The new ROAK Beer Garten feels like a mash-up of the movies “Money Ball (2011)” and “Lawless (2012).” When I mentioned this to Chuck, he looked at me rather quizzically. I’m sure he thought, “She’s lost her mind.”
The ROAK Beer Garten
Let me explain. When I entered the pavilion, my eye went immediately to the Dark Horse event banners hanging on the walls. They are like pennants at a baseball stadium documenting history, reminding us of our heroes and past success. The “Money Ball” plot fits too, the underdog coming back. The unfinished interior and the bar paneled with galvanized sheets remind me of the 1931 bootlegger’s restaurant in the “Lawless” movie. Plus, there is something rather outlaw about the space. I’m sure my subconscious was making other comparisons. If you want, you could get philosophical with the comparison.
We asked John Leone, one of the co-owners of Dark Horse and ROAK Brewing, about the space. He said, “You’ve seen the space. I think it’s going to be cool. I went out of my way to make it have elements of both semi-eclectic and semi-industrial. Who fricking knows what it is. But it feels right. By the way, the tap room at Dark Horse is one of the most unique places I’ve ever seen in my life; kind of CBGBs if you like music. You could get the most incredibly expensive, talented designer out in New York City who only does restaurants. They couldn’t reproduce that place. That’s just love. That’s years and years of happiness that makes that place look like that. I wasn’t trying to reproduce that because I don’t think you can. But we were trying to have elements of it.”
The ROAK Beer Garten evokes a range of feelings for craft beer lovers. The song “I Can See Clearly Now” by Johnny Nash captures how I felt – hope, optimism, excitement. I’m excited. We’ve all been through so much since 2019.
For others, there is worry and angst because it is a change. Cabe Churchill said it best, “That’s the thing, that some people don’t like change and some people can’t deal with it.” It is true. Chuck, for instance, doesn’t like the slightest change to, let’s say, how the beer fridge is organized. But he was definitely excited about the ROAK Beer Garten.
For others, it is more extreme. They are worried it is a step towards phasing out Dark Horse. “We know in our hearts, and we know in our brain there’s no conscious decision to get rid of Dark Horse, quite the contrary. Let’s go with it and give it a chance,” Leone said. “I don’t get caught up in Dark Horse or ROAK. I love them both. They’re my kids. I love them equally and want them both to be successful in life, whatever success is.
Dark Horse stays as is. We’ve added this expansion. We’re still going to serve ROAK beers inside the tap room. We’ll serve Dark Horse beers outside in the ROAK Beer Garten.”
Two Brands, One Location
We asked Leon why they created a ROAK Beer Garten? He said, “We have two brands. The ROAK brand has no presence anymore. Dark Horse has this whole building brand.”
For those who don’t know, in February 2021, ROAK Brewing announced it was closing its taproom in Royal Oak. They moved all brewing to the Dark Horse facility. Having a presence makes sense. It reminds me of when my parents decided my sister and I should share a bedroom. Oh, the angst when I tried to hang my Leif Garrett poster. Since my sister was older and more sophisticated, it didn’t go over well.
I get why having a presence is important.
Why A Second Kitchen?
They already have a kitchen in the Dark Horse Taproom. Why a second one? It boiled down to capacity and customer service. Customers in the beer garten didn’t understand why they couldn’t get food. “First of all, the kitchen was 200, 300 feet away, 400 feet away, a long way away, a football field away, at least. And then secondly, that kitchen was really never set up to do massive volume,” Leone said.
Two Brothers in the Kitchen
Two brothers, Sam and Ben Buczynski are running the kitchens.
Leone told the story. “I went to Sam. Sam runs our kitchen at Dark Horse. He’s the head honcho. I went to Sam and said, you know, it’s my thought that we need to have somebody very talented, very strong, that can run that kitchen and report to you and that you can feel comfortable with that person.
He said I agree. I can’t do it all. I said, listen, I have an idea. You could say you don’t agree with the idea. It would totally be good. I said, but what about your brother, Ben? He says, geez, John, that’s a good idea. I didn’t think of that. And I said, well, what if we sit down with Ben, interview him, make sure he wants it.”
After Leone finished telling the story, I said, “I couldn’t help thinking you’ve got two brothers in the kitchen and two sister organizations in the garden.”
Leone said, “Well, dare I say, a brilliant thought there. It kind of says it all. We’re family. We’re a family-run business. This is not owned by corporate America. This is a family-owned and operated business that believes in a family environment. Believes in family.”
What is on the Menu?
The ROAK Beer Garten’s menu is different from the Dark Horse taproom. Leone described it, “It’s kind of like an outdoor picnic. It’s why I was adamant about picnic tables. A sophisticated picnic at that, but it’s a picnic. We’re doing pizzas, but it’s not the same pizza.
Something we couldn’t do at Dark Horse in any type of capacity, from a high volume standpoint, was a hamburger. I wanted them. Everybody agreed when I was saying this. I want a good greasy high-quality burger cooked on a flat top. We tried all these different custom grinds. We’re making them by hand. The kind that will make a greasy, delicious cheeseburger. Let’s use a sesame seed bun, old school.
We’re doing fish tacos. Everybody loves a good fish taco. We’re doing fish and chips. We got Drakes in our backyard. I love those people. They’re at our restaurant every day, the owners and his team. We want to support Drakes. We’re using it on three different items.”
Whoa, wait a second. I didn’t know Drakes’ headquarters is in Marshall, Michigan. But Leone was on a roll. We got a run-down on the menu: St. Louis-style spare ribs, Gyros, Philly Cheesesteak sandwiches, blackened tuna salad, and chicken wings. I’m sure I’ve missed something, but you get the idea.
If you’ve spent 5 minutes with us talking about beer we will mention the beer desert near our house. Can you see opening another location? Sort of like what Grand River’s done? Maybe in a different part of the state. I asked John casually.
Leone said, “I can tell you, I’ll give you a really good solid answer on that. I’ve looked at two different locations in the last six months. They were in Michigan. But they were in other areas it just didn’t work out. It wasn’t the right fit. I’m always looking.”
There is hope! Hint: We need beer in Pittsfield township off Ann Arbor – Saline Road south of I-94.
As we were preparing to end the interview, Leone mentioned, “We’re working on our spirits license. I mean, we’re trying to get a spirits license. We’re still waiting for approval from the Federal Government, and then we can get our inspection on our still, but that could be tomorrow.”
I love craft beer, but I also love a good Gin and Tonic.
I’m looking forward to spending time in the Roak Beer Garten. Cheers!
The crew who busted tail to get the beer garten ready to roll. Thanks Cab, Trent, and Johnny!
We’ve got a few more pictures of ROAK Beer Garten in our galleries. Be sure to check them out.
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