Friday, June 29, 2012

[EID Feature] Nano Growth: Brew Jus

All photos from Brew Jus.

Brew Jus is a nano-restaurant. Not sure quite what to make of that? Neither is the health department, the city of Ferndale or Oakland County.

To these various governing bodies’ credit, they’re trying. Well … except for the health department, which kind of functions like that kid in high school who’d rat you out for smoking in the bathroom because they’re terrified of getting in trouble themselves just for having known about it even though you totally would have gotten away with it if it hadn’t been for their meddling. That’s the health department. They’re not exactly the most popular of the bunch and they take their jobs very seriously. (Some would complain, but those people would also complain if they got, say, foodborne botulism from a restaurant serving unregulated food items. That is until they died from it. So let’s just, you know, keep the role of the health department in perspective here.)

Brew Jus is a brand-new “nano” restaurant operating inside (eventually) the Rust Belt Market in Ferndale. They’ve spent a lot of time and money building out a beautiful space and will be able to serve inside once they get all the proper permits and licensing and pass all the necessary inspections … all of which are taking longer than normal and changing as they go because, quite frankly, no one knows just what the hell to do with them.

See, Brew Jus is a whole new kind of business model. Not a full-blown restaurant with its own building and commercial kitchen; not a mobile vendor with its own recently-determined set of rules and regulations; not a pop-up which can skate in under someone else’s health department license so long as it is happening out of a licensed commercial kitchen. Brew Jus is none of these things.

Partner Nick Schultz admits it’s been difficult but for no other reason than that there is no precedent set for this kind of business and they’re all figuring it out as they go along. “The city has been great,” he says, but admits that “every week there has been a new obstacle.” (Most recently they had to switch from propane to natural gas, which required more construction inside the building and another inspection.) “The health department sees us as something there’s no mold for,” Nick states. Representatives from Oakland County told him that they’re having multiple meetings about him. “We’re the subject of these meetings and debates. It’s kind of flattering but also intimidating. I feel like we’re under a microscope.” He adds, “Looking back I don’t think it could have been done any differently; we’re coming against these obstacles together,” referring to the various governing bodies they’re working with.

Nick and his partner David Ballew both attended Oakland County’s FastTrac NewVenture program, a 10-week program designed for new and aspiring entrepreneurs to basically help them figure out how to run a business. “[Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson] is all about the small business,” Nick says. From the very beginning Nick and Dave have had advisors from Oakland County helping them, going to bat for them against the health department by saying, “This is a new concept; we need you to evolve.” (Which was met with, “This is a concept we don’t understand; there’s no rules for it.” Which kind of reminds me of that line from Coming to America when the King of Zamunda says, “Who am I to change the rules?” and the Queen responds with, “I thought you were the King.”)

Ultimately progress is being made and they do have a license to serve food. You can find them outside the Rust Belt Market serving sliders this weekend and Nick hopes they’ll be able to start cooking and serving inside in the beautiful space they built from scratch in early July.

Ah yes: sliders. Brew Jus seeks to redefine the relationship between food and beer with artisan sliders made with beer-inspired sauces. Nick is a chef and Dave is a brewer. “We would always have these conversations about how beer gets a bad rep in the food industry, how fancy restaurants don’t have good beer …” Nick says. [Editor’s note: I’d argue that that has already been changing for a few years now.] While attending culinary school, Nick put on a craft beer and food pairing event that received a great response, and the idea for Brew Jus really evolved from there.

Dave brews the beer and Nick makes the food. Each of their products are closely tied to one another: the beer is incorporated into the sauces used on their sliders and also into its own ice cream. Their ultimate concept is to be able to have a slider bar serving the sauces made from the beer, the ice creams made from the beer, and the beer itself: what Nick calls “the three stages of beer.” So their Cherry Wheat beer would also be used in their Angry Cherry sauce and made into a cherry wheat ice cream … long-longterm, they’d like to have these products available in stores and all color-coded in what Nick jokes is a “beer pairing for dummies!” Because both are very passionate about minimizing waste products (and there is a lot of waste in the food and beverage industry), the sauces are actually made from scratch using the spent grain from Dave’s brews.

It makes sense: Nick has been calling himself “The Sauced Chef” for a few years now (with his own blog and YouTube channel), a name that comes from his love of cooking and making sauces with alcohol. After working in the corporate world for years then getting laid off at the beginning of the economic recession, Nick took the opportunity to go back to school under the “No Worker Left Behind” program and followed his dream to go to culinary school. “I dedicated all of my time to it; I completely changed my career.” He started his official culinary career at the WAB, was part of the opening team at Toasted Oak Grill and Market in Novi (“[Chef] Steve [Grostick] took a huge risk on me”), worked VIP banquets and buffets for high rollers at Greektown Casino, and worked directly under the Executive Chef at the Detroit Zoo. He is now part of the opening team for Ferndale’s soon-to-open Local Kitchen + Bar; Local owner Rick Halberg has been incredibly accommodating and is allowing him weekends off so he can run Brew Jus. (Which is pretty much unheard of in the restaurant industry.)

Dave is also balancing another job in the meantime; a career restaurant person himself, Dave more recently got into brewing beer after he too was laid off during the recession and wanted to drink good beer but couldn’t afford it … so he started making it. They both hope that in the next year they can be running Brew Jus full-time.

“We’re very excited about brand,” Nick says. “We think we have good product … we’re hoping to make the best sliders in Ferndale!” They serve a selection of artisan sliders (larger in size than the typical “slider” and so a higher price point) as well as sides, like their potato salad made with their IPA-based mustard sauce, and will eventually add “malted” malts (made with their beer-based ice cream). They even have a vegan slider which Nick promised doesn’t suck (or your money back!).

Under construction at the Rust Belt Market.

Being inside the Rust Belt Market is something they’re also excited about. Nick sees the Rust Belt as a conduit for getting their name out and has built a very good relationship with owners Chris and Tiffany Best. “It’s so cool to be part of their market which is evolving so much,” he says. “They hand-pick their vendors [which is a huge compliment]. It’s been such a pain in the ass for them but they’ve stuck by us. We’re excited to be a part of this whole crowd, especially in Ferndale where people are very supportive of local businesses … we’re just very happy we found Chris and Tiffany.”

Nick and Dave have a lot of plans for what they’d like to see happen down the line. A contract brew with the WAB and getting their beer on tap at places like Local; a traveling slider bar with Motor City Street Eats; a late night menu outside the Rust Belt for the bar crowd; a manufacturing facility and their products on store shelves; possibly a nanobrewery at the Belt or maybe their own brewing facility … they’ve got a lot of ideas. But for now, the focus is just getting their indoor space approved and serving their sliders. “There’s so much talk about small business; it’s a buzz word,” Nick says. “But really a small business can be a nano-restaurant. It would be so cool to do this in a cost-effective but safe and healthy way.”

Despite the obstacles they’ve faced, there’s a certain satisfaction in being the FIRST to do something entirely new, and anyone who comes along after will have Brew Jus to thank for paving the way.