Buoyed by a reunified Old Courthouse Square and a new public transportation option with the SMART train, a cluster of merchants is looking to capitalize on the renewed interest in downtown Santa Rosa with the lure of barley, hops, yeast and water.
2 Tread Brewing Co. opened its doors Wednesday at the Santa Rosa Plaza off B Street, the latest in a spate of debuts and expansions by beer pubs and breweries in downtown building on the region’s reputation as a beer mecca.
It follows the opening in mid-July of Beer Baron Bar & Kitchen just off the square and the expansion of Belly Left Coast Kitchen & Tap Room on Fourth Street slated to be finished by year’s end.
“Because we are known as the spot for beer, why don’t we make this the most badass beer city in the country?” said Gray Rollin, owner and executive chef of Belly, a 4-year-old business that wants to double in size to bring in more than 30 new tap handles and space for musical performances.
Downtown has long been a popular destination for beer lovers because of Russian River Brewing Co., attracting an estimated 300,000 people annually as one of the country’s most highly regarded breweries. Every February, fans stand in a line for hours to sample its Pliny the Younger beer. And Third Street Aleworks, which also brews and bottles its own beers, still remains a popular locale after more than two decades in business, especially for those who want to watch sports on TV.
The recent influx continues a trend of taprooms in a concentrated area that increasingly is giving downtown Santa Rosa a reputation for beer similar to what wine is for Healdsburg.
That also includes such taprooms as Local Barrel, Wilibees Wine & Spirits and Sprenger’s Restaurant & Tap Room. Shady Oak Barrel House, known for its heralded sour and farmhouse ales, operates its production facility on First Street and has plans to open its taproom within two months.
The activity comes as Santa Rosa was already named earlier this year the No. 1 American city for craft beer by the online journal The Pudding, based on data culled from beer-rating sites.
“You can’t ignore all the places that have opened in the past year,” said Charles Evans, a building owner of the space formerly occupied by Flavor Bistro off Old Courthouse Square. Evans has had discussions with at least one local brewery on taking the vacant space.
“The fact that Belly is expanding tells you something,” Evans said.
The most ambitious of these projects is 2 Tread, which is taking over the old Fresh Choice restaurant spot at the mall with a microbrewery, a beer garden that can hold more than 400 people and an upscale pub menu featuring such items as barley risotto with wild mushrooms. It employs about 70 people.
“I looked in Napa, Marin and Sonoma (counties). To find someplace downtown with a beer garden, this was the only place,” said co-owner Bill Drury, whose seven-figure project originally had been slated to open by the end of 2016, but encountered construction delays.
The brewery, which currently has 16 guest taps, plans to offer a wide range of its own beers, such as a pale ale, a porter and an India pale ale. “A goal is to make a variety of ales and lagers of high drinkability,” said veteran brewer Christian August, who also is a partner in the venture.
2 Tread would like to distribute its beer in the future.
2 Tread’s debut gives Sonoma County about 30 production breweries, though new openings have decreased the past year as overall craft beer industry growth slowed. Drury remains bullish on the sector, noting Sonoma County has around 450 wineries.
“As downtown becomes more of a destination, it will be good for all of us,” he said. “There will be some sorting out of what people like.”
Drury expects 2 Tread will attract visitors from the SMART train, since the downtown Santa Rosa station is just a 10-minute walk away.
“I talked to a number of cyclists that want to ride up, go out to eat and take the train home,” he said.
The brewpub also gives the plaza a new tenant with the potential to bring in more foot traffic, a welcome addition given the uncertain future of all shopping centers as more customers opt to buy online rather than at brick-and-mortar stores.
“We are always looking to improve the center to become more of a lifestyle destination and entertainment venue for customers,” said Christa Williams, director of marketing and business development for Santa Rosa Plaza.
“We were looking for a great dining experience (to be thrown) into the mix.”
A continued focus for many downtown merchants will be a push for more events to be held at the square to attract more customers. Belly saw an uptick in patrons this summer with the Wednesday Night Market now centered at the new square, Rollin said. But its business was lousy during the Ironman Santa Rosa triathlon as locals stayed away in droves to avoid traffic nightmares.
“What we are starting to see is the first phase of development,” said Sonu Chandi, president of the Chandi Hospitality Group, which owns such downtown restaurants as Beer Baron, Stout Brothers Irish Pub and Restaurant and Bibi’s Burger Bar. “We have been getting a lot more beer-focused tourism.”
Within the first few months, Beer Baron has already exceeded its expectation for foot traffic and customer spending, Chandi said, though he did not reveal any specific metrics.
Chandi also is revamping his Stout Brothers pub. That decision was forced upon his company as a result of recent action by the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. The agency suspended the pub’s alcohol license Aug. 31 for 40 days as a result of an employee assaulting a patron last December in an incident that resulted in serious injuries, said agency spokesman John Carr.
Stout Brothers did not contest the action and agreed to have a licensed security officer on duty from 10 p.m. to 30 minutes after closing, Carr said. The employee was fired, Chandi said. His group will refocus Stout Brothers to make it more like a pub with an enhanced menu with specialty Irish whiskeys and Scotch as well as live music — and less of a late-night watering hole.
“I always bring my family to walk around the square. I want to see many other families do it. We are trying to create a family-safe environment,” he said. “I think downtown has a lot of potential.”
In the end, Chandi said he believes that to fully grow the prospects for downtown, community leaders must attract more businesses to locate in the neighborhood as well as build more apartments and condominiums to expand to an urban-style residential environment. Beer alone, he said, cannot do it.