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Wednesday, 28 September 2016 15:15

Tapping into your tummy: Nantahala Brewing launches restaurant, open-air taproom

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Surrounded by piles of debris, old wood and gravel, Joe Rowland sees opportunity. “This is the inevitable next step for us,” he said.

Co-owner of Nantahala Brewing in Bryson City, Rowland wanders around a four-acre lot at the end of Depot Street, less than a block from the flagship brewery. Purchased by Rowland in early 2016, the property consists of an abandoned warehouse (formerly the RC Cola bottling company) and large open field. Initially, the 11,000-square-foot building was going to be used for Nantahala’s equipment storage, barrel aging program and bottling line. But, as time went along, an idea for the remaining 3,200 square feet of unused space crept into the minds of Rowland and Co. — a restaurant and indoor/outdoor brew pub.

“We’ve always wanted to be able to serve food, but didn’t have enough space in the brewery,” Rowland said. “And when we looked at using part of the warehouse for a kitchen, we figured if we’re going to build that kitchen, we might as well construct a full-on brewpub.” 

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But, though Rowland is a known businessman, running a restaurant is a whole other animal, especially in terms of cost and risk. And it wasn’t until two faces came into the fold that put the restaurant on the fast track to becoming a reality — Al Parsons and Chef Meredith Watson. 

Currently the general manager for Nantahala, Parsons previously ran the popular Brio Tuscan Grille at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort, and also spent many years working within the corporate managing areas of Carrabba’s Italian Grill in Ohio. 

“Having a business that will be going from 25 employees to around 50, we wanted to make sure we had the right person to lead this next chapter, and also not lose sight of our culture and brand at the brewery — Al is that person,” Rowland said. 

A Bryson City native, Watson has worked her way up the culinary chain, where she found herself in high-end/high-volume kitchens like Ruth’s Chris Steak House and other spots in Washington, D.C., before returning to Western North Carolina. 

“The kitchen will feature an ‘upscale southern’ menu, with everything in terms of meat and produce being sourced from local farms within 60 miles of the brewery,” Rowland said. “Meredith is endlessly creative, and we’re excited to be able to offer something new, and something much needed, in Bryson City, especially in terms of vegetarian and vegan options, which aren’t really found in this part of Western North Carolina.”

Wandering the warehouse, Rowland points out the enormous amounts of reclaimed wood from the almost 100-year-old structure, all now finding new uses as wall coverings and trim. The floor, which was dirt just a few months ago, is now fully tiled as new kitchen equipment trickles in. Taps, doors and bathrooms are being installed, all while the sounds of hammers, drills and buzz saws echo into the hills. 

“What’s really crazy is that we recently found out this building used to bottle beer right after Prohibition ended in 1933,” Rowland said of the warehouse. “RC Cola would bottle ginger ale for beer companies like Schlitz and Ballantine so they could stay in business during Prohibition. And when it ended, they showed up with trucks of beer to bottle for this region — it’s a real full circle kind of thing for us.”

Plans are already in the works to take the large open yard and transform it into an outdoor music venue, a long-held dream by the company. It’s something they’re finding footing in as they tap the shoulders of their friends at Pisgah Brewing in Black Mountain for advice on how to ideally run an entertainment space in hopes of attracting big name acts.

Atop its expansions at home in Bryson City, Nantahala is also increasing its brand outside of Western North Carolina. With products found on shelves and on taps from Swain County all the way to Raleigh, Nantahala also launched in Tennessee, covering upwards of 87 percent of the state. Their craft beer can also be found during Carolina Panthers football games at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. Rowland noted the brewery is currently in talks to push brews into Georgia and South Carolina, atop other NFL teams like the Tennessee Titans and Atlanta Falcons.

With a mid-October opening planned, it’s all hands on deck for Rowland and Co. as they ready themselves for the change on the horizon — an curious attitude of business and chance that’s remained at the core of the brewery since its inception some six years ago. 

“It’s great because we’ve spent the last few years tying up all the loose ends of what our customers wanted,” Rowland said. “And now that we’ve done that, this was the last gap we’d yet to fill — the next step is here, and we’re ready for it.”

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