David Meeker picked the wrong route.
For the last minute, he's sat still in his 2006 Honda Accord, except for his head, which he turns to scan four lanes of traffic on Raleigh's busy, curving Western Boulevard. Meeker starts to ease forward twice only to stop, look again and find that someone else is approaching from the other side.
At last, he sighs and asks for advice: "Les," he says, glancing into his rearview mirror, "how do you get from the new Trophy to the old Trophy?"
The original Trophy Brewing Company, where Meeker is headed, sits on West Morgan Street. Head brewer Les Stewart runs the cramped nanobrewery, which cannot spit out beer fast enough to meet the mounting demand. Trophy's second location, a 28,700-square-foot facility that will open two miles away on Maywood Avenue late this year, will increase Trophy's production of 618 barrels to 4,000 a year.
Meeker, its 31-year-old co-owner, is overseeing the construction on this project, four times the size of anything he's ever pursued. A real estate agent, developer and property manager, he learned the trade while helping his father, former Raleigh mayor and downtown revitalizer Charles Meeker, renovate homes in the Boylan Heights neighborhood, where he was raised. He's learned most everything else on the job.
(Disclosure: David Meeker is the nephew of Richard Meeker, who co-owns the INDY. Richard Meeker had no input or advance notice of this article.)
"There are huge companies putting money into Raleigh, but it's still at a size where young people can have this huge impact. I feel like downtown can continue to grow, like I have a career here for 30 years," Meeker says. "There is a lot of energy that we can not just benefit from but be a part of."
During the last five years, in fact, Meeker, his business partners Chris Powers and Woody Lockwood, and a group of managers, employees and confidants he terms "the team" have been an essential part of that energy. Together, they have become the city's leading crew of young, local developers, a trio of self-starters that no one seems eager to criticize—a rarity in their contentious field. They seem not only interested in their profit margins but also in the communities they help build, the goods-and-services gaps they help fill and the spaces they help revitalize.
All of their enterprises have bloomed in underdeveloped or deserted parts of town. Unlike the incoming glut of high-rise condominiums and apartments that consume most any open lot or vacant building, the team pursues projects and locations because they're responding to a perceived community need.
"These were never places that you just happened upon. Making them destinations is part of creating energy downtown," explains Ashley Christensen. The chef leases the space that houses three of her restaurants—Chuck's, Beasley's and Fox Liquor Bar—from Meeker. "It's having a place that leads people across streets they haven't been down before. That can energize a whole block."
The upcoming Trophy expansion is only the latest in a string of businesses the partnership has opened following the unexpected success of their first downtown Raleigh venture, the Busy Bee Cafe. When Meeker talks about the larger Trophy—or any of his projects—he explains not why or how it's going to make money but why and how it's going to integrate with its community.
The Busy Bee added vitality to a downtown row that was largely empty. The first Trophy turned a small strip mall that had long underserved the cheap apartments across the street into a reliable hangout. And the dual, inviting storefronts of State of Beer and Runologie brighten a dim, dull and forgotten section of Hillsborough Street.
The three men chose Trophy's new sprawling spot, in part, for pragmatic reasons; Powers, for instance, lives nearby should something go wrong. And Stewart is excited to be so close to the Farmers Market—not because of the business it may generate but because of the produce he could buy. He already picks up peaches for a saison there, and he hopes to do more business with his new neighbors. Farmers who can use the brewery's overload of spent grain—the leftovers from the brewing process—to feed livestock won't need to drive far to collect it.
But their reasons soon jump to the romantic, even visionary: Between the city's recent acquisition of the neighboring Dorothea Dix Campus, a planned development of more than 50 modern homes just across the street and the energy of N.C. State's nearby Centennial expansion, Meeker sees this section as a potential outgrowth of the city's still-developing center.
Meeker worries about the gentrification inherent in such moves—that is, buy a piece of property in a cheap section of the city, upgrade it and in effect force out those who were already there. Half of the original Trophy, for instance, is in the former space of a busy bail bonds office that was looking to relocate; Meeker simply let the company out of its lease. He has encouraged the remaining businesses to make changes more consistent with the nanobrewery next door—for the convenience store to transition from malt liquor to craft beer and for the laundromat to open on Sunday. They've yet to listen, and he's OK with that: It's each owners' prerogative, not his.
"What is our role as a landlord?" he says. "Those are hard conversations to have. You have to handle them with care, but also realize that there is a business behind it. At some point, we have to pay the mortgage."
Jeff Leiter doesn't think that will be a problem with the second Trophy. Since 2010, Leister and his wife, Carrie Knowles, have lived across the street in Caraleigh Mills, a 19th-century textile mill converted into condominiums. The president of the homeowners association, Leister knows the value that a business like Trophy might bring the area.
"There's a high density of opportunities to buy fish in this neighborhood," says Leister, referring to the fish markets that sit at either end of the street and a nearby seafood restaurant. "But Trophy will encourage the momentum toward more amenities and what goes along with a residential area. I have not talked with anyone at Caraleigh Mills who is not happy with the investment those guys are making here—and for good reason."
Meeker, Powers and Lockwood, then, have discovered the power of beer as a neighborhood maker.
"If the businesses do well, and you don't take out a lot of money from it, you use the profit to do another project. And that's what's happening," Meeker says. "The Busy Bee still does fine, but having two places is better than one, so we have Trophy. Then we have the third, State of Beer, so we can open the fourth. That ball is starting to roll."
It's nearly 9 o'clock on a Sunday night, and every few minutes, Woody Lockwood takes another sip from a paper cup of coffee. In half an hour, every employee of the Busy Bee Cafe will show up for the company's quarterly, late-night deep cleaning. Hopefully, says Lockwood, they'll finish early enough so that he and Powers have time to start a tab next door at the dive bar Slim's and buy everyone a few rounds.
Powers and Lockwood are accustomed to these hours: When the Busy Bee opened in 2009, they both lived nearby, so working almost-around-the-clock seemed somehow convenient. The place began as a combination coffee shop, bar and restaurant; someone was in the building for about 22 hours each day.
"We didn't count the hours, because it was, 'You go home and take a nap, because when you get up, you're coming back to close this place. When you get back, I'll take a nap and open the place in the morning,'" remembers Lockwood. "We knew there could be an end to that, but we didn't know when."
Powers and Lockwood met and became friends in 2001, when they worked at a string of bars and restaurants in the city's Glenwood South district. They rose through the ranks quickly and soon started talking about a space of their own. They would wander the then-vacant downtown, peering through the cracks of boarded windows and daydreaming about a bar they could start.
Around the same time, Meeker returned from college in Houston, where he'd gone in part to escape the shadow and stigma of being the mayor's son. He took a job handling permits and leases with Greg Hatem's Empire Properties, the company that owned The Raleigh Times and was busy becoming the magpie of vacant city properties. On the side, Meeker renovated four houses in east Raleigh and sold them, slowly building a plan to start his own development business.
He'd taken careful notes from Hatem, the Empire Properties founder and downtown Raleigh development kingpin. Hatem not only owns millions of dollars in real estate but several restaurants, like The Raleigh Times and Sitti, that occupy many of his properties. Those stem from partnerships with select chefs and, in the case of Sitti, the Lebanese restaurant Neomonde. Meeker saw that model—use profits from one endeavor to fund the next one, ad infinitum—as the steady way to build his own smaller empire.
"If you're a young, hopeful developer, like I wanted to be, but you have no source of income, how do you do the second project? You do one, and you have a business paying rent. But you make $500 a month. How do you survive?" he says. "I had to be involved in the business to make the numbers work. It's the only way to grow. "
But Meeker made an essential, early adjustment to that strategy after he met Lockwood and Powers, who had taken a bartending job at The Raleigh Times to learn about opening a business downtown: He buys only the property they can use together, as a team. And rather than seeking out new partners, he builds businesses only with them. (He is Christensen's landlord, not a business partner.)
"When we meet with David, he's not so overwhelmed by the stuff we are overwhelmed with—someone didn't enjoy their meal, we have to run payroll, a server quit," Lockwood explains. "He's able to look at the bigger picture and keep us moving forward; our progress would have been slower without that."
For instance, Meeker and his wife, Kimberlie, have each run at least 20 marathons. Even before they married in 2013, they discussed turning that hobby into a job by opening a running store. When they finally found the right space in the perfect location, the building was twice the size they needed. David pitched Powers and Lockwood on the idea of opening a bottle shop, which they'd never considered. Eight months later, Runologie and State of Beer—a sandwich-and-bottle shop with a bar—both welcomed their first customers. Side by side on a neglected portion of Hillsborough Street, they share storage spaces, a street front and parking.
"Without them taking that space, Runologie wouldn't have happened. We couldn't have handled the rent," says Kimberlie, a residential real estate agent whose marathon time is three minutes shy of qualifying for the U.S. Olympic trials. "They were willing to take half."
That cooperative approach has driven every expansion. Powers and Lockwood never intended to own a brewery—or any second location, for that matter—until they discovered that it could help fulfill their interests as bar owners. Traveling between beer festivals, they noticed that several styles weren't yet available in North Carolina. They approached breweries and asked for something specific, under the condition they would buy the whole batch. And to obtain beer that had been aged in a liquor barrel, they would buy or bargain for discarded barrels, stuff them into a car and drive them to breweries as far away as Florida.
"We were killing ourselves doing that, putting in so much work just to get the beer back. We realized we should just start saving and do this ourselves," says Powers. Busy Bee had just begun to turn a profit, so they began to fantasize about locations and prospective beer names. "We went to David and said, 'We want to grow.'"
Four years later, they've only started to get there. Standing in what he optimistically calls Trophy's "barrel room," head brewer Les Stewart points to four barrels of aging beer, wedged behind mountains of folded and unfolded white pizza boxes and mounds of plastic bags that hold clean kitchen rags. The space is a glorified closet. Stewart scans the mess, laughs nervously and explains that, in the bigger brewery, they'll have an entire section customized for aging beer.
And the main room, where the beer is made, is so crowded that a photo of Stewart's family, appended to an electrical box with a magnet, is the only personal relic in sight. They've added two beer fermenters inside and a tall, sparkling silo outside, freeing up floor space that once held bags of grain.
"We've used every square inch," Stewart says. "Now, it's time to meet the demand."
All this focus on community might sound like the rhetorical work of a plotting politician, especially coming from a mayor's son. Unless someone else initiates it, though, Meeker doesn't talk about his father's work. He didn't mention it to Kimberlie until they'd known each other for months.
When he does discuss politics, he reveals a certain level of disdain for the bureaucratic process, like the long battles his father had over parking spaces in order to make significant city decisions. Meeker despises that sort of hands-off approach. He is a natural project manager, someone who prints out agendas before weekly meetings, speaks about construction timelines with scrutiny and specificity, and asks for advice early in any process.
Paired with Powers and Lockwood, that approach continues to pay off. Six years after opening, The Busy Bee is now one of downtown's landmark restaurants and, according to Draft Magazine, one of the 100 best beer bars in America. On sticky, sweaty summer nights, the line for its upstairs dance-club counterpart, The Hive, stretches beyond neighboring businesses.
Trophy, located in a long, thin brick building that overlooks train tracks and North Carolina's Central Prison, has become known for its unorthodox pizzas and craft beers. On any balmy weekend night, it's nearly impossible to find a seat indoors or outdoors. The same fate seems likely for State of Beer.
And with space for a taproom, restaurant, offices, gardens, special events and a brewery powered by a custom $450,000 system that the team drove to Wisconsin to design with a team of veteran welders, the new Trophy will at last allow the brand to move beyond making beer sold onsite and toward national distribution.
"None of our houses cost that much. Why didn't we just go buy two houses?" Meeker says, laughing. "For the four of us—Les, Chris, Woody and me—to be purchasing something like that is just crazy. Hopefully, it will all pay off."
The ultimate vision for the new Trophy is ambitious: a 100-barrel brewing system, more than 30 times bigger than what they now run in the original location. Stewart admits this may be hyperbole. Meeker says it might be a decade away.
"What I do is really simple, no expertise: Keep the ball moving every day," he says. "Never have weeks where nothing happens."
Meeker will need to learn the quickest route from one Trophy to the next.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Second empire." Correction: The president of Caraleigh Mills' homeowners association is named Jeff Leiter.