By Gordon Anderson | Photos by Billy Liggett

It’s hard to fully appreciate how much Sanford has changed in a couple of short years. In March 2017 The Rant published a story asking a simple question: “So when the heck are we gonna get a dang brewery?”

The story read: “In the nearly 12 months since the Sanford City Council adopted zoning and regulatory guidelines meant to pave the way for a craft brewery to locate here, rumors have swirled, but little else.”

Plenty has swirled since then.

Hugger Mugger opened up on Wicker Street less than a year later, becoming Sanford’s first craft brewery. Camelback followed suit on Spring Lane within a few more months. Although they joined other places offering craft beer — among them Local Joe’s, the Smoke & Barrel, Libations, even the “craft beer den” at Lowes Foods — many in Sanford wondered if the city was ready to support a craft brewery at all, let alone two.

Consider that question answered. Although both breweries reported their share of ups and downs in the intervening months, they’ve also both made it through the legendarily-difficult first year in business, and those other places offering craft beer all say their presence has been a boost for everyone.

A third brewery, Wild Dogs, has announced plans to open on North Steele Street in the coming months.

Jake Wells pours a beer from behind the bar at Local Joe’s Tap and Grill, the “veteran” of Sanford’s bar scene having been open since 1997. Owner Joe Del Vecchio says he loves the addition of new breweries, bars and craft beer stores in Sanford — “None of it is competition. I love it. I want more.”

“None of it is competition. I love it. I want more,” said Joe Del Vecchio, who has operated Local Joe’s Tap and Grill on Steele Street since 1997 — long before there was much talk of revitalization in downtown Sanford. “We had a few years where some other things were trying to come in and they didn’t make it, like the Red Sofa. That hurt my feelings when they closed. But when Jeff (Towson) came in to do the Smoke & Barrel, I knew with his lineage and experience that he was gonna do it the right way. And as far as breweries, it’s not even a better late than never situation. We knew they were going to come, we just didn’t know when. And now it’s not just downtown, because Camelback is (on Spring Lane).”

Tim Emmert, who co-owns Hugger Mugger, said Sanford is full of assets that support the type of business he’s engaged in — but they haven’t always had the best visibility.

“We enjoy things about Sanford now that I don’t know we were aware of when we first set up shop. Both in and out of Sanford — the Temple Theatre, Deep River Sporting Clays, Gross Farms — we have a lot of great small businesses where people can come and have an afternoon of shopping while they’re downtown,” he said. “I think people don’t know how to talk about Sanford just yet, but I get a sense that that’s changing. There are a lot of new faces here, a lot of people moving into town.”

The North Carolina Brewers Guild says the state is home to more than 300 breweries and brewpubs (that’s almost twice the number the guild reported in March 2017), which is the biggest number in the south. So this is obviously more than just a Sanford story. But Emmert said Sanford is nowhere near its peak in this business, something exemplified by Craig Krause setting up shop with Wild Dogs.

“Anybody in the brewing industry will tell you — we’re not at peak breweries yet. You may see some shake out, but we’re not anywhere close to the total number of craft breweries. They come in all shapes and sizes,” Emmert said. “There’s a lot of room for growth everywhere. Every time a brewery opens, it attracts a new set of people.”

Tim Emmert co-founded Hugger Mugger Brewing in downtown Sanford in 2018. The brewery and bar has become a hot spot for craft beer lovers, as well as foodies who come for the rotating food trucks that frequent the business every night.

Krause said the camaraderie in the industry is one of the things that drove him to leave the highly competitive tech field. Wild Dogs recently completed the demolition phase of its project and has recently received the go-ahead from the city’s Historic Preservation Commission to move forward on construction.

“It’s nice to be getting into a business that’s less competitive and more community minded,” Krause told The Rant in August, noting that he’s met Emmert and Hugger Mugger head brewer David McComas and looks forward to meeting with Camelback owner Mike Stec.

Stec and Emmert both emphatically state that they’re more interested in supporting each other and any other brewer than seeing them as competition.

“Craft beer is really a community. I always say we don’t battle, we team up. We’re two very different businesses with different models, but we complement each other in a lot of ways, and we talk multiple times a week just to bounce ideas off each other,” Stec said.

Smoke & Barrel owner Jeff Towson describes his business as “Sanford’s feel-good neighborhood pub, with a focus on outstanding slow-cooked meat, North Carolina craft beer and bourbon. Truly an all-American, Southern-style gastropub.”

But this story is about more than beer. When people visit a brewery, they’re obviously likely to try a similar place down the street, whether that’s another brewery or just a place that offers a variety of craft beers. But breweries are also a draw to out of towners, folks with an interest in craft beer who might not otherwise have had much reason to visit Sanford. Those folks are just as likely to leave some dollars here when they get a meal, fill up their tank with gas, or stay in a local hotel.

“There’s a lot of, I guess I call them beer geeks, and they travel,” Smoke & Barrel owner Jeff Towson said on The Rant’s “Friends of The Rant” podcast in September. “When a new brewery opens up, people come to towns that they’ve never been to, just to try the brewery out. When (Hugger Mugger) opened up, I saw an uptick in my business. In a lot of ways, that’s why breweries are so desirable. They bring people to the town.”

Emalee McCracken, a member of Sanford’s new Tourism Development Authority, agrees.

“We were just at a tourism conference, and the very first presentation they did was on tourism and breweries. The guy rattled off a bunch of numbers, and they were really staggering,” she said.

Emalee and her husband Pat own a property on North Steele Street that they make available as an AirBnB rental, and she said the presence of breweries so close to the house has absolutely been a selling point for her.

“When I’m able to greet my guests, I always tell them about the restaurants and breweries we have so close,” she said. “And then when I see my guests out places, it’s always at the breweries.”

Neither Rosemary DiBartolomeo and John Walsh are from Sanford, but they’ve both moved to the city in recent years. The two were enjoying a beer at Hugger Mugger recently when asked about having a variety of breweries and bars means to them socially.   

Camelback Brewing Company opened its doors in the Spring Lane shopping center (near Lowes Foods) in July 2018. Camelback brews its own beer, offering a selection of pale ales, brown ales, amber ales and more, in addition to a full menu. Trivia nights and live music are consistent popular draws.

“It’s fantastic,” said Walsh. “We’re big into trivia nights, or we come here and play dominoes or cards. The best thing is just coming here and sharing your thoughts with friends or strangers — everybody just seems really happy.”

“You don’t have to drink a lot — two or three beers — or you can come and have a water or a soda. It’s not even about the beer for us,” added DiBartolomeo. “It’s just nice to come to a place where you can meet people of all ages and all nationalities. You just get along, and it feels like a big community.”

It’s not crazy to speculate about whether the presence of so many spots for nightlife and weekend fun have played a role in recent economic development deals that are set to bring hundreds of jobs to the area.

“I don’t have a specific instance of an industry asking about craft breweries, but we consistently hear from site selection consultants and business owners that quality of life is one of the top considerations in locating a new business,” said Bob Joyce, economic development director for the Sanford Area Growth Alliance.

Joyce said businesses weigh countless factors in making decisions about expansions or relocations, but that in a tight labor market quality of life factors like education, medical care, and amenities can be the difference between success and failure.

“Attracting talented, motivated employees is much more than just good wages and benefits — those advantages are offered across the country,” he said. “Employees who are happy and healthy are more productive, and millennials say they want authenticity, a stimulating entrepreneurial climate and culture. Craft breweries have become one of the hallmarks of that climate.”

Stec recently hosted Sanford’s first beer festival in his parking lot, and noted visitors not only from surrounding areas, but places as far flung as Georgia. Sure, they might have been passing through, but they probably wouldn’t have stopped and spent a few bucks had it not been for his event.

Of course, not everyone is thrilled about alcohol’s newly-bolstered availability. One now-deleted comment on The Rant’s Facebook post about the opening of Wild Dogs accused this publication of “promoting drunk driving.” But Sanford Police Chief Ronnie Yarborough said the vastly increased number of people in the downtown area on a given night — even if plenty of them are enjoying a few alcoholic beverages – hasn’t presented many problems for his department.

“(DWI) has not been an issue for our officers any more than in the past. In fact, I was reading somewhere recently that those are down 30 to 50 percent in some places,” Yarborough said. “The people who go out and know they’re going to have a good time, I just don’t think they drink and drive like people might have used to. People are a lot more conscious of that today, and I think (the business owners) are doing a really good job as well.”

Work on Sanford’s third craft brewery has started in two vacant buildings downtown. Wild Dogs Brewing will occupy two buildings at 136 and 138 North Steele St. Work on the brewery is still in the early stages, and Craig Krause, one of the company’s owners, said it’ll be early next before the doors are open. “We’ll have seven or eight barrels, and our beers will be very German-oriented.” 

McCracken also pointed out that breweries typically have a different atmosphere than a bar. Even though they’re beer-centered, they tend to be about something else.

“I’ve seen this in other places, but Hugger Mugger in particular is very family friendly,” she said. “You can bring your kids, and you can bring the dog, and it’s just the type of place where you can sit down next to people from every walk of life and enjoy yourself. I’m seeing that sort of atmosphere more and more all the time.”

Emmert backed that up, saying the element he hopes to attract goes a long way toward staving off any undesirable behavior.

“The first month we were open, a couple of guys came in thinking this was the place this building used to be [a private pool hall]. They look like they’re about to have a good time, then they get to the back and they see kids running around on a Saturday afternoon, playing with toys. They looped around immediately and walked right out. I don’t think they ever came back,” he said. “Families are like kryptonite to the bad element. They don’t get to do the type of things they do, because families here won’t put up with it. That makes me feel pretty good. That’s absolutely what we wanted from this place from the beginning.”

That approach to craft beer has already been an underpinning of its rise locally, even as its purveyors have had to figure out the market and adapt. One example is at Libations 139, which began its life as simply Libations in 2016. Two owners later, Gregg Hamm has added small plates and some cocktails to the location’s offerings, saying he hoped his approach would “add to bar experiences for the local residents.”

“With the growth of the industry it felt right to add a place in Sanford that would be welcoming to the growing diverse community and extend the culinary talents of my team while supporting the local trends in craft mixology,” he said. “I believe sanford is growing with new demand of entertainment for the next generation. This includes bars not as dark after dawn hide always but now places of community fellowship and networking.”

Hugger Mugger has become a popular downtown destination for locals and out-of-towners alike. The brewery brought life to its portion of Wicker Street — the building it now occupies was formerly a private pool hall. Co-owner Tim Emmert says he chose Sanford because of its commercial potential. He says the community has welcomed the business with open arms.

Before either Hugger Mugger or Camelback opened their doors, McComas and Stec were already looking for ways to collaborate. The most obvious opportunity was a collaboration beer, but the duo was thinking bigger.

“When we I first got linked up, one of the things we wanted to do was a campaign called something like ‘Drink Sanford Beer.’ We’re still working on it, but what we wanted and what we want is for Sanford to be a destination town for craft beer,” Stec said, describing something that might have seemed pretty pie-in-the-sky 24 months ago.

It doesn’t seem so pie-in-the-sky now, with business seemingly booming for everyone, with most everyone involved on the same page, with Krause — who probably won’t even open the doors at Wild Dogs until early 2020 – already envisioning teaming up on pub crawls and other events.

“On a Friday night, I drive more toward food,” Del Vecchio said. “And Jeff on a lot of those nights has a band. Hugger Mugger does that too, and has their food trucks. There’s a line that we all pull together, but that’s the point, we’re all doing it together. I hope (Hugger Mugger and Camelback) go nationwide, and they keep Sanford as their headquarters. There’s a wonderful foundation here.”

Towson called the growth of local breweries “quick and amazing” and doesn’t have any reason to think that trend won’t continue.

“Sanford has gone from Ground Zero to ahead of a lot of other small towns in terms of sheer volume of breweries. We went from no breweries in 2017 to now, we’re gonna have three within about six months,” he said. “I hope we can support all three of them.”

Additional reporting by Billy Liggett