Brewing beer and breathing life into Corktown's boxcar building
Until two weeks ago, the old Porter Street Station in Corktown looked much the same to passersby as it has for the last decade: empty, neglected, boarded-up, and sporadically tagged with graffiti.
That began to change when Stephen Roginson, founder of Batch Brewing Co., Detroit's first nanobrewery, closed on the property. He and a small team of co-owners have been working long days since then, begininning demolition of the inside of the structure, soliciting construction bids, and doing the rest of the initial work to turn this plain, square building with an old boxcar attached to it into the new home for their nanobrewery.
"The first thing I did after I closed was write an introduction letter to the neighborhood describing our vision and aspirations," Roginson says. "This place has been an eyesore in the neighborhood for too long."
Reforming an infamous place
The Porter Street Station became infamous in the last decade. The bar made headlines as an after-hours hotspot in the late 2000s shortly before it closed. Roginson says it served as a private club for electronic music fans in recent years, known for loud music and long hours.
Its days as a neighborhood restaurant/bar were long behind it by the time Roginson acquired the building. The lack of upkeep shows in peeling paint, a leaking roof, and a kitchen in need of renovation.
"It looks a lot worse than it is," Roginson says. "It's mostly cosmetic."
Since closing on the building, Roginson and his team of three people have been there every day, working to bring it up to the neighborhood's tidy standards. They tore out a nasty makeshift cooler and plan to replace it with equipment bought at a Detroit Public Schools surplus auction. They cleaned out the underside of the boxcar's floor and found cache of old railroad paraphernalia they plan to reuse in the bar.
The most physically challenging part of the rennovation so far was demolishing a DJ booth made of cement block, brick, and concrete with a sledge hammer. It had to go because it was in the middle of the space where Roginson plans to brew his beer.
"It took me a day and a half to take down the bomb shelter that was the DJ booth," Roginson says.
The Dumpster in the rear of the building has been filled and emptied a few times since Roginson and company began work. Roginson lets a neighbor who meticulously sweeps the curbs along 8th Street dump the garbage he collects there. It's part of Roginson's plan to re-introduce the building as a community asset.
Batch Brewing Co. has retained Kaija Wuollet of LAAVU Design, based in Ponyride, to design the space. The plans call for installing windows where there are boards, along with a couple of garage doors pointed toward the houses a block away. The idea it so create an environment where customers can walk into the business from their homes just as easily as the folks who drive there.
"We really want the neighborhood to feel welcome," Roginson says. "We don't want the only welcoming part to be pointed toward the parking lot. That's too suburban."
Pivots and partners
Roginson is a longtime home brewer and self-professed foodie who made a career in marketing before making Batch Brewing Co. his full-time job. The Midtown resident also started his own branding firm, Grey Label Group, last year.
Roginson is launching Batch Brewing Co. as a nanobrewery
, or a brewery that works on a smaller scale than microbreweries, producing small runs of beer that do not exceed four barrels per batch. The idea is to focus on the craftsmanship of brewing.
"We're developing beers that have the opportunity to get people excited beyond our four walls," Roginson says, adding he wants the new location to serve as both a brew pub and a base for broader distribution.
Over the last year, Batch Brewing Co. has become a darling of Detroit's small business scene. The company raised $25,000 in a crowdfunding campaign early in 2013 and won first prize in the Hatch Detroit contest last fall, netting another $50,000. It also recently landed a $30,000 grant from the Old Tiger Stadium Conservancy, a group that doles out federal funds for economic development projects in Corktown.
Roginson originally planned to open in a friend's storefront at 1444 Michigan Ave., just east of Trumbull. As last year wore on, Roginson saw that the costs of renovating the structure and building out the space were quickly outgrowing his budget.
"In order to open our doors, we had to find a different location," Roginson says. "We were really fortunate to find one with so much parking, as well as a commercial kitchen."
Roginson also changed the makeup of Batch Brewing Co's ownership. He brought on a friend from St. Louis as a partner, helping him move back to Detroit. Roginson also brought on an investor who has been more than willing to swing a hammer at the new site. Roginson is speaking to the Detroit Development Fund about a loan and is also considering adding two more investors to make sure he has enough capital to open his doors.
"It's possible we will be repatriating another Detroiter from Memphis to run our kitchen," Roginson says.
In the meantime, Roginson and his small crew continue to push forward. He is hopeful that he can open the business this year but acknowledges it could be as far away as early next year.
"If we can open before baseball season is over I will be very happy," Roginson says.
Photos by Marvin Shaouni.
Jon Zemke is the News Editor of Model D and its sister publications, Concentrate and Metromode. He is also the Managing Editor of SEMichiganStartup.com.