BURGAW — When it comes to brewing a solid beer, Kevin Kozak is a master.
When it comes to boosting entrepreneurs, renovating buildings and helping scale a town to its full potential, Richard Johnson is leading the way.
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Together, they’re the brains behind Burgaw Brewing. This weekend visitors will get a first look at what’s to come of the up-and-coming brewpub during the 19th annual Blueberry Festival taking place Saturday.
Around 40,000 people are expected to descend on the small farm town of Burgaw, located 25 miles outside of Wilmington. It’s the first year the festival has returned since the pandemic, held in celebration of peak blueberry season. Founded in 2003, the festival’s home in Pender County is representative of the thousands of acres of blueberries grown by area farmers.
Kozak plans to utilize the fruit in one the first beers he will be brewing in a 10-barrel, custom-made system, to be released at Burgaw Brewing by fall.
“I’m toying around with the idea of a honey-blueberry beer,” he said, “using local honey, local blueberries — you know, the best of both worlds.”
Kozak also will take advantage of other agriculture grown in the area as he devises his 20-plus-item menu — appetizers, sandwiches, salads. It will be upscape pub grub, made with fresh, local ingredients.
“There’s a lot of wonderful farms around here,” he said of the 4.7-mile town, population 3,000.
One is Penderlea, a 500-acre tree farm owned by Johnson. The HotJobs.com founder — who sold the company to Yahoo at the turn of the 21st century for over $400 million — fell in love with Burgaw a few years ago, so much so he launched Burgaw Now. The initiative promotes the town’s preservation and future development.
In 2019, upon seeing businesses shuttering in downtown proper, Johnson wanted to recenter the focus on the 143-year-old historic town square and restore its quaint charm.
“I really look at that Highway 53-117 exchange as a cannibalizing effect for downtown,” he said.
Johnson is referring to an area a short drive away from the historic district. Peppered with fast-food chains — McDonald’s, Bojangles, Kentucky Fried Chicken — and a big-box store, Walmart, he said it had “become the new downtown of Burgaw.”
To reverse its course, Johnson purchased seven buildings to rent out to entrepreneurs and create an economic driver of independent business and commerce in downtown proper. The goal, he said — investment-wise and of Burgaw Now — is to “honor the past and look to the future.”
Harrell’s Department Store — an iconic structure and backdrop for films like “I Know What You Did Last Summer” — operated nearby for 117 years before the Harrell family closed its doors in 2020. Burgaw Brewing is located a few doors up at 103 S. Wright St., tucked between Burgaw Antiqueplace and Ideal Barbershop, in a 79-year-old building that also used to be a department store in the mid-20th century.
Chris Cahill Interiors and Styling, Brian Cahill Fine Homebuilding and Hipp Architecture helped with the brewery’s design. Johnson said he chose Clark Hipp because the developer understands the nuance of historic revitalization: “[He] is focused on Wilmington’s downtown and his specialty is 100-year-old buildings.”
Burgaw Brewing is one of many in a row of businesses across the way from the square’s anchor, Pender County Courthouse — which just reopened after undergoing years of renovations due to Hurricane Florence.
“There’s already some great businesses down here,” Johnson said, pointing to mom-and-pop shops like Brown Dog Coffee, Carolina Eatery, and Old Time Farm Shed. “We’re just trying to provide a few more.”
Around 3,500 people come to work in the town daily. He said there is a need for a communal gathering space, surmising if locals have a place to gather with friends, it may encourage them to stick around for an afterwork drink.
“And if they come and stay and have a beer, maybe we can get them to stay and have dinner,” he added. “From all the feedback we’ve gotten … the town is really looking for something like this.”
It will be Burgaw’s first brewery — Pender County’s second.
While Johnson is the investor, Kozak is the owner-operator. The former Front Street Brewery brewmaster took on the project ahead of the Covid-19 shutdown, though Burgaw Brewing has been in the works since 2019.
Originally, Panacea Brewing Co.’s Artie and Robin Hill were onboard to operate the facility, but once the pandemic hit, they had to reassess the investment. Kozak left Front Street Brewery in spring 2019 and by winter 2020 decided the time was right to become a brewery owner.
“It was two weeks before the pandemic hit,” Kozak recalled. “And, basically, that stalled everything.”
Kozak and his wife had already moved to Burgaw and purchased a home only a few blocks away from the brewery. The walkability of the community appealed most to them, he said.
“Just the fact that we can take our dog out twice a day, walk around the nice town,” Kozak said. “Me and my wife both grew up in smaller towns — it’s a perfect fit for us.”
They utilized the downtime in 2020 to devise the brewery’s menu. They tapped their chef friends to create and test various items, from smoked wings to nachos, fried chicken sandwiches to burgers.
Kozak expects to start with 12 beers on tap, including an IPA and Heifeweisen. He is most excited about the German lager.
“They’re a little bit more difficult to make — you got nothing to hide behind,” Kozak said. “So they take a little bit longer, a little bit more care.”
He is starting with a 5% ABV Helles.
“And the water profile of Burgaw — I’ve already had it tested — is wonderful for making beer, especially a good lager,” he said.
The brewpub will be able to seat around 100 people and employ 20 or 30 staff. It will have a 30-foot bar, an outdoor patio and beer garden. Kozak said electrical and plumbing is complete and the studs are up inside the space.
It will add to the area’s food and beverage industry and is the second investment Johnson has seen come to fruition in his grand revitalization plan. In 2020, he helped back Fat Daddy’s Pizzeria owned by Jay Kranchalk.
“It was less of a challenge with the pizzeria because the space was pretty defined,” Johnson said. “We weren’t doing any major renovations.”
Though it opened in the midst of the pandemic, the timing worked in its favor as takeout pizza soared during shutdowns. Johnson said Fat Daddy’s has grown a steady clientele during lunch and experienced exponential growth for dinner and takeout.
“My strategy was, I had to invest in some businesses I thought would create that spark,” Johnson said.
Craft brewery seems to be a solid next move. North Carolina has 370 breweries and brewpubs that boost over $10 billion to the economy annually. Nationwide, it’s a $79 billion industry, anchored by craft beer tourism compelling travelers to take “beercations” — destinations they choose to enjoy uniquely crafted flavors at the breweries that create them.
New Hanover, Pender and Brunswick counties have almost 30 breweries combined, all within a 45-minute-or-so drive from Burgaw. With beaches also nearby, the appeal is there and ample opportunities to bring in agritourism.
“Obviously, you don’t build a brewpub without investing quite a bit of money,” Johnson said, “but my feeling is, once we open, that investment will more than pay itself back.”
Johnson’s financial backing is also boosted by his vision for Burgaw Now. He promotes the businesses and others via digital marketing, with a staff that runs the nonprofit’s website, rife with blogs, videos, events and articles, including interviews with locals and town officials. It also has social media platforms on Facebook, Instagram and TikTok to spread the word about the town.
“Our goal is to use our assets and see what we can do to provide a little bit of appeal, so that when people come downtown, there’s something for them to do,” Johnson said.
Among the Blueberry Festival’s 100 vendors — to impact the community by millions of dollars this weekend, and for which Burgaw Now helped promote — Johnson and his crew will be set up at Burgaw Brewing from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. There will be a Volkswagen bus on the grounds for people to snap photos with, as well as raffle opportunities. The brewery’s menu will be available for a sneak peek to get local diners excited about the brewpub’s planned October launch.
“We’ve got one more restaurant theme that we’re gonna announce when we open the brewpub on Halloween — our Trick or Treat event,” Johnson said. “And we think it’s going to create a lot of buzz when we announce that.”
Ed. note: The article has been updated to include the correct spelling of Kevin Kozak’s last name. Port City Daily regrets the error.
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