Queen City Nerve

Charlotte's Cultural Pulse

Two Teams Partner to Make Southern Strain a Concord Destination
A recipe for success

By Ryan Pitkin

June 10, 2019

These days, it can feel like social media isn’t good for much of anything anymore. Instagram selfies, political screaming matches on Twitter, whatever the hell Facebook can do to mine more data for sale. It’s all just a wasteland, right?

But alas, it is out of this online wasteland that strong connections can still be made, for it is thanks to a Facebook post that a team of six entrepreneurs with a range of talents came together to create a new partnership that may change the face of one of Charlotte’s most underappreciated suburbs.

It was just three months ago that chef Michael Bowling saw a post from Piedmont Culinary Guild Executive Director Kris Reid stating that a group of guys were starting a brewery in Concord and looking for chefs to run a kitchen in the facility.

Bowling replied and the next day was on the phone with Bart Roberts, one of three founders of Southern Strain Brewing Company, set to open in Concord late this summer. Before the day was over, Bowling was driving to Concord to discuss a partnership.

“I came up and we sat down and chit-chatted, then we did a tasting and from there it’s all kind of history,” says Bowling. “It was a really painless and fast-moving friendship and partnership.”

The whole team (from left): Chris Young, Jennifer Cubillos, Michael Bowling, Jake Allen, Ford Craven and Bart Roberts.

I’m sitting in a booth in the Southern Strain tap room with the six people who will combine their diverse talents in the new partnership. Sitting in bar chairs around the booth is the Southern Strain team: Roberts, longtime jack-of-all-trades at NoDa Brewing Company who will serve as head brewer at Southern Strain; Ford Craven, a homebrewer known around Charlotte for his role as cohost of the popular Cheers Charlotte podcast; and Jake Allen, who’s been working finance with Empire Properties, which owns multiple bars and restaurants in Raleigh.

Sitting in the booth is the culinary crew: Bowling, former owner of the Charlotte-based Hot Box Next Level food truck and co-founder of the popular Soul Food Sessions dinner series; chef Chris Young, who’s cooked with Bowling in restaurants in Virginia and Charlotte and helped run the Hot Box food truck; and chef Jennifer Cubillos, former pastry chef with Charlotte institutions like Suarez Bakery and Best Impressions Catering who now works as a pastry instructor at Central Piedmont Community College.

The Southern Strain trio of craft beer enthusiasts had originally planned to open the brewery near the end of last year with no kitchen. That mission may have been a bit overzealous, they now admit. Outfitting a 15,000-square-foot facility proved harder than expected.

“All the stuff you read about — construction and permits and all of that — you think, ‘Oh, we can do it a little faster and better,’ but you have no control over it,” says Roberts.

All that waiting gave the team more time to consider every aspect of the business, and every move they could potentially make.

“We’ve had some time to think on this,” Craven says. “This hasn’t been like an, ‘Oh, we need to hurry up and build this and make money and cash out,’ situation. This is it for us. This is the end game. We want to do it right and it has to be sustainable and work for this market, and to have time to really think about how this is going to roll out, have time to think about the details. It’s been a benefit. It’s taken the stress level down a notch.”

Roberts already had his eyes on some of the beers he’d like to brew. His favorites are lagers, and he’ll do plenty of those, but he plans to spread it around to “funky sours, chewy stouts and juicy IPAs.”

The building is located in a repurposed textile mill smack in the middle of a residential neighborhood that’s in walking distance to Concord’s downtown area. As a 5th generation Concordian, Craven says being at the forefront of redefining the city is important to him.

“I’ve been watching those markets in a circumference around Charlotte. Everywhere else has been milked out to a degree and the northside is kind of left,” he says. “A lot of people think Concord just stops at Concord Mills. We’ve got this beautiful city and a bunch of neighbors. It’s a little town and it’s getting ready to have a really big resurgence.”

The Southern Strain team (from left): Bart Roberts, Ford Craven and Jake Allen. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

All that time waiting for permits and red tape produced plenty of food for thought, which eventually led to a decision that will set Southern Strain apart from most Charlotte-area breweries: actual food.

As they continued to research a craft beer scene that they all knew very well already, they thought more and more about what void in the market could be filled. After all, folks do get hungry when drinking beer, right?

But it couldn’t be just any old bar food.

“We had talked to a few other chefs that had shown some interest, and we had a lot of different ideas in our minds as to what we thought the food would be here, but it had to be something that related to our product on quality and diversity and everything like that,” Roberts says.

Enter Bowling and Young. The two had shut down the Hot Box Next Level food truck in 2017 as Bowling continued to work with Soul Food Sessions and Young and Cubillos began plans to open a local food hall called Queen City Market.

The Hot Box menu didn’t go anywhere, though, so Bowling brought it with him when he made his first trip to the brewery. Specialty Hot Box favorites like house-made ramen, bean sprout curry, chorizo corn dogs and risotto fritters supplemented the artisan wings, ribs and burgers. Follow that up with some of Cubillos’ chocolate chip cookies made with brown butter, malt powder and salt, and the Southern Strain team had no choice but to get on board.

To read it was impressive, to eat it was something else, Craven says.

“It was a very crafty, curated menu that kind of goes together with the artisticness of a brewery and what people want when they go to one,” he says. “It wasn’t one-sided, it wasn’t just burgers and fries, it was very eclectic and it was instant. I remember telling Mike, ‘I feel like I’m ready to hire y’all right now, but we gotta taste this food. If it tastes the way it reads, this is a done deal.’ And it did. That’s how it clicked.”

Bowling describes the menu as “international pub food,” which fits nicely with the neighborhood pub feel that the Southern Strain team is going for.

The Hot Box Next Level team (from left): Michael Bowling, Jennifer Cubillos and Chris Young. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

For Young, the joy of the food truck was the experimentation, and now that he’ll have a kitchen to work with rather than being stuck in a literal hot box of a truck, he’s excited to begin working on new additions.

“Ford already said it, but eclectic is the best word for it,” Young says. “We don’t want to be that niche thing where we do pizza or we do barbecue. We want to do all things and we want to start where we had really great food at Hot Box and only get better for the things that we’re producing.”

Bowling sees the Southern Strain kitchen as a chance to get the respect he and Young deserved for food that they perfected in the truck. He’s run kitchens before, and he’s seen how people’s perceptions change when they order from a truck, regardless of the quality of food that’s produced from the window.

“Ramen’s a big deal for us and in the city, and because it’s ours, we think our ramen’s the best in the area, but when we were on the food truck nobody respected that because we’re on a food truck,” Bowling says. “So now’s an opportunity for that to come back. We just like to do different stuff, and it’s important to us that when we do it it’s done to the best of our ability.”

As far as dessert, Cubillos shares Bowling and Young’s experimental streak, though she will try to rein it in for the Southern Strain kitchen.

She plans to start with artisan versions of well-known Southern favorites, like the aforementioned chocolate chip cookies, before pushing the limits of what the average beer drinker is used to, she says.

“We’ll start by making simple, good, Southern things, because even people who are adventurous with their foods are not adventurous with their desserts. They don’t want to see a dessert with red bean paste in it. Chocolate’s a bean. Vanilla’s a bean. Coffee’s a bean. I think you’re being discriminatory,” she says, laughing. “So I think we’ll ease into the dessert game really slow.”

Her definition of slow and simple, however, differs from most. When I press her on some of her plans, she mentions bourbon bacon pecan bars, spicy dark-chocolate-chip oatmeal cookies, house-made ice cream sandwiches and lemon cookies.

Cubillos also looks forward to working with Roberts on hybrid desserts that integrate whatever beers he’s working on at the moment. The team plans to host Southern Strain beer dinners quarterly, and Roberts says he’s excited about working closely with the Hot Box team beyond just four events per year.

“It leaves a lot of opportunity out there; any special event that’s happening, any holiday, we have the opportunity to make a beer just for that, and they have the opportunity to make food just for that holiday and we’ll put them together,” Roberts says. “We can’t wait. Having two entities that work together that people want to come in and buy the whole package is a wonderful thing.”

Sometimes, social media can still be good. (Pay me, Zuckerberg.)

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