Lion Bridge Brewing Company finds perfect fit in historic Czech Village grocery store
Note: Save Cedar Rapids Heritage chose Lion Bridge Brewing Company as the site of its first Preservation Mixer, scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Thursday, June 26, 2014. Anyone with an interest in helping to save the city’s historic buildings is invited to attend. Tickets for a free drink will be offered to the first 76 people who come to the event, in honor of the 76 years the building has been in existence.
CEDAR RAPIDS – New life brews where bilingual Czechs once sold meat from glass cases and generations of home and business owners later perused carpet and flooring selections.
Lion Bridge Brewing Company, 59 16th Ave. SW, is bubbling as the latest incarnation of a building that began as Fritz’s Food Market in the heart of Czech Village.
“We could have gone outside the city and built a sheet-metal building,” owner Quinton McClain said. “But I think this building proved to be the best location for a brewery. It has a lot of character.”
Renovation work included removing layers of pink paint from 4,000-square-feet of walls to expose the fire-glazed brick and taking out the drop ceilings to restore rooms to their original 12-foot height.
Built in 1938, Fritz’s Food Market was touted as having employees who were “able to speak English and Bohemian,” McClain said. The building later housed a Me Too store before becoming Joens Bros. Interiors, which opened in another Czech Village storefront in 1959.
Nearing its 50-year anniversary, the flooring business survived the 2008 flood, even as waters from the Cedar River inundated the building to the ceiling. Known as Kuncl Mall, the site also housed Maria’s Tea Room, which specialized in authentic Czech foods, and Merle Norman Cosmetic Studio, which later moved to a new location in Czech Village at 81 16th Ave. SW.
Owner George Joens eventually decided to close Joens Bros. and the tea room and contemplated putting the building in the city’s commercial flood buyout program when the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library stepped in.
At the time, museum President and CEO Gail Naughton said the building, with 70-linear feet of storefront, could have been demolished had it gone through the city’s flood buyout program, with an uncertain chance of rebuilding on the site.
McClain credits museum leaders with having the foresight to save the building from demolition and holding it until a new use could be found.
The brick walls and concrete floor make the 7,000-square-foot building ideal for the brewery, he said, as well as offering enough space for future expansion. Lion Bridge seats 165 indoors, with seating for another 50 in its newly opened patio.
With names like Worker’s Compensation and Iron Lion, the brewpub offers an ever-changing variety of beers on tap, created in-house by McClain, as well as Sutliff cider from Iowa and food that complements the brews.
The business opened to wall-to-wall crowds in March and provides craft beer for a dozen other area restaurants and bars.
Windows that allow a view of the brewhouse provide a showroom-like experience “with an emphasis on the craft,” said Ana Escalante, McClain’s fiancee who serves as Lion Bridge’s events coordinator while working full time as a team leader at GE Capital in Cedar Rapids.
McClain, a Cedar Rapids native, and Escalante, who hails from Merida, Mexico, met while McClain worked at a brewery and Escalante was attending graduate school in Colorado.
“I come from a place where there is a lot of history and a lot of old buildings,” Escalante said of Merida, the Yucatan capital that features neighborhoods of pastel mansions, a 16th-century cathedral and other architectural jewels. “There’s something to say about the history in your hometown and I’m passionate about it here in Cedar Rapids, as well.”
The two walk to Czech Village from the Oak Hill Jackson neighborhood, where they are buying a home, crossing the brewpub’s namesake bridge and reinforcing the “walkability” principle that ties into their choice for Lion Bridge’s location.
They also emphasize reuse and recycling at Lion Bridge, with chairs that came from McClain’s alma mater, Washington High School, and some of the brewing byproducts being used by Mushroom Mills in rural Columbus Junction to grow mushrooms.
McClain said the building itself is a form of repurposing. Although the amount of work and expenses were more than expected – an underground tank from a long-gone gas station was discovered at the site, for example – state programs and historic tax credits helped in the costs and the end result was worth it, he said.
“We’re pretty pleased with it,” McClain said. “I would do it again in a heartbeat.”