The ubiquitous Mr. Smith: You can’t swing a growler in this city without hitting Hunter Smith

Hunter Smith, founder of Champion Brewing Company, is growing and diversifying his role in the local food and drinks industry. Photo: Eze Amos Hunter Smith, founder of Champion Brewing Company, is growing and diversifying his role in the local food and drinks industry. Photo: Eze Amos

On a rainy night in early April, I joined a handful of other food-and-drink journalists in the glass-walled pavilion at Afton Mountain Vineyards to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Tony and Elizabeth Smith’s ownership of the winery. About a minute into my conversation with Elizabeth during pre-dinner winetasting, I had a smacks-forehead-with-palm moment when she told me their son is Hunter Smith, founder of Champion Brewing Company.

“Of course,” I said, feeling doltish. “Well, he’s been busy lately.”

“That’s Hunter,” she said, “always up to something new!”

Ascendant beer mogul Hunter Smith has plenty of reasons to smile, including his collaboration in The Wool Factory, a food, drink, and events space (still under renovation) in the historic Woolen Mills. Photo: Amy and Jackson Smith

A month later, I’m sitting in the Champion taproom across a four-top from the Missile IPA man himself. Hunter Smith has the thick build of a football lineman, and he favors a ball cap, T-shirt, and loose-fitting shorts as a uniform. His soft, boyish facial features make him seem younger than his 33 years. In conversation, he’s straightforward and polite. Tony and Elizabeth evidently raised him well—and perhaps imbued in him some ambition and business acumen.

Smith opened Champion around Thanksgiving in 2012. Within a year, he announced plans to increase production to 10,000 barrels a year, and the brewery’s signature IPA debuted in the spring of 2014. Two years later, Champion planted a second tap room in Richmond, and now produces 15,000 barrels a year. His appetite for growth unsated, Smith helped to launch Brasserie Saison, on the Downtown Mall, in February 2017, and earlier this year assumed sole ownership of the gastropub.

Just a couple of weeks before I was at Afton Mountain, news broke that Smith had jumped into yet another venture—The Wool Factory. A scant two miles from the mall, the 12,000- square-foot facility in the historic Woolen Mills will feature an events space, fine dining restaurant by chef Tucker Yoder, coffee-and-wine shop by the Grit Coffee team, and Selvedge, a Champion spin-off brand and Smith’s second gastropub. As if that weren’t enough, Smith—co-chair of the Virginia Craft Brewers Guild government affairs committee—has signed on as a consultant to Waterbird Spirits, a micro-distillery due to open downtown in July.

In the quiet of the Champion tap room, a few hours before opening, Smith discussed his many projects, the possible saturation of Charlottesville’s restaurant industry, and how he balances family life with his pedal-to-the-metal business style.

Knife & Fork: Let’s start with The Wool Factory. When and how did you attach to that project?

Hunter Smith: About a year after we put our production brewery on Broadway, near the Woolen Mills, I met Brian Roy, the developer, and I learned about what he was doing down there. I had no idea that it existed, and to see it was just mind-blowing. It’s a gorgeous spot of land right there by the river. We stayed in touch, and then came the exciting news that [local tech company] WillowTree would move to the mills.

Eventually, Brian told me the project involved a brewpub, and he said, “Maybe they could use your advice.” After that, the conversation proceeded on two tracks. One was transactional: I had enough extra equipment to get a brewpub up and running, and wouldn’t mind selling it. And the other was, “How can I help? Can I become a partner?”

One day I ended up in a room with the Grit Coffee guys, Brad [Uhl], Brandon [Wooten], and Dan [FitzHenry], and Tucker Yoder, the chef I’d been collaborating with since starting Champion. It’s such a cool group project, and I wanted in. But it took a lot of ideation. What are we going to call this thing? It’s five guys and various operations that all need their own brands. How does that make sense as a business? How will people identify with it?

On the banks of the Rivanna River, the picturesque and historic Woolen Mills will house the local tech company WillowTree as well as The Wool Factory, a food, drink, and events space. Smith’s new brand, Selvedge, will anchor a brewpub there. Photo: 3north

There’s also the issue of competition. Was that part of the conversation?

Of course. My experience with Champion and with Brasserie taught me not to count on any sort of late traffic to drive business. I suggested to the group—and I think they knew this, too—that we weren’t going to pay the rent just because we were next to WillowTree. We needed to be smart about it. We are going to be a brewery, restaurant, coffee and wine shop, and events space, and there’s plenty of competition for those things in Charlottesville.

As for the brewery piece of it, I know what’s it’s like to go from home-brewing to commercial brewing. It’s a sharp and painful learning curve. I told the guys, “I don’t think you want to start this on your own.” We all needed to do our own thing, and do it well, and then work together on the bigger picture. And that’s what became The Wool Factory.

I had no idea that you and Tucker Yoder go back to the beginning of Champion. How did that come about?

It was born out of friendship. We were two guys really into the food-and-drink space. When we met, he was the executive chef at The Clifton Inn, and I was just getting the brewery going. He’s a big beer fan, and I’m a big fan of his food, and we both have enjoyed the idea of taking a chef-like approach to making beer.

With The Wool Factory project, you’re introducing a new brand, Selvedge. How will you distinguish
it from Champion? 

We’re treating it sort of like a sister brand. With Selvedge, we want to be more cutting edge, no pun intended—experimental IPAs, beers with lots of fruit, and lots of stuff that we’ve done sporadically at Champion.

Another ambitious culinary project, the Dairy Market on Preston Avenue—which will also have market- rate housing—is due to open next year. Is Charlottesville’s food scene reaching a saturation point?

I read comments online about this and chuckle. They’re like, “Another restaurant? It’s pretty absurd.” But Charlottesville’s restaurants-per-capita number is not just about its resident population. Tourists and other transient traffic count for a lot of the clientele. I think that’s a sustaining factor.

At the same time, the city is going to grow. For me and a lot of other folks, affordable housing is a high priority. But from a strictly market perspective—especially, the five- or 10-year growth metrics—there are going to be more people here, and we need more market-rate housing.

It’s definitely not a Field of Dreams thing. It’s not, if you build it, they will come. We experienced that at the brewery. In the first couple of weeks you’re slammed, and then, crickets—because you’re not the new thing anymore. But I think we’ve gotten fairly good at keeping it fresh. If you’re not willing to come up with new specials, new ideas, new ways to engage the community—if you’re just propping up the shop—forget it.

Are the economics really right for a place like The Wool Factory?

That’s been part of our initial conversations. Having done the start-up thing a few times, I’ve emphasized that we’re going to have be loud. We’re not ignorant to the fact that people have a lot of options. There was a time not too long ago when you could stick a brewery anywhere, and people would show up. But now we’re opening in a 12,000-square-foot space. It needs to be busy. There will be 400 folks working at WillowTree, and I definitely think there’s going to be some spillover from there. But they’re also going to have their own in-house kitchen…. So, yeah, we’re going to have to be down there at the end of the street, like the guy waving the Liberty Tax sign, saying, “Get in here and try our stuff.”

And most customers will come from where?

Downtown. I think that’s what we want to illustrate: Hey, we’ve got this gorgeous amenity on the Rivanna River that’s super-close to downtown.

Let’s talk about Brasserie Saison. The plan for you to take over 100 percent was in the works for awhile, right?

Yeah. Will [Richey, of Ten Course Hospitality] and I always had an agreement that after two years I’d have the option to buy him out. Everything I thought he would bring to the table, he did. He’s got the elbow-grease magic. I’m grateful for the opportunity where we partnered and I was just the beer guy and he was the restaurateur. Somewhat to my surprise, I learned how to be part of operating and managing a restaurant, and that happened at the Champion taproom in Richmond.

What changes can people expect at Brasserie? Tangibly, what will your influence be?

With places like Lampo, C&O, Bizou, Petit Pois, and Fleurie in town, I thought the last thing we needed was another chef-driven, small-plate, precious restaurant. What I had in mind was a Western European-style restaurant: great food, great beer. But at Brasserie, beer is about 5 percent of sales now. A really cool restaurant with some niche brewing capacity is what it is. I joke about the fact that if we ever need to remember who our clientele is, there’s a vintage cocktail shaker with reading glasses at the host stand, and that tells me everything I need to know.

Do you have a collaboration with Afton Mountain Vineyards in mind, given your obvious connection there?

Tres Pittard, Brasserie’s executive chef, and I went out to Afton to take inventory of the space and think outside the box. Brasserie and our neighbors at Old Metropolitan Hall are affiliated with Stay Charlottesville, which has the vehicles to do wine tours. Tres and I are looking at the possibility of doing harvest dinners and perhaps cooking classes at the vineyard. We’ve got this gorgeous place that’s a half hour from town, but including transportation will be critical. Once we’ve gotten over that hurdle, we can start doing some really cool events.

Always into something new—that’s what your mom told me about you.

My wife asks what’s wrong with me when I keep considering new projects. But I come from a family of entrepreneurs. It’s nice to blame it a little bit on the previous generation: “Well, look, I got it from them. It’s not just that I’m Mr. Crazy Bananas.” But yeah, it’s always something.

How long have you been married?

It’ll be 10 years this week.

What does your wife do?

She had initially helped me with the books for the brewery, but we grew beyond a one-person-on-QuickBooks operation. At the same time, our kids got to the age where we had to consider whether they’d go to daycare, which is costly, or whether she could raise them herself. So we’ve been single-income since we started Champion. It’s been a team-oriented approach for us, a family affair.

How many kids do you have?

We have two. A daughter who’s 7 and a son who’s 5. They walk to school. It’s a very sweet life that they have.

What influence, if any, do your kids have on your business decisions?

Interesting that you ask. We’ve been speaking to the folks at Little Planets about potentially creating some areas of the patio at Champion specifically for kids. We learned a lot by showing the Virginia March Madness games outside. There’s an opportunity to make the most of this patio. It was initially a 12-space parking lot, but it has turned into an entirely different thing. Anytime we can skim off a nickel or a dime to improve the space, that’s what we’ll continue to do.

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