The official announcement finally came today, January 15, 2013, over Facebook: This summer a little light industry rolls in to 303 Main Street in Frankfort. The Alert spoke with Stormcloud Brewing Company owner-operators Brian Confer and Rick Schmitt about their project, which will occupy the former site of the Caddy Shack and the adjacent lot, which has been vacant for some years. Mature residents may remember the 7 Spot restaurant at no. 303 and Fav’s diner next door, among other ventures including House of Television, and long before that, the Victoria Theater (1907), built by Custer Carland. For more information on the series of businesses that have occupied this storied location, see local historian extraordinaire Pete Sandman’s upcoming book Our Town, available in June.
Full disclosure: this reporter has been plied with fellow Elbertian Brian Confer’s creations in the past, and while not exactly a zymurgonaut herself, she finds them delicious. Herewith, the Alert exclusive interview. —Emily Votruba
Brian’s photographs of the brewery’s progress here.
Brian Confer I fell in love with this industry about 8 years ago. In conjunction with Lisa [Schroeder-Confer]’s wine store [the Blue Door], I was going to trade shows. I met Joe Short, who was a real right-place, right-time story. He opened his operation [Short’s Brewing Company] right when the industry started to grow phenomenally, and I got swept up in that. I don’t know how to answer that question except to say, there’s no desire to do anything but beer.
When did you start brewing?
Around that same time. I was Brian Confer Photography by day and I was brewing in my studio at night.
What about you, Rick? Do you have a personal beer story?
When we [Rick and wife Jennie Schmitt] moved here in 1996 I actually filed for a brewing license, and had been dabbling in [homebrewing] before that in Colorado. I started the process of creating my own brand. Then we had kids and I just never got back into it.
For me, a brewery is the ultimate local business model. It takes you back to a century ago when every town had their own little brewery and it created jobs and you were able to make a product that gave an identity to that space.
What kind of atmosphere do you hope to create?
Rick: We’re looking to create that “third place”—the first place is your home, the second place is your work, and the third place is where you exist when you’re not in the first two. Think of pubs in small towns over the years—it’s the place where the community goes.
Brian: It can be a family gathering place as well. Regardless even of the hour. Mom and Dad are kicking back and relaxing and the kids are like, Wow, they’re relaxed, they’re actually having fun.
How much are the renovations and new construction costing you?
Rick: The reality is it’s significantly more expensive than we thought it would be. The good news is we’ve saved an old building in downtown Frankfort, which was important to us. Jim Kunz is our real estate partner and an investor in the brewery operations. We could not have made the project happen without his involvement and commitment to Frankfort. Jim and his wife, Kris, have a home on Forest Avenue.
Brian: Jim had made overtures to me in the past about being a founding investor in a brewing operation, but I wasn’t ready to have that conversation yet. Then when Rick and I started to get things going, the key piece of the puzzle was to find someone to buy that building or it wasn’t going to happen. Jim believed in the project, was excited about it, and decided to take the leap.
Are you going to keep that cavernous feeling of the space as it stands right now?
Rick: It’s a big space. We sadly haven’t uncovered any beautiful treasures we can keep, in terms of wood floors or tin ceilings, for example, but at the highest point it’ll be a twelve-foot ceiling, with wooden rafters.
How many people do you expect to employ?
Rick: We’ll have 5 or 6 full-time, year-round employees counting Brian and myself, and through the peak of the summer months we’ll have 15 to 18 employees.
Brian: It’ll increase during the summer, but the brewery staff won’t rise nearly as much as the pub staff.
So you’ve answered my next question, which was if you’re going to be open year round.
Rick: That’s our intent. The beauty of the model is we’re a manufacturing facility too, so we can make beer in October and November and sell it to places far and wide.
Brian: We’re going to be in there in the winter anyway, the heat will be on, so we might as well turn on the lights and hang an open sign.
Rick: For me that’s very important. We want this place to be a destination twelve months of the year.
We had Northern Natural Winery in Benzonia, who’ve now moved to Front Street in TC (and will be missed). Are there any other breweries in Benzie County?
Brian: We’ll be the first one and the only one I would expect for several years, but I wouldn’t be surprised if one opened up somewhere in the area. As Rick and I found out, it’s one thing to plan it, and another thing to fund it. But there’s no end to the market. Breweries are opening all over the country—about 2,000 are at least in the planning process, according to the Brewer’s Association. As Rick said, there was a time before WWII when every town had a brewery. But there are more breweries open now than there were just before Prohibition.* My personal theory is that breweries are the grown-up coffee shop. Twenty years ago there were coffee shops opening on every block. If you go into many breweries now it’s that same atmosphere, people hanging out, reading a book, playing games, working on their computer.
The brewing equipment itself must have been a huge expense. Where did you get it?
Brian: There are a handful of manufacturers. It’s nothing you walk in and purchase. You place an order and six months later it shows up on a truck—when you finish paying it off. We lucked into a used system, which is almost unheard of these days. It showed up on a professional bulletin board and luckily it was close, in southern Indiana. I drove down there and we moved on it. We got a great system for far less money and we got a lot more stuff.
City Superintendent Josh Mills mentioned Stormcloud at the Downtown Development Authority meeting the other day as a “missed opportunity” to capture the increased tax revenue your project would bring. How do you see your operations fitting in with the overall Frankfort plan, or not?
Rick: We have worked with the planning commission and the city from the beginning, even before we had any meetings with architects or any thoughts of what the business might look like. We invited the planning commission to walk the site. We had conversations about the concept. We’ve been very collaborative, ensuring that everybody feels good about what’s going to happen here.
Did you take any suggestions into consideration?
Brian: Yeah, actually, there were quite a few suggestions as far as the look of the building. Nothing related to operations. There were a couple of ideas that were like, Huh! Why didn’t we think of that!
Rick: We had suggestions from planning commission members as well as the community. Plans were adjusted. Several neighbors were involved and made suggestions about the façade and colors. We should mention that it’s not just Brian and Jim and I. We have sold shares of the company, roughly 25%, to community members, so it’s really a community-based project. Also there will be opportunities to become a member of a founders’ club—we have to come up with a better word than “mug club.” We’ll have discounts, you’ll get a special glass, and we’ll limit that number.
Who do you want to attract to this destination?
Brian: Everybody. From young to old. It should be comfortable for everyone and have something for everyone. There will be beer, wine, other Michigan beverages, and food.
Will there be dirndls?
Brian: [Laughs] I think anyone in a dirndl is very welcome and will probably get their first drink half price…or something. We are not a German brewery, but we’re not going to turn away dirndls. A few months ago I posted on Facebook about possibly turning my photography business into a dirndl photography specialty business.
It’s all about the niche market.
Rick: And indeed we do not want any more confusion between Frankfort and Frankenmuth
Brian: Let’s hope the dirndls stay in Frankenmuth.
So on that note of placemaking, deeply localness… Have you conceptualized how Stormcloud could be sort of echt Frankfort?
Rick: The whole “Stormcloud” vision is based on Frankfort as a beach community, where you can see the storms rolling in, or whatever that might mean to you. There won’t be a theme per se.
Brian: I love this little community of Frankfort and Elberta. I love winter up here. I love the gray days, the solitude, the quietness. For me this brewery needs to be about the nine months of the year when you and I and Rick and our friends are here, day in and day out. We’ve got to celebrate those people. And summer is a bonus. It’s those months through the gray time that Stormcloud is about. You may have gotten this question—I have many times…You get the weeklong visitor. They’re very interested in talking to the locals. And what they want to know is, “What do you do in the winter?” Now we’ll have an answer.
Will you be showing the World Cup?
Brian: Only if it doesn’t compete with the Tour de France!
Rick: Brian and I have a love-hate relationship with televisions. We will have a very nice television, maybe two. It won’t be on all the time. And there will be no sound. SportsCenter is not going to be scrolling on the screen all day long.
Brian: We can have sound if it’s the World Cup…
Rick: Yeah, well, if it’s a Tigers game or something… But it’s not going to be a place where you walk in and the first thing you see is “Welcome to my TV.”
Will your beer be available anywhere else nearby?
Brian: We plan to distribute a few.
Rick: The model is such that you may or may not want to sell your product locally. Would you rather have people drive to your brewery? But certainly it’ll be available within the area, maybe even in Benzonia. We have to figure out how much we can distribute.
Brian: It won’t be a lot at first.
So, I have to ask: Why not Elberta?
Brian: Rick and I are spending a ton of money to get this place open and we’ve got to make sure the deck is stacked in our favor. We picked and secured a location that has a high rate of tourist foot traffic and neighboring businesses that are sought out from far and wide. I talked to Sylvester Lee a long time ago about the Elberta Beach Market building but decided it just had to be in a spot with more foot traffic. For me personally, I needed to get over the fact that there’s a border. I don’t really think of it as two different locations.
There’s a certain cultural interest in the idea that there’s a border, a difference. But it doesn’t seem productive to enhance any kind of hostility between the two.
Rick: We have both communities in our interest. I want Elberta to be successful. I don’t sense a boundary or border, but you do hear that from the old-timers. Because we own the theater, it was important to me to have the business adjacent to the one I own—it’s a natural fit. I truly believe this: the block from 3rd to 4th on Main Street in Frankfort is the most coveted business location within 40 miles. Even Glen Arbor—that’s a very isolated spot with a ten-week season. Frankfort is a dynamite place to open a new business.
Brian: As far as the brewing and tourism industry goes, there’s some excitement in our opening up because it provides the missing puzzle piece in the west-side brewery tour. You come up from Grand Haven/Grand Rapids/Ludington, and now there’ll be a brewery here, about an hour north of Ludington, and then the ones in and near Traverse. Then there are a few in the Charlevoix area and two in Petoskey. So we’ll be that missing piece.
What’s your connection to the area, Rick?
Rick: My wife’s family owns Watervale and Jennie runs it for the family. I first visited when I met Jennie, in college, the summer of 1988.
Brian: What was your take, having come from the mountains [of Colorado]?
Rick: There’s no water there, essentially. The water is rivers, streams, reservoirs. So you don’t get the sense of how water can affect your life. For me that was the biggest surprise. No place is perfect. Northern Michigan is much better in the summer and fall, and Colorado is better in the winter, from a blue-sky and sunshine standpoint. I wouldn’t change anything about moving here. I question whether there’s any better place to be.
Brian: Lisa and I were living in Suttons Bay and looking for a house in Leelanau. Through my job at Traverse Magazine I saw every square foot of Northern Michigan from Mackinac to Manistee. But I hadn’t been to Frankfort–Elberta yet until I had to photograph Hans Voss for an article about the Elberta Dunes. We hiked the dunes. He told me about his house, which he bought for $50K. Lisa and I were in the middle of looking at tiny little houses that were $175K, and I was standing on the dunes thinking, There’s no way we’re not going to move here. Ψ
“1,989 total breweries operated for some or all of 2011, the highest total since the 1880s.”