By: Paul Long
Photos By: Josh Triggs
Perhaps it was fate that led Laura and Monty Rhodes to purchase Brewbaker’s Restaurant when it went up for sale in 2012. But whether or not that was the case, their shared history with the popular Old Town Winchester establishment certainly didn’t hurt.
Laura met Monty at Brewbaker’s more than a decade ago, when she was a server and he was a regular customer. Today the couple owns the restaurant located at 168 N. Loudoun St. near the northern end of Old Town.
Laura was hired as a server in 2004 and later tended bar while going to school. Monty – whose first job was as a dishwasher at Mutley’s, an earlier incarnation of Brewbaker’s – had managed a restaurant in Middleburg and owned one in Boyce; he was working in wine sales when Brewbaker’s previous owners, Dawn and Bobby Sayre, decided to sell it.
“Obviously we all kind of knew about it (being for sale),” Laura said. “And my husband and I kind of talked about – he was wanting to do a shift in his career, and it would be nice to own a restaurant. It would be kind of silly to look for another place when this was where we met, and we knew everybody, and there was always the possibility of someone else purchasing the restaurant and turning it into something different.”
According to Brewbaker’s website, brewbakersrestaurant.com, there has continuously been a restaurant at 168 N. Loudoun since 1910, making it possibly the oldest such facility in Winchester. Dawn and Bobby Sayre established Brewbaker’s in 1999 and expanded the dining room in 2007.
The restaurant added a banquet facility in 2012, shortly before Laura and Monty took over.
Laura Rhodes believes Brewbaker’s has been successful because it appeals to a wide variety of people.
“It is a comfortable casual dining experience where we strive to have them leave in a better frame of mind or mood than they came in with,” she said. “I think it’s built a niche in the area of being a place where families felt comfortable in coming to dine, but also singles and people who wanted to go out for entertainment purposes. It fit a lot of different demographics and there weren’t a whole lot of places downtown then. And the owners were fantastic people and made a very strong splash in the market when they opened it.”
The restaurant’s lengthy history might seem a little intimidating to some, but Laura Rhodes said she welcomes the challenge, while acknowledging that the tradition does create some pressure. “It’s – I love this word and the fact that everyone uses it – an Institution,” she said. “The pressures are the pressures in general of owning a busy restaurant. It’s a constant thing, but it’s rewarding at the same time. There’s a lot of different personalities, and there’s a lot of expectations. And it’s always kind of fun managing all that.
“The Sayres had one bit of advice for Laura and Monty before they took over: As owners, they would need to be present in every facet of the business.
“They’re awesome people,” Laura said. “They’re kind of like your favorite teachers. They have high expectations, and they’re tough, but it’s very rewarding, and you definitely walk away from the situation feeling like you got a lot out of it.”
“I don’t think I would have been as enthusiastic or as willing to buy any other restaurant. Knowing the amount of work and self-sacrifice that it takes, I know I wouldn’t want to do it any place besides here because there’s such a personal component to it.”
Perhaps best known for its burgers and steaks, Brewbaker’s also features an extensive array of soups, salads, appetizers and pasta dishes. One entrée, in particular, might surprise some guests.
“The Chicken Everything Rigatoni is not something that people expect to see on the menu,” Laura said. “They don’t know what to expect when they order it, but it’s got tomatoes, broccoli, a little bit of spice to it; it’s really, really good. We kind of hit all the different areas.”
Brewbaker’s also features 19 beers on tap and offers a selection of 20 different wines, including some from Virginia.
Old Town Winchester, like the city itself, has grown dramatically in recent years, and several restaurants have opened nearby. Nonetheless, Brewbaker’s has continued to thrive.
“I think it’s all about creating a standard for food and service,” Laura said, “creating connections with guests that come in. More businesses mean more competition, but it also means more growth in the area, more people coming downtown. I mean, having three other businesses open up downtown, it’s only good for everybody.”
Old Town has become a popular destination not just for residents of Winchester and the surrounding area, but for a steady stream of visitors to the area. For that, Laura Rhodes believes there’s plenty of credit to go around.
“The Old Town Development Board has done an excellent job with promoting and growing downtown and getting the word out there with the visitor’s center, throwing events, that kind of thing,” she said. “It’s become much more visible. As far as people using the Internet when they’re driving through, that’s been a huge benefit. And then, once people make it downtown – we do our own marketing as far as social media and the website and everything else. When they come downtown, it’s about the presence when they come by.”
Laura is a Winchester native, and Monty moved here with his family when he was six years old. For awhile, the couple lived in Old Town, and while they now reside outside the city limits, the business district’s unique atmosphere continues to appeal to them.
“It’s like its own little bubble, I guess,” Laura said. “It’s nice to be able to walk and know, on a pretty familiar level, the people who own the businesses or work in the businesses. You can pretty much know – especially if you live downtown – you can walk out your front door and you know you can grab some great coffee, grab a great meal, do some great shopping.
There’s lots of retail places that have opened now, and that’s a great draw as well. It’s like its own little community within the community. It’s nice to walk down the street and see so many people that you know.”
Operating a busy restaurant doesn’t allow for much down time. During the summer months, Brewbaker’s averages 175 to 200 customers during the week, and can easily bring in more than 400 on the weekends. Trying to predict when things might slow down can be tricky.
“Whenever I think I have that figured out, it changes,” Laura said, “so I don’t really know. There are days where we can expect it to be super busy and days where it’s steady, but nothing huge, and there are the days where it’s January, or back to school time – typically that’s a time when things slow down a little bit. And it really doesn’t. You just have to catch it as it comes.”
Brewbaker’s has 34 employees, both full- and part-time, including cooks Greg Lawson, Jonathan Thompson, Jeremy Spencer and Frank Simmons, bartenders Corey Prentice and Gaye Dorsey, and managers Kristen Ryman and Alicia Owens. According to Laura, many of them routinely work 10 hours or more on Fridays and Saturdays, coming in to handle the lunch crowd and staying through dinner and late into the night.
The restaurant’s extensive entertainment options include bands every Saturday night, a deejay on Fridays and Ladies’ Night on Thursdays. Recently, Brewbaker’s has been working with Shenandoah University to offer events in the banquet room, including cabaret shows, drag shows and fundraising events.
The banquet facility hosted eight or nine wedding receptions in 2015; according to Laura, at least that many have been booked so far in 2016. And Brewbaker’s is already just about booked up for Christmas parties later this year.
“It’s grown,” said Laura. “It grows more every year. I think that we provide a very special niche as far as events and weddings go, because we are more of a casual atmosphere.
There are other businesses in the area that are stellar at handling the much more formal events, but we like being able to provide that more casual, relaxed but special feeling. “That wasn’t anything that was even established when we took over four years ago,” she added, “so it’s kind of been evolving and growing.”
For Winchester’s biggest event, the Apple Blossom Festival, Laura and Monty have learned that sometimes, less is more.
“For Apple Blossom specifically, we kind of scale things back a little bit, just because of the nature of the event,” Laura said. “People are drinking and they want entertainment and that kind of stuff, so we’ve scaled back on the food and those kinds of things a little bit. We just try to be present for all the great events that Old Town is throwing.”
So what does the future hold for Brewbaker’s? There’s still some unused space on the second floor, but Laura and Monty haven’t yet decided how to use it. Adding a second location is out of the question, at least for now, as the couple is focused on raising their two children, 14-year-old Kaelyn and nine-year-old Emmett.
So far, the kids haven’t expressed much of an interest in following in their parents’ footsteps, but that could change. Laura said Kaelyn works a hostess shift once a week. “She swears up and down that she’s not going to do it (take over someday), but she’s so good at it. She was two when I started here, so she’s been raised here.”
In the meantime, Laura and Monty, along with their staff, are focused on maintaining Brewbaker’s as a destination that offers something for everyone. “It’s important for those of us who have worked here so long that the customers and guests know how much of a family atmosphere it really is,” Laura said, “and how much we strive to have it be about the food and the service, but also the personal connections with our regulars.
We like getting to know them and building relationships within the community.”