ATKINSON — For years, Peter Egelston, Amy LaBelle and Cort Mendez put in long hours on the job each day while working for other people.
Egelston was a high school teacher, LaBelle was a corporate lawyer and Mendez was a medical device salesman.
Now, they are three of New Hampshire’s most successful, independent entrepreneurs.
Egelston is the founder and owner of Smuttynose Brewing Co. in Hampton; LaBelle and her husband, Cesar Arboleda, operate LaBelle Winery in Amherst; and Mendez is opening several Krispy Kreme Doughnuts shops in New Hampshire and Maine.
The three spoke of their modest rise to success Thursday night during a Greater Salem Chamber of Commerce business forum at Atkinson Resort & Country Club. The event was titled “Executive Exchange: Pastry, Pilsner & Pinot.”
They never imagined the passion for their after-hours pursuits would lead to the creation of major business enterprises.
For Egelston, it all began in the 1980s when the recent college graduate and a friend purchased a home brewing kit out of a magazine for about $15.
The beer tasted awful — but Egelson was hooked and the rest is history.
“I don’t know how it happened,” he told a crowd of about 75 people. “We drank a lot of beer in those days.”
He opened Northampton Brewery in Massachusetts and then Portsmouth Brewery. Smuttynose is now one of the leading craft beer distributors in the state.
For LaBelle, a former Fidelity Investments attorney, the inspiration to open her 80-employee winery came when she happened to visit a similar operation while in Nova Scotia on vacation 15 years ago.
“I went into this place and it just hit me like a ton of bricks,” she said. “I said, ‘Oh, my gosh — I think that’s what I’m supposed to be doing.’”
A business that began selling only 400 gallons of wine a year only several years ago sold 85,000 gallons in 2015, LaBelle said. There is also a restaurant and function facility on the property with hope of a major expansion in the near future, she said.
Mendez’s path to success began as a high school student washing dishes at an Alton restaurant and eventually led to a 20-year sales career.
Like the other entrepreneurs, he decided to take a chance and invested his personal savings in Five Guys Burgers and Fries restaurants, opening 10 in New Hampshire in only a few years.
He recently sold them and purchased the rights to open four Krispy Kreme locations in New Hampshire and three in Maine, with plans for a location in Salem. The other three are planned for Nashua, Manchester and the Seacoast, he said.
Mendez announced his plans in February, leaving local residents such as an anxious Pamela Riesenberg, 46, of Derry to ask where in Salem he planned to open the shop. The crowd applauded.
Mendez said because of the high demand for business space in Salem, he’s having a tough time finding a location. But when he heard of the Rockingham Park property going up for sale, he became excited.
“I would love to be at Rockingham,” he said.
Riesenberg, branch manager of Finance of America Mortgage in Salem, said she was inspired by the stories of the three entrepreneurs and picked up some valuable advice from Egelston on how to juggle personal and professional responsibilities — not an easy task for self-employed businesspeople.
The brewmaker said he will often hop on his bike to take a break during the busy workday.
“I will try his advice to balance my life,” Riesenberg said.
The event was moderated by radio and television host Mike Morin, and sponsored by several local businesses in partnership with the Chamber of Commerce and Salem Co-operative Bank.