Brewing up another new business

September 25, 2011
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Although Grand Rapids Brewing Co. closed its doors on 28th Street a few months ago, local entrepreneurs and nightspot owners Mark and Michele Sellers have plans to revive the business in a downtown location that once served as the original home to one of the district’s most successful breweries.

The couple consider Grand Rapids Brewing Co. an iconic brand that defines local beer brewing. Mark Sellers described it as the 800-pound gorilla of breweries in its early days. The brewery was one of the first to open, in 1893, as a result of six smaller beer makers combining their talents. It was in business until Prohibition made it close in 1918.

Its doors didn’t open again until 1993, when Schelde Enterprises, which owned and operated restaurants throughout Michigan, put the business in the former Jose Babuskha’s location on 28th Street near what was then Eastbrook Mall. Schelde sold the brewing company a few years before it folded.

Mark Sellers told the Business Journal last week that he and his wife are confident they can resurrect the business. They feel the name is golden and that they can manage the microbrewery better than it had been. They believe its location near a mall on one of the busiest streets in the state was a big blockade to success.

“Malls of all sorts have become less popular in recent years, and a brewery is supposed to be a locally focused, craft-beer artisan kind of mentality. Those are the type of people that like to go to one and are the exact opposite of people that like to go to malls. So it was like trying to stick a square peg in a round hole — it didn’t fit,” he said.

“Furthermore, they made it mostly into a restaurant. It was a restaurant first and a brew pub second. I just think the concept and the location were kind of an unwinnable combination. It should be downtown where it belongs,” he added.

And that is where the new GR Brewing Co. will be. The couple is leasing space in the Brass Works building at 648 Monroe Ave. NW. It’s the same space Founders Brewing Co. occupied for the better part of a decade before Mike Stevens and Dave Engbers moved it to 235 Grandville Ave. SW four years ago. Much of the office building is leased, and Sellers feels that those who work in it will be customers, as will those who work and live nearby.

“There are a lot of buildings, offices and residences around there that really aren’t being served that well right now. Another thing I like about that location is it’s already been branded as a brewery, so people think of it as a brewery location. That’s the highest and best use for that space now,” said Sellers.

“Second, there is a lot of parking. I counted about 125 meters within a block and almost all are empty at night. It’s really easy to park around there. I like that aspect because that’s different than any of my other bars.”

The Sellerses own and operate HopCat, Stella’s Lounge, The Viceroy and McFadden’s, and are co-owners of The Pyramid Scheme with Jeff and Tami VandenBerg. All the venues are south of Fulton Street, where on-street parking spaces are rarer than along North Monroe. In addition, the city’s North Monroe lot, which offers free nighttime and weekend parking, is almost right across the street from Brass Works.

The couple plans to begin building out the space, which is being designed by Lott3Metz Architecture, in January and hopes to open their version of the GR Brewing Co. in April or May.

And their version will be different.

Before it closed, GR Brewing Co. brewed five craft beers, with Silver Foam being its signature beer. Sellers said they will brew the Silver Foam, described as a light-bodied, malty pilsner with a mild hop finish, but not the other four. Instead, they will come up with original beers for the new label. The business will offer food, with barbeques as the mainstay, and will distill its own liquors such as gin, vodka and possibly even a whiskey. They haven’t hired a head brewer yet.

The Sellerses need to get license approvals from the state’s Liquor Control Commission and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, a federal agency. The new business will be a microbrewery and not a brew pub like HopCat. A microbrewery can only sell what it makes, but can distribute and sell its products in stores and other bars. A brew pub can sell products from other makers along with its own, but only at its location.

Sellers said the local craft beer industry is growing and there is room for more growth because the majority of taverns outside the downtown district largely feature national brands like Budweiser, Miller and Coors, with only a few selling locally produced beers. He noted that Portland, Ore., which has roughly the same population as Grand Rapids, has about five times the number of microbreweries as here. “So the market here is not oversaturated,” he said.

The Sellerses haven’t enlisted investors for their latest project and are going it alone in their effort to revive the Grand Rapids Brewing Co. “Michele will be the owner,” said Mark. “She will own and operate the business.”

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