Whiskey, BBQ, Comedy & Brews: SBA Tours Royal Oak to Learn about Entrepreneurship
(Drew Saunders, Nov 25, 2017)
Royal Oak, MI – Royal Oak’s locally owned businesses were put on display by the Downtown Development Authority, Tuesday morning. Downtown Manager Sean Kammer took local government officials to four businesses, some of which were helped set up with support by the Small Business Administration officials that were in attendance.
“We’re very pleased to be of service and to create jobs and community. It’s very important to us,” SBA Michigan District Director Constance Logan said during the tour.
The first stop was at Motor City Gas. Rich and Tonya Lockwood’s company model for a small batch distillery was so new when they were getting ready to open two and a half years ago that state regulators didn’t know what to do with it.
“We’re trying to bring the craft beer model to whiskey,” Rich Logan said, adding that when compared to the craft breweries they were partly modeling off of “we’re about ten years behind” in terms of licensing and regulation.
The Lockwood‘s work with three full time distillers and two part time servers to sell their own specialized whiskeys. They make everything from Struggle Bus, a “single malt shine”; to Preacher, a 55 percent octane spirit made with vanilla, in a mead barrel; to Hot Mess, a “9-grain malt whiskey.”
“We’re residents of Royal Oak,” Tonya Lockwood said. “My husband has been here for over 20 years and he loves the grittiness Royal Oak has always had. Motor City Gas fits that vibe.”
Tonya and Rich’s business is continuing to grow. While they are looking for ways to push changes into state law to allow them to distribute to local bars and restaurants in the near future, both said they were happy where they are at the moment. They are in the process of expanding their location to a unit next door to their 325 E Fourth Street location.
ROYAL OAK BREWERY
Motor City isn’t an island on Fourth Street though. Some of the old beer barrels used to make certain spirits come from Royal Oak Brewery down the street. This pioneering microbrewery was founded by Drew Ciora, when he moved to Michigan from California in 1995.
“When I first opened this place up craft beer wasn’t what it is now. I was bringing with me what we had in California,” Ciora said.
That meant that there would be half a dozen or so beers on the menu right up until 7 years ago, when Ciora told his brewers “brew whatever you want.”
And they did. This one location will brew up to 60 different types of beer per year. But there are mainstays, like the Northern Kolsch, which has been served since the brewery opened.
The brewpub situated between William and Troy Streets is brick walled and has exposed ductwork, like a lot of bars. But what makes it unique are the large metal drums of beer behind the bar, the distillery equipment visible from the dining room and the barrels situated around the room, in which Ciora started “barrel yeasting” five years ago. The restaurant can seat 170 in the dining room and 60 on the back deck, weather permitting.
MARK RIDLEY’S COMEDY CASTLE
In between the distillery and brewery is Mark Ridley’s Comedy Castle at 310 South Troy Street. Ridley’s choice for his eighth location is in the old Daily Tribune building. Where the printing room once was, now is a comedy club with over 80 tables and a capacity of 400 people.
According to Ridley, past performers at his comedy clubs have included everyone from Jim Carrey and Kevin James, to Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno and Tim Allen.
Billy Ray Bauer will be there November 24 & 25. Tickets go for $18. Rob Schneider will follow him on November 26, for $30 a ticket.
In fact, Ridley has so many comedians lined up that he can set a whole year’s worth of shows every September. But it wasn’t like that when he started 39 years ago.
“At that time there were no comedians in Detroit. We had basically nine people,” Ridley said, starting to laugh. “And I was trying to put on a show every single night.”
That led him to a three-comedian format, which has served him well ever since.
Ridley’s website has a link that points patrons to 34 restaurants within walking distance. One of them is the last stop on Tuesday’s tour, Lockhart’s BBQ, which is also owned by Ciora.
Lockhart’s BBQ is at the corner of Third and Williams Streets, with a view of Royal Oak City Hall. The all wood smoker at the heart of the restaurant is capable of cooking 800 pounds of meat at any given time. And Ciora says that his 175 customer-capacity restaurant will regularly serve 4,500 pounds of meat per week.
“It’s a bit more challenging [to cook that way] but I think the results are much better than heating with natural gas,” Ciora said. “It means a lot of flavor.”
After opening in 2010, the restaurant expanded with two bar spaces downstairs. The basement is lit by a large stairwell, under two big windows at the corner, which makes the basement feel almost as light and airy as the ground floor.
The two bars are full of tables. But they can be separated from each other with sliding wooden doors, for private parties.
“We’ve had a number of weddings and wedding receptions down here,” Ciora said.
Officials were able to learn from each business they visited. The tour was in some ways a prelude to Downtown Royal Oak’s celebration of Shop Small Saturday, which is a national day of supporting local businesses. Throughout Oakland County shoppers have the opportunity to win in the Shop Small contest. Read more about the contest and shopping small in Royal Oak at https://oaklandcounty115.com/2017/11/22/small-business-saturday-nov-25-royal-oak/.