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Getting to Know: Aby Bethem

Where you grew up and went to school: I grew up in New Hampshire, in Boscawen and Canterbury, before moving to Hillsville (in the western part of Virginia) at age 15, when I started 10th grade at Carroll County High School.

How/when you ended up in Fredericksburg: I arrived in Fredericksburg in August 1995 to attend Mary Washington College. After graduating in 1999, I’ve never left.

Career history: I’ve always been in the restaurant business. My first job was when I was 16 as a Pizza Hut cook. During the summers, I worked in the dining room at a local golf club. This is where I really learned some fine-dining service skills.

During college I started at The Riverview restaurant on Sophia Street as a server. After graduation, with a business degree from MWC, I worked as the front-of-the-house manager for The Riverview until 2001. After leaving The Riverview, I worked catering with Vanessa Moncure and started waiting tables at Bistro 309.

How you met Blake (Aby’s husband and the chef at the Bethems’ restaurants): He was the chef at The Riverview when I worked there. The first weekend I worked was Mother’s Day and college graduation (the busiest of the year). I wasn’t trained yet, but because it was so busy they needed extra help in the kitchen. They made me do all the “dirty work”—making biscuits, picking crab and breading oysters. Apparently, I did all right, because they had me come back the next day.

We were co-workers and friends for a long time first and have been married since 2004. We’ve been “slinging” food together in restaurants in some capacity every year since. I think this year will be the 15th Mother’s Day weekend working together.

How and when the two of you came to own Bistro Bethem: We worked together at Bistro 309, the former restaurant at our current location on William Street. We were very clear with the owners that we were actively looking for restaurant locations so that we could start our own.

After Jay Comfort left Bistro 309, Blake and I were able to manage it for the owners—Vanessa and and Buzzy Moncure. They decided that the time was right for them to sell, and we were able to take it over, purchasing the assets on May 20, 2004. We changed the name to Bistro Bethem to “put our mark” on the change.

What led to your decision to open Vivify Burger & Lounge (which is across William Street from Bistro Bethem): We currently rent our location at Bistro, and had been actively looking for real estate to purchase in downtown Fredericksburg for several years.

I literally watched the previous owner of the building at 314 William St. sign papers to sell the space, and the Realtor walk out. We had the Realtor on the phone before she walked to the next block.

We were ready for another challenge, wanted to own the building and wanted a place where our kids would be happy to eat. We feel the niche that Vivify fills was needed for downtown. We aim for it to be an investment in our long-term future.

How are you able to find the time to run two restaurants and tend to your family? I joke all the time that it is unfortunate we need this pesky thing called sleep—because think of all we could do. It is tough, I’m not going to lie, and we are still trying to figure out the right balance.

It takes teamwork, and lots of bulletin-board calendars in our home’s kitchen. We have good managers and baby-sitters, and one of us is either at one place or the other at any given time—whether it be one of the restaurants or home. I feel the guiltiest about home—so I try and turn the phone and email off when there; the kids’ time can’t be given back later, but work can always wait a little.

Your thoughts on the future of downtown Fredericksburg: We have a home, two businesses and commercial property here—so we feel good about it. From all the people I’ve gotten to know here, it is still a “small town” in the sense of community and working together for a common cause.

I’m excited for the real estate and retail growth that is currently under way here with Amelia Square, One Hanover and the future Wack property on William Street. It’s a good sign for the restaurant business downtown.

I’m really excited for the new director and the Main Street Initiative. I think we have needed something organized and downtown-focused for a long time. I’m encouraged by the vision and direction that it’s taking.

I still think we need some work on tying the communication together between businesses downtown and making it a destination for more people, even people in the local counties, but I’m encouraged by its growth and possibilities.

Family: Husband, Blake; amazing stepson, Jacob, 16; and two sons: Parker, 6, and Finn, 2.

Favorite dish at Bistro Bethem and Vivify: Bistro—That’s hard. I’m at Vivify most of the time now, so when I work at Bistro on Fridays it’s very exciting to pick my meals. I pretty much love all of it, but my favorite go-to classic is the shrimp and scallops with grits and braised greens; that is a long-standing favorite. I also love the crispy Brussels sprouts.

At Vivify, why a burger, of course! I like mine simple: pink, salt and pepper, Fontina cheese, tomato, hold the pickles and lettuce. If I’m really feeling crazy, throw some pork belly on it. Second favorite: Flounder Rounder.

—As told to Bill Freehling