Better times are brewing

partners resurrect midtown's brasserie saint james

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: Brasserie Saint James Owners Deane Albright and Joel Rasmus on Jan. 1, at the reopening of the Midtown brewpub.

Here’s a recipe for opening a restaurant during a pandemic: start with a popular local brand, add a long-term strategy, ladle in large portions of investment, a veteran staff, adaptations for safety and other innovations, season with courage — then serve to the public along with a firm belief in better times ahead.

The owners of Brasserie Saint James, a brewery and restaurant that closed in March after eight years as an anchor business in Midtown, followed that formula. The eatery reopened its doors to dine-in service Jan. 1. Opening a new restaurant is always a toss of the dice; resurrecting one during a health and economic crisis whose course no one can predict faces even greater odds.

“There was a debate about (reopening),” said Deane Albright, one of the three investors who opened Brassiere St. James in 2012. “There was a lot to think about.”

In the end, two of the three partners decided to forge ahead, COVID-19 be damned. Albright and Joel Rasmus bought out partner Art Farley’s share of the business.

On New Year’s Day, the patrons seated at distantly-placed tables in the establishment’s two renovated dining rooms experienced dishes and libations that were comfortably familiar — and a six brand new brews.

Pandemic decimated restaurants

“It is a bold move,” said Sabrina Sanders, a restaurant and bar consultant working with the owners. “We did the calculations, not just for the first few months, but projected over the next couple years. The main question was ‘is it reasonable to reopen?’ …It’s going to be hard during the next few months, but there’s a long-term strategy behind (the decision).”

When the COVID-19 lock-down began in March, some eateries closed and their owners eventually decided to cut their losses and walk away. Those casualties include the 4th Street Bistro, which opened 20 years ago and was a pioneer in locally-sourced ingredients and seasonal dishes; Luciano‘s on Lakeside Drive; Monaciello on California Street; Tofu House on Plumb Lane; True New York Pizza in Sparks; the  landmark Santa Fe Basque Restaurant in downtown Reno; and many more.

Survivors – like Midtown Eats, Noble Pie Parlors and others – reopened dining rooms when restrictions were relaxed in May. They are weathering the pandemic with tactics that include a combination of takeout offerings, catering, delivery services and limited seating. A few other restaurants, including Gloria’s Café on Dickerson Road and Record Street Brewing in Midtown, opened just prior to or during the crisis and remain viable.

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: The bars in one of Brasserie Saint James’ two dining rooms Jan. 1.

Keeping staff, patrons safe

For the owners of Brasserie Saint, James, the decision to reenter the market was based on a long list of factors, including the size of the house, their well-known brand and wide fan base, the expansion of their brewery and retailing options, and an ability to rehire several key people that made the pub a popular gathering place during the last eight years.

“One thing we had going for us (during COVID), is the size of the building,” Sanders said. “The space is so big.” The business occupies the old Crystal Springs Ice Company building at 901 South Center St. The mission-style structure, completed in 1930, has about 13,000 square feet of floor space. About 6,000 square feet is used by the brewery and the remaining 7,000 square feet is restaurant space.

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: One of the two dining rooms at the Brasserie on Jan. 1.

That expanse made it easier to distance the tables and booths even further apart than the six feet required by the current COVID-19 rules. In addition, the owners are limiting seating, to about 20% capacity of the 267 indoor seats available pre-pandemic, lower than the 25% capacity which is now mandated. That translates into seating for about 40 to 50 patrons during each turn of the tables.

Outdoor seating on rooftop

When the weather warms up, the Brasserie also will have 80 more seats available on the building’s roof and beer garden.

During the shutdown, the house underwent a deep cleaning, booths in the center of one dining room were removed, Plexiglas shields were installed on the remaining booths that hug a wall, and HEPA filters were added to the ventilation system.

The menu includes most of the original entrees, including comfort food like southern fried chicken and waffles, and some additional small-plate offerings.

Getting the band back together

PHOTO/ELSY AGENCY: master brewers Madison Gurries and Josh Watterson in the brewery.

Albright said another factor in the reopening decision was the availability of several of the original restaurant and brewery staff.

Josh Watterson, the Brasserie’s original brewmaster, is back on board as a consultant. He was named Great American Beer Festival’s Brewer of the Year in 2014, the same year Brasserie Saint James won the Best Brew Pub prize and was awarded a Gold Medal for Daily Wages, a Belgian-style saison. Madison Gurries, who started as an intern at the brewery in 2014, is returning as onsite brewmaster.

Gurries and Watterson are graduates of the World Brewing Academy in Chicago, which is affiliated with the Doemens Academy in Munich, Germany. Both men hold international diplomas in brewing technology. All told, the two master brewers and the Brasserie have won 40 major national brewing awards during the last eight years.

The six new brews, developed by Watterson, include a pomegranate-flavored hard seltzer, a toasted marshmallow latte stout, three hazy IPAs (including one brewed with terpines, a cannabis oil minus the THC) and a West Coast IPA. Most of the brewery’s original flavors, based on French and Belgian style brews, remain available.

Adding a canning line

All are brewed with artesian water from the Crystal Springs well — drilled 285 feet deep through 100 feet of granite in 1929 – that taps the aquifer below the restaurant.  The original ales and beers are now available on tap, and to-go in cans and bottles.

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: The on-tap brew menu at brunch on Jan. 1.

The operation will soon include a canning line, enabling Brasserie St. James to directly expand its sales into supermarkets and stores in Northern Nevada and Las Vegas. The new brews and some of the old favorites will be offered in six packs and four packs. The expansion of products and retail opportunities figured highly into the partners’ decision to reopen.

“The canning line is a huge step for the business,” Sanders said. “There’s probably a $100,000 investment in that alone. It’s a massive deal for us.”

Karl Lindenberg, who was the eatery’s chef for six years, is back in the kitchen. Zak and Eleanor Girdis, who met while working at the restaurant in 2012 and married the following year, are now the on-site managers.

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: A cook plates an order of Argentine flank steak on Jan. 1.

“The feeling I get is that we’re returning to the spirit of the place that was there when we first opened,” Zak Girdis said. “This is a fresh start. It’s exciting to be able to give this another go.”

Looking ahead, post-COVID

Bartender John Becker

Brewery operations resumed in the fall and to-go service began a week before Christmas. On New Year’s Day the doors to the dining rooms opened and patrons had their first indoor restaurant meals of 2021. The restaurant operated at its COVID-19 mandated capacity of about 200 patrons for the brunch and dinner shifts on Jan. 1 and Jan. 2.

The owners said the increased availability of vaccines and — once pandemic restrictions are eased — restaurant patrons’ pent-up demand for indoor dining bode well for spring.

“Let’s kiss 2020 goodbye,” Albright said on Jan. 1. “2021 will be a better year. As the months go by, we’ll be ramping up. We definitely have a lot of hope for the future.”

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