Erin Tracy-Blackwood estimates that it was around 16 years ago, not long after she began dating Scott Blackwood, that the two were taking a stroll around Scott’s hometown of Mount Holly and came across an old abandoned firehouse.
Scott knew the building well; he had been rushed there by family members as a kid after splitting his head open on a coffee table. During their walk, the two stopped to ponder about the building.
“Scott was like, ‘Man, it would be so cool to put a restaurant there,’” Erin recalls. “And I was like, ‘Yeah,’ and we had this plan for what we would call it.”
There was no real reason to believe they would ever see such a plan through; Scott had only recently landed his first food-service gig at Darryl’s Restaurant & Tavern, a since-closed eatery on Albemarle Road in east Charlotte.
And yet on May 20, hordes of hungry folks from Mount Holly and surrounding towns in Gaston and Mecklenburg counties descended on the newly renovated building to see that idea come to fruition with the opening of Firehawk Brewpub, a family-run restaurant serving Carolina barbecue, fish camp and grilled meats cooked over live fire along with beers brewed right there in the building’s using home-brewing equipment.
“We were just daydreaming,” Erin says of that fateful stop along the banks of Dutchman’s Creek all those years ago, “but even that long ago, I feel like we manifested it or something at the very start of our relationship.”
A lot had to happen to make that manifestation a reality.
Cooking paves a path to something bigger
Though he did grow up around a family that loved to cook — reunions, cookouts, family breakfast every Saturday, “all that normal Americana stuff,” as he calls it — Scott Blackwood had no real intention of entering the restaurant industry until he found himself in need of a job once he dropped out of college around 2006. He took the job at Darryl’s out of necessity but didn’t think of it as a career path by any means — nor did anyone around him.
“The standard script from loved ones for the majority of the time was, ‘You’ve been at a restaurant all this time, don’t you think it’s time to get a real job?’” Scott says. “And then I would go get a quote-unquote real job, be miserable and end up quitting or getting fired, and I would go back to a restaurant. Then I’d work at a restaurant for six months to a year, and somebody in my life would say, ‘Don’t you think it’s time for a real job?’ And that cycle really kind of repeated itself.”
It went on like that for about a decade. In the meantime, Erin and Scott were doing some booking work for touring acts coming through Charlotte, and one of their favorite things to do was to host cookouts for the musicians they brought to town.
The two began to hone their skills on the grill and in the kitchen. Mr. Dibbs, touring DJ for Atmosphere and Run the Jewels, once told Erin, “Your mac and cheese is so good I want to punch you in the face.”
Erin, in turn, began to encourage Scott to think about food service work as a potential career rather than a means to an end.
“For the first time in my life, somebody said, ‘You’re really good at this. This is what you should do,’ instead of saying, ‘You should get a real job,’ and that was Erin,” Scott says. “And basically she said, ‘Go for it,’ and I went hard in the paint.”
Scott has helped to launch three ventures since then: The Bottle Tree Restaurant in Belmont; Khakis, a restaurant inside of a private country club in Cramerton; and the Killer B’s food truck, which Scott and Erin worked on together.
While Scott took lessons from each experience, there were always other interests at play.
“Partnerships are incredibly difficult, and if you’re trying to do something new and creative, sometimes it’s impossible to get multiple people on the same page when it comes to that, professionally speaking,” Scott says.
With Firehawk Brewpub, that all changes.
Firehawk Brewpub puts employees first
Upon opening their first brick-and-mortar restaurant that is based solely on their own vision, Scott and Erin want to make sure their employees understand one thing: This is a real job.
Recalling how he was judged over 10 years of part-time restaurant gigs, Scott is prioritizing stability for his team at Firehawk Brewpub.
There is a $15-an-hour minimum wage for each and every employee, with tips pooled between all positions. Each employee gets a share of quarterly profits and flexibility when it comes to scheduling around their personal lives and avoiding burnout.
“We believe strongly that mental health is health, and we give everyone in the building the space and grace to take care of themselves the best that they can, and we do everything we can to make that possible,” Scott says. “We know the struggles of being single parents in a young family, and so this being a family business, we prioritize our employees’ and coworkers’ family lives, and we give them the space to take the time that they need in order to be the parents that they feel they need to be and we encourage that.
“We’re trying to make this as stable and legitimate a job as possible because that stability gives people the access to planning and comfort in their personal lives,” he continues.
Scott estimates that, of his team of more than 30 employees, about half are direct relatives through blood or marriage. All recipes have been passed down among family members over generations, which can make for a straight-forward decision-making process when it comes to the menu — except when it doesn’t.
“The desserts were a particular sticking point because I have my banana pudding and Scott’s mom has hers,” Erin says. “I have my great grandmother’s ambrosia recipe, and Scott has his grandmother’s, and they’re, like, fundamentally different. So that’s the only place we really found anything weird.”
Having been served on opening day to rave reviews — including from this satisfied writer — Erin has conceded on the banana pudding recipe. Her renowned mac and cheese and collard greens recipes aren’t going anywhere, though (rightfully so). Scott oversees most of the grilled meat items, while Erin’s brother-in-law, Matthew Young, is in charge of brewing beer.
There was one menu item, however, where the couple couldn’t come to a compromise.
“We had to take shrimp off our initial menu because I’m from Florida and expect shrimp to be a certain way; it needs to be butterfly, Mayport style, and that’s like a hard boundary,” Erin says. “And Scott is from here, where it’s like a Calabash sort of style. So we were like, ‘You know what? We’re never going to align on this. Let’s just take it off the menu.’”
What remains, however, is a wonderful mix of meat, fish and Southern sides and desserts that make up a range of affordable options. And if you don’t find them affordable according to your own personal budget, put it on Papa Ray’s Tab, a fund named in honor of Scott’s father that will be used to foot the bill for less fortunate neighbors who want to come in for a warm meal.
Mount Holly restaurant pays homage to Catawba history
Firehawk Brewpub is located on North Main Street along a scenic stretch of Dutchman’s Creek, a tributary of the Catawba River just over the line from Mecklenburg County that has served as a lifeline to the Mount Holly community since long before it was called Mount Holly.
Scott recognizes that the creek, and the mills built alongside it, are what brought jobs and people to the town.
“It literally is the cornerstone and the reason, or one of the reasons, that the city even exists,” says Scott.
He also acknowledges another one of Mount Holly’s historic tales, that of Ransom Hunter, the formerly enslaved man who built up the Freedom community for other newly freed families before then selling off some of the properties he had bought up along the creek and elsewhere to allow for the development of the mills that would lead to the town’s founding.
“That’s an important story for us to tell,” he says. “The importance of the creek, the importance of this natural environment, there’s a lot of history that just sort of exists in the ether here where we are.”
With that in mind, the Firehawk team plans to do what they can to preserve Dutchman’s Creek and reinvigorate the community space surrounding it. Along with Muddy River Distillery, which is currently adapting an old mill across the street from Firehawk Brewpub for a new location along the creek, they are clearing 300 yards of kudzu and other overgrowth to create more space for residents to enjoy Dutchman’s Creek.
On June 10, Firehawk Brewpub will host its inaugural Get the Muck Out event, with live music and vendors representing many neighboring businesses. The day will center around a creek cleanup in partnership with the Catawba Riverkeeper, with proceeds funding the removal of a capsized pontoon boat that has been languishing along the banks of the creek since a flood left it there in 2019.
During the event, Firehawk will also announce a partnership with Charlotte-based Aquatic Adventures, which will organize more than a dozen kayak trips about an hour down the creek to the mouth of the river then shuttle them back to the restaurant.
David Childers & the Serpents will also perform at Get the Muck Out. As a longtime musician in Charlotte, Scott has seen plenty of support from the local scene, including his Ogres bandmates like Childers. Guitarist Cody Benett helped set up all the audio systems in and around the restaurant while DJ Justin Aswell has been promoting and helping with opening duties.
It’s an extended family affair; without such help Scott says the restaurant would have never opened.
“I’m not surprised because pretty much all of our other endeavors, artistically and musically, have always been this way,” he says. “This is just the first time that I’ve really seen it fused together on the food and beverage side of things.”
When a business is built around such a foundation of love, it can only spread to the customers from there.
“Our friends and family work here,” says Scott, “so we treat everyone like friends and family.”
For Scott and Erin, the restaurant opening was just the beginning, but in a sense, it also serves as an endpoint to a walk they took together 16 years ago.
Looking back on the couple’s journey that in some ways began that day, “Every step along the way has just been leading to this,” says Erin.
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