Spartanburg’s RJ Rockers Brewing Co. is tapping into its roots while seeding future growth.
The beloved local craft brewer on Friday, Sept. 29, revealed details of a more than $1 million expansion of its downtown space that will lead the venture back to where it all started 20 years ago – with food.
RJ Rockers’ investment will carve out 3,800 square feet of existing brewery space at 226-A West Main St. for a new 100-seat restaurant named The Silo, an appropriate name given the grain silo outside.
“It feels great because what we’re about to do what I’ve wanted to do since the beginning, but it wasn’t legal,” said Mark Johnsen, who founded RJ Rockers as a brewpub in 1997 in the building currently occupied by Delaney’s Irish Pub at 117 W. Main St. in downtown Spartanburg.
“Thanks to the support of the community and changes in the regulations, it’s possible,” Johnsen added. “We couldn’t be happier to be where we’re at and are looking forward to being a part of the growth of downtown.”
The Silo is anticipated to open in December and will add about 15 jobs to downtown Spartanburg’s food industry, which is undergoing an evolution due to an explosion of new eateries and food-related businesses during the past 17 months.
Aesthetically speaking, the space will flow with the industrial feel of the building, which was constructed more than a half-century ago as a Dodge dealership.
The interior will feature exposed brick, concrete floors, recycled wood, metal fixtures, poured concrete bar, comfortable seating, and a private dining room that can accommodate up to 25 people.
An outdoor patio with ample seating will surround the brewery’s prominent grain silo on the east side of the building.
Construction is already underway.
Spartanburg-based Dunbar Construction is the general contractor. Spartanburg interior designer Sandra Cannon, who has worked on various local projects, including the redevelopment of the historic Drayton Mill, will put her keen eye to work for The Silo.
Head chef Clay McDonough, a transplant from Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, who moved to Spartanburg one year ago initially to practice law, will lead the operation of The Silo.
McDonough said he grew up about an hour outside of New Orleans. He attended Ole Miss and worked in what he described as a “really cool, small, experimental” restaurant.
He started as a dishwasher and eventually worked his way up to running the kitchen.
“That experience was invaluable,” McDonough said. “I grew up very fast in that environment.”
Johnsen said McDonough was serving as the leader of the brewery ownership’s run club.
“He heard about what we were planning and asked if he could throw his hat into the ring,” Johnsen said. “He came back to us with a full menu. Many of those items you will see when we open. He was the obvious choice to run this thing.”
The Silo will have a plethora of conceptual tie-ins to RJ Rocker’s beer operations, which currently stand at between 8,000 and 10,000 barrels of production annually and distribution in the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia.
A good example is the restaurant’s name.
“Our silo is a working silo that stores grain,” McDonough said. “The whole idea is that the silo feeds the brewing operation. Now, it will feed the restaurant. And the restaurant will feed the community. The community will feed us.”
And then there’s the food.
McDonough said he plans to use spent grain and “sugar water” from the brewery’s beer brewing processes to craft food items that carry the flavor profiles of RJ Rockers’ beers.
The menu will feature “hand-to-mouth shareable plates,” including Smoked Trout and Horseradish Terrine, and Upstate Poutine (fries with Clemson blue pimento cheese, caramelized onion gravy, and Son of a Peach pepper jelly) for $9.
Heartier “knife-and-fork”plates like the Open-Faced BBQ Biscuit and Shrimp and Sweet Potatoes on Charred Corn Risotto will be available for $13.
McDonough described the restaurant’s food offering as being similar to the brewery’s beer lineup, which includes staples, seasonal favorites, and “small batch” items.
The chef said the restaurant’s target audience will be “anyone who would come to a brewery.” But he said the eatery will be family-friendly.
RJ Rockers Tap Room and brewing operation will remain open during construction, Johnsen said.
Another area where the restaurant promises to be nontraditional is its centralized ordering system.
Via the system, customers can order whenever and from wherever they want to by flagging down any one of the “roaming servers” moving between the restaurant and Tap Room spaces. The idea aims to give diners the freedom to socialize and explore.
McDonough said servers will be as knowledgeable about the food as the brewery’s employees are about the beer.
“The brewery will not change with the addition of The Silo,” said RJ Rockers Owner John Bauknight, in a statement. “This is an enhancement to our current offerings, providing a relaxed, honest beer and food experience at the source. There are no facades and no strict rules about how to enjoy your time here. You’re in charge. We won’t tell you where to sit, what to eat, or when to leave.”
RJ Rockers leaders said they are excited about the position of the brewery and the restaurant in downtown.
They expect the new $20 million AC Hotel under construction across the street will add a whole new dimension to the city’s hospitality scene, and are excited about other prospects that could bring more restaurants to the western end of downtown.
“The city has such a great amount of momentum right now,” Bauknight said. “Going forward, we’re going to be able to contribute an even more significant amount of tax revenue that the city can use to invest in other things that improve the quality of life for local residents. It’s a great time to be in business in downtown Spartanburg.”
Johnsen’s vision for a vibrant downtown brewpub started in the early 1990s.
The U.S. Army veteran was stationed in Germany after Desert Storm, where he fell in love with beer. He then learned the craft of brewing while serving with the National Guard in Idaho.
In 1997, he made the decision to start up his own brewpub. But in 2002, he decided to leave food behind to pursue beer.
He sold his stake in the restaurant and moved his brewing operation to a building off Interstate 85 Business in Spartanburg County.
In 2007, Bauknight and his business partner and fellow Wofford College graduate Nick Wildrick acquired RJ Rockers.
Two years later, RJ Rockers relocated its brewery to downtown. The operation immediately began breathing new life into an area of downtown that had been in decline for years.
New developments, including Main Street Pub, Cribb’s Kitchen, Little River Roasting Co.’s Coffee Bar and Hub City Bookshop, opened in fairly quick succession.
A local effort to rebrand the western end of downtown as the Grain District took root.
And then the regulatory landscape shifted.
Bauknight was heavily involved in the passage of the state’s Stone Bill in 2014. The bill paved the way for breweries in South Carolina to sell food and brewpubs to increase their production and sell to distributors.
Before the legislation was passed, breweries could only make (albeit in unlimited quantities) and distribute beer, but not serve food. Brewpubs could serve food, but were only able to make 2,000 barrels of beer per year.
There was also the 2013 “Pint Bill,” which enabled South Carolina breweries to serve a total of 48 ounces of beer, or 4 pints, to a customer for on-site consumption in a 24-hour period, as opposed to a few 4-ounce samples.
Johnsen said downtown momentum, regulatory changes, and the brewery’s continual growth and rising popularity as a local attraction, encouraged RJ Rockers to add a food component.
“Big picture, we love this concept because it enhances the experience for our customers,” Johnsen said. “Initially, we looked at doing a food truck… This is much cooler.”