Then, "the sirens and alarms went off," Watson said, then a senior airman. People scrambled to find their MOPP or chemical warfare gear. Watson and other load toads were ordered to remove training bombs from F-15 fighters and put on the real thing. Others scrambled to fuel the planes and get them ready for operations.
The 95th Fighter Squadron kept this pace up for the next 100 days.
"It was pretty wild," he remembered.
Watson, now 31, is hoping the lessons learned from eight years in the military can help him become a successful chef and restaurant operator.
With the backing of his parents and Jeannie Whitaker and her family, Watson opened Smugly's Grill five days ago at 1204 Mount Gallant Road where the Little Cafe once operated.
He knows opening a restaurant in the best of times is difficult. "Nine of 10 new restaurants fail within the first year," he said.
It is even tougher in these tight economic times.
"I think about the economy every day," he said.
Watson knows the heartbreak of losing a job. He was a service writer for an auto dealership and then a body shop. When the economy soured, he lost his job.
He decided to follow a passion, cooking. He and his father had won a Charlotte barbeque contest in 2004. Their rub recipe has been in the family for 100 years, he said, while the sauce recipe has been around for about 30 years.
Using his GI benefits, Watson enrolled in the culinary program at The Art Institute of Charlotte. He hopes to graduate this summer.
With the opening of Smugly's, the lessons are no longer academic. There are bills and staff to pay - and hopefully customers to serve. Smugly's serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, six days a week. It is closed on Sundays.
The by-the-book mentality learned in the Air Force has helped, he said. So has the professionalism that was pounded into him. These lessons helped him open the restaurant in the shortest time. He said he signed the lease on Jan. 7 and opened on Feb. 7. In a month Watson and his crew painted the restaurant, brought in new equipment and the repainted portions when the paint didn't match the new tabletops.
A faulty fryer led to panic when he had a "soft" opening last Saturday for family and friends. He replaced the fryer's thermostat on Monday.
His schedule rivals the time he spent in the military. If he is not at Smugly's, he is at class where he maintains a 3.4 grade point average. The number of hours he sleeps is measured on one hand.
Not everything is by-the-book. Watson said his greatest pleasure as a cook is "taking something from nothing and turning it into something."
A recipe, he said, is a guideline. "I doctor it the way I want to."
And the way the customers wants too, he said.
After a recent breakfast he asked the construction crews widening Mount Gallant Road what they liked and didn't like about the breakfast. One worker suggested a plainer way to cook hash browns, omitting the peppers and other Southwestern influences. He wanted just hash browns and sautéed onions.
That's what he got the next time he came to breakfast, Watson said. "You have to do the small things to make the people happy."
He is hoping that attitude will result in former Little Cafe customers giving Smugly's a try. He is going for an at-home feel.
"We will be OK," he said, "if everyone who left the Little Cafe returns."