East Haddam - At the Two Wrasslin' Cats Coffee House & Café, Mark Thiede hands out hot drinks and pastries with the same good humor he used to survive more than a quarter century in the pharmaceutical business.
Thiede - a former research fellow for Pfizer Inc. in Groton who holds five stem-cell patents and once oversaw a $5 million diabetes research project for the pharmaceutical giant - used to love tinkering with molecules and cells. In his early years with Pfizer and several other companies from St. Louis to Cleveland to Baltimore to West Point, Pa., the molecular biologist would work weekends to advance projects that included the osteoarthritis drug Celebrex. In 2008, he won a Pfizer Achievement Award, which has been handed out to only six scientists in the Groton discovery-science unit.
"I always thought outside the box," Thiede said. "If I had an idea and it had never been done before, that was half the fun."
But in late 2011, Thiede got the word that much of his stem-cell group was being let go, and in January 2012 he was out of a job.
By that time, Thiede said, he was glad to go. The waves of layoffs at the Pfizer campus in Groton had been nearly continual, and the only thing that kept him going, he said, was the idea that he was providing for his family.
"It was constant," he said. "It was over a decade of just turbulence."
By contrast, Thiede finds the coffee business relaxing. And although he has yet to take a paycheck out of the shop, instead living off 401(k) holdings and an annuity while keeping up with the bills, he has managed to build a loyal clientele in the homey, 1784 former residence that he painted a brilliant blue.
"I live very simply," said Thiede, a former East Lyme resident who now lives with his girlfriend, Nancy, in Killingworth.
Thiede said the coffeehouse, which opened in May, gives him a chance to meet a cross-section of people, including local artists and actors from the nearby Goodspeed Opera House. In the summer, many of his customers are on their way to and from local attractions, including Gillette Castle State Park, which is about three miles away.
"I want people to come in and feel at home," he said. "This is what I really like to do."
By all accounts, Thiede has succeeded.
"It seems like you single-handedly have made a community out of a seemingly disparate assortment of folks who I'm sensing have lots to share with each other," said customer Robin Fox, who shared her Facebook posting with Thiede while visiting the shop recently.
Laura DAvanzo, a customer who remarked on the new gas fireplace Thiede had installed, said she drops by regularly to enjoy the breakfast BLT.
"We are so happy to see him," she said. "He's just so nice."
Thiede, known for creative pursuits ranging from painting to poetry to screenwriting, credits Pfizer with providing him the means to make his dream come true.
In addition to a nice severance for his 13 years at the company, Pfizer offered retraining money that funded his trip to attend five days of classes with Bruce Milletto at the well-known American Barista & Coffee School in Portland, Ore. There, he learned the ins and outs of coffee-making, including tips on the best machinery to buy.
Thiede looked around for a good location for his coffee shop, at one time thinking he would buy a foreclosed Victorian home near the Goodspeed. But when that deal fell through, he settled on a beautiful property on Town Street near Routes 82 and 151.
The property came with a fountain and covered gazebo as well as a pergola. Thiede bought an acre and a quarter next door to accommodate a septic system and parking lot. He talks about building a deck out back to extend his seating capacity in the warmer weather.
"It would be a great place for people to enjoy a cup of coffee in a unique spot," he said.
Inside the 1,300-square-foot coffeehouse, which is about to undergo an expansion, patrons can relax in a rustic atmosphere of pine floors and beamed ceilings as they enjoy artwork from members of the East Haddam Art League set against walls of white, purple and watermelon red. Cat books - with titles such as "Catrimony" - sit on wooden tables, some of which also sport cat lamps and cow figurines.
Thiede said the name of his business evolved from a home-brewed beer project four years ago. Searching for an eye-catching label, he hit upon the name Two Wrasslin' Cats based on the shenanigans of his pets, Bruno and Larry. He carried that theme into his new coffeehouse.
Controlling his destiny
Thiede said many of his friends from Pfizer drop by to say hello, and he enjoys seeing them. But he wouldn't want to re-enter the corporate world, he said, where personalities and creativity can be quashed.
"I worked with a lot of smart people but I found myself at times out of place," he said.
Pharmaceutical research has changed radically in the past three decades, he noted, with much of the fundamental discoveries shifting to academic institutions instead of the big drug companies. Pharmaceutical firms, now risk-averse, are largely turning to so called "me too" drugs, which incrementally improve on an existing remedy rather than focusing on making new inroads with diseases that are largely without therapies, he said.
The mapping of the human genome, completed a decade ago, gave rise to expectations that a new era of drug development soon would follow, but Thiede said those hopes turned out to be unrealistic.
"More (drug) targets does not necessarily mean the genes are really good targets," he said. "Even if you hit one specific gene target, that doesn't necessarily make for a better drug."
Making matters worse, Thiede said he has been involved with promising research that was dropped by companies for no particular reason. He also has collaborated on projects, not of his own choosing, that ultimately failed. That failure, he said, was sometimes unfairly reflected on his year-end review.
"There's a very high failure rate in drug development," he said. "For 26 years, I'd spent all my time trying things that didn't work."
Now, Thiede said, success or failure is on his own shoulders, and he gets to make the creative decisions. It's a long grind, working seven days a week with only the occasional holiday off, but Thiede, who shed 20 pounds in the past year, said he loves it.
He supports a local food bank as well as youth services organizations, and he hosts a wide range of events that include musical entertainment, and, perhaps in the near future, comedy, poetry and improv.
"I don't have plans to make a lot of money from this, but I plan to have a lot of fun," he said.