Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Wilmington Brewing Company owners take over historic Front Street spot for new concept

Michelle and John Savard, owners of Wilmington Brewing Company, purchased an historic downtown building in 2020. Formerly W.H. McEachern’s Sons, a former wholesale grocer warehouse at 121 S. Front St., it soon will be repurposed into a second brewery, blending a love for surfing and beer making. (Courtesy Michelle Savard)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Expanding its outreach with a second brewery has always been in the cards for John and Michelle Savard, owners of Wilmington Brewing Company. 

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With the purchase of an historic downtown building in 2020, the craft beer brewers will soon begin to repurpose W.H. McEachern’s Sons, a former wholesale grocer warehouse at 121 S. Front St.

“The building is full of history,” Michelle said. “There are skylights and it has greenery, and it’s historic — we fell in love with the space a long time ago.”

Constructed in the mid-20th century, it operated as a Merita bread bakery until McEachern purchased it in the early 1960s. Lore has it that McEachern kept monkeys that had traveled over on banana boats in the basement.

“We’re learning something new about the space every day,” Michelle said. 

It’s roughly 9,000 square feet of exposed brick and concrete floors, and provides a blank slate for the Savards to bring to life an entirely new brand — and it won’t just be beer-centered. On Friday, the buzzing sounds of rail runners and sanders permeated the building.

“John’s actually making a surfboard in here,” Michelle said. “Our idea is to make this a small craft brewery and a surfboard-shaping business.”

The two are Wilmington natives — sans their stint at UNC-Asheville where they met before returning to the coast to start their beer company. John has surfed since youth, but in recent years he began shaping boards and made around eight to date, according to Michelle. He has been utilizing 121 S. Front St. as a creative space, bringing in friends to the McEachern spot to learn more about the process. Michelle said a professional will do the shaping once the brewery opens.

Beer Board Co. is being floated as a potential name, but the Savards haven’t landed on anything firm quite yet. However, they’re clear it won’t just be Wilmington Brewing Company number two.

“It’ll have something a little more creative than that,” Michelle said. “Though, it’s still evolving.” 

The entrepreneurs have an open-air concept for 121 S. Front St., with garage doors lifting to see passersby on Front Street. Natural light illuminates the industrial space; Michelle says they’re going for a “beer hall vibe.” Customers will be able to see brews being made in one area and a surfboard created behind a glass bay in another.

“It’s like an art installation,” she explained. “We will have custom boards and someone can come in and watch their order being done.”

The building also has an upstairs area with an accessible rooftop for panoramic views of the Cape Fear River. The Savards plan to renovate it as a residential living space to rent out.

The whole project will be designed by Dogwood Architecture and Bill Christopher Building will oversee construction, slated to start Jan. 1, 2024.

“We have a lot to do,” John said. “There is no HVAC, not enough power, no water, so the construction phase will be insane.”

He is realistic about the timeframe and depth of the process and doesn’t foresee the McEachern brewery opening until at least a year-and-a-half or so. 

The Savards have been toying with another location — and even considered one outside of the area — after watching the success of Wilmington Brewing Company in the last decade. Their flagship opened in 2012 as a homebrew supply store at 4405-A Wrightsville Ave. before expanding into a brewery on Kerr Avenue. Eventually, the homebrew supply operation shuttered as the brewery and its distribution soared.

Two years ago, the Savards moved their WBC taproom to The Venue — originally planned to be an event space, as their warehouse facility was undergoing renovations.

“The goal was to have weddings at The Venue,” John said. “But it ended up working so well as a taproom, we’ve decided to just keep it as is.”

The Wilmington Brewing Company warehouse next to The Venue is now a fully dedicated production facility, featuring a 30-barrel system. The McEachern building downtown will operate on a smaller system with 10 barrels. John said it will allow them to home in on beers centered around more North Carolina ingredients or smaller, niche batches. 

“Because the cost isn’t that wildly different,” he explained, noting it’s more expensive when doing larger output. “You can’t do a lavender mint Saison and expect it to move without having to really go far with distribution. So we can use a little bit more exotic ingredients, as 90% of the beer sales will be draft so it will be a much better margin.”

He envisions easy-sipping brews to be prevalent downtown, such as lagers, blonde ales and crushers. A little more than half of the 15 taps at the bar will feature in-house brews, with the rest filled out by midtown’s Wilmington Brewing Company, including its famed Tropical Lightning and other IPAs.

“We’ll kind of rotate through the seasons,” John said.  

The McEachern location will also distribute kegs to bars and restaurants.

Around 200 customers can be seated indoors and outdoors. A 2,000-square-foot parking lot adjacent to the building, large enough for food trucks and live music, came with the purchase. 

Like its sister operation in midtown, the brewery will likely close earlier than other bars that stay open until 2 a.m. The Venue shutters daily at 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.

“We’ve always said that bad things happen after 11 p.m.,” John said. “But having a bar downtown, it’s gonna be completely new to us.”

The Savards are excited about the foot traffic. The downtown brewery is located beside Prost Beer Garden and across from The Little Dipper. The area’s walkability as a tourist destination comes with built-in clientele, unlike Kerr Avenue’s The Venue, often sought out.

“Downtown will have that draw, that summer influx of people,” John said. “Right now in the middle of town, beer-centric people find us. So being downtown and people not even knowing we’re a brewery, and they also can see a surfboard being made — it will be wildly cool.”

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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