A new downtown Topeka brewery will honor Topeka’s railroad past and bring a successful Dallas restaurateur home to the city where he grew up.
Iron Rail Brewing will open in the fall of 2018 at the former Por’e Richards and Kansan Grill location, 705 S. Kansas Ave., born from a partnership between Topeka businessmen Brent Boles and Cody Foster, and Mike Babb, a native Topekan who owns Babb Brother’s BBQ & Blues in Dallas.
Through a series of serendipitous events, set in motion in part by NOTO businesswoman Jenny Torrence, the three met and began talking about the potential for a brewery in downtown Topeka.
Babb, a gregarious character with a big laugh, is known in Topeka for playing sports, working as a youth director at the YMCA and his visits to play blues at Uncle Bo’s. Boles joked that he walked through downtown with Babb and people were leaning out of car windows to holler at him.
Babb just laughed and shared his story. He moved to Dallas in 2003, when his wife was relocated there for her job. In Dallas, he hooked up with billionaire Phil Romano, of Romano’s Macaroni Grill and Fuddrucker’s fame, when Romano and other investors created a restaurant incubator project.
“They were trying to identify restaurateurs, no chains, that wanted an opportunity to get started in business,” Babb said, adding that he was working on a food truck that would specialize in his family’s BBQ recipe. He and his brothers ran a Topeka BBQ restaurant in 2000.
“I took a concept of BBQ and blues to Phil Romano, and I was chosen as the first restaurant,” Babb said. “Part of that deal was they’d help me on the business side, I would bring the concept and be the day-to-day owner and manager.”
Today, Babb is opening a Loveland, Colo., version of BBQ & Blues in January, but he’s ready to push himself out of that theme in the Topeka market. Torrence had been encouraging him to reach out to Topeka investors and get involved in the capital city’s revitalization.
“We started talking about what Topeka’s needing, what’s going on, and I’m all ‘I’m not doing it, I’m not doing it,’ ” Babb said, laughing. But Torrence finally connected Babb and Boles with members of the AIM team. Ironically, Babb had coached Boles’ nephew in Dallas.
So despite his “I’m not doing it” approach, Babb became intrigued by the changes in Topeka.
“I was going more into the fact that, you know what, I could not only bring a concept, I could do something for downtown Topeka,” he said, adding that he spent many years in downtown Topeka, haunting Por’e Richards, Ray Beers and other iconic stores.
The result: “Team Babb is joining Team Downtown,” Babb said, punctuating the announcement with a jovial laugh.
For Foster and Boles, putting a brewery in downtown adds a necessary variety to the retail and restaurant landscape of the developing district.
Foster said the 705 S. Kansas spot was originally going to be home to R&D Grill, an AIM Strategies project, but as the downtown evolved, his team began to question whether they wanted to continue forward with that All-American style of food. Two other concepts opening in the next year or so were somewhat the same — Pennant’s and the restaurant going in at the Cyrus Hotel, Foster said.
“Strategically, for three of those openings to be a classic American grill … it didn’t make any sense,” Wagoner said.
Halstead spent time downtown stopping people and asking what concepts they would like to see in the area, and a brewery was the “overwhelming” response, Foster said.
A brewery, of course, requires a creative brewmaster to develop unique, local beers. The group found that person in Don King, a Lawrence man who admitted he’s “obsessed with beer and brewing science.”
“Since about 2015, I’ve been professionally brewing for Yankee Tank Brewing Co. in Lawrence,” he said. “I was very interested in doing this project. I’m incredibly excited about it, especially with what’s behind it, the revitalization of downtown Topeka.”
The group has already been tossing around possible names of beers, all connected to the world of railroading, which offers some colorful options. One of those terms is “broken knuckles,” a reference to part of the coupler that attaches railroad cars together and frequently broke.
King said he enjoys the process of pairing foods and beer as they create a menu.
“Mike and I will actually be in lockstep with what he’s making in the kitchen,” he said. “The beer and the food should complement each other. If you order something off the menu, you will know immediately what kind of beer you want with that.”
The team plans to open in the August to September timeframe next year, depending on how much work needs to be done on the 705 building, which is about 8,000 square feet.
“The truth of the matter is, it’s a big building, and it’s in terrible shape,” Foster said. “It fell into disrepair.”
Water damage has affected the building, and the roof is falling in. The building has been gutted at this point, but still requires the interior roof to be removed.
Foster said he couldn’t offer an idea of what the capital investment will be in the project because the design isn’t complete for the building.
Most of the design will focus on highlighting the “cool” factor already in the building, such as brick walls.
“There’s these great big iron beams that I really think play into the theme,” Foster said.
Honoring Topeka’s railroading past and present was important to the AIM team, which has focused on incorporating downtown and building history into each of its projects.
“We kept coming back to ideas that were authentic to Topeka and northeast Kansas,” Halstead said. “And we’re really trying to be able to do something that tells that history of who we are and ties back into it. I think that’s the big thing with the projects we’ve been associated with, it’s an honoring of that legacy. Topeka has a really great history that I don’t think we celebrate enough.”