CABCo Turns 25
“What is the one thing, above all else, that we’re selling here?” Scott Carlson’s voiced boomed out during the daily preshift meeting at Court Avenue Restaurant and Brewing Company, his face much more serious than his hamburger-printed bow tie would let on.
“Beer!” An enthusiastic voice shouted. “Food!” Another offered.
“Nope, what else?” He waited patiently.
“Downtown?” A small voice questioned.
“Good answer,” he encouraged. “But still no.”
“Community,” another suggested.
“Closer,” he pointed at the last server to speak. “You’re on the right track.”
The room grew quiet. “Feelings,” Scott offered. “We sell feelings.”
“As cheesy as the speech was,” former server and manager Megan Grandgeorge explains, “it rings true to this day. I suspect it is one of the reasons behind CABCo’s longevity.” Because Scott is earnest. He believes it, and he sells it to everyone in that room. We’re not in the job of selling food and booze, we’re selling that happy feeling that comes after a great night out, and we’re good at it. We’re good at it because Scott makes us believe it too.
‘[When] we heard that a brewing company/restaurant was coming — we were delighted,” remembers long-time customer Tim Schoh. “And the memories started from there. Meeting friends, new and old, never needed to be planned — it just happened.”
CABCo holds my first memories of Downtown Des Moines (DSM) becoming what it is today. I discovered her (yes, I’ve always thought of the brewery as a her) over Raspberry Wheat, my first microbrew, during Ally McBeer on Monday nights. I grew to love her watching The Nadas and Brother Trucker perform around that same time. And she became a part of me when Scott took over as owner in 2001 after a brief shutdown and renovation. He hired an eclectic group of mostly 20-something misfits based somewhat off of experience, but mostly on whether or not they seemed like people he’d want to hang out and have a beer with, and after 20+ years in the industry, I can say those are as good of credentials as I’ve ever found. We worked hard and we played hard, and we were invested. Led by Chris, Karen, Alex and Hutch, we knew we were doing more than selling food and beer; we were building something. At that time, breweries were few and far between in Iowa, and nightlife downtown consisted of a couple of dance clubs, a dive bar, a magnificent/now long-gone music venue, Spaghetti Works and Judge Roy Beans. We were there to build something new. It was exciting and it made the nights closing down as the Downtown Farmers’ Market was setting up all worth it.
And look today, 25 years after those doors first opened, at what Downtown DSM has become! Look at the microbrew scene in town! I’m not saying Court Avenue is singularly responsible, but man, what a part to play. What a gamble to pay off.
It’s hard to remember now, but that side parking lot was once the site of Bluesfest. It held the first Oktoberfest downtown. CABCo brought Drake University’s street painting downtown during Relays. It was an incubator. It was my incubator.
“Scott knows a good portion of people he employs are on layover. Waiting tables or managing as a steppingstone,” Grandgeorge points out. “I distinctly remember him hiring me on as a manager and telling me something along the lines of I don’t want to see you in this position in two years. He knew where I wanted my career to go, and he helped me get there. That is not standard in the restaurant industry.”
The landscape of business leaders in DSM would certainly look different without the foundation that Court Ave Brew laid beneath many of our early careers. Off the top of my head, I can think of a nonprofit fundraiser, a clothing designer, a gym owner and the founder of one of the top producing realty teams in the region who waited, bartended, cooked, brewed or managed through their earlier years in the Saddlery Building. And that doesn’t even take into account the ones who made the food and beverage business their career, the ones who are still out there shaping the DSM hospitality scene as your favorite staff in different operations around town, including owners (two who are now partners with Carlson). And I feel confident in saying that all these leaders still think of the lessons they learned from Scott and their time at CABCo.
Court Avenue Restaurant and Brewery isn’t the job where I made the most money or had the best title, but it is the job that had the most profound impact on me, professionally and personally. It was where I learned that work, all work, is better if I care about it, that if a boss takes care of their employees, the employees will want to take care of the customers and to never be hungover on a day when they’re brewing beer or emptying the grease trap. I learned many life skills that have paid dividends in the years since, like how to read financial records, calculating inventory or stay hydrated and still not need to pee for a whole shift (which is a godsend at music festivals, or the fair). I learned about accountability, and grace, and to never, never leave dishes in the cold room after a break.
Some of my closest friends to this day are people I worked with or served during my days on Court Ave. I trained JB when he started in 2002 and he performed my wedding ceremony 14 years later. I hired Erica who I lived with for years after and I now get to see being an amazing mom. I looked forward to seeing Tim’s face at the bar most days during my tenure and we were texting yesterday about his mom’s visit to Florida and hoping for a reunion soon now that we’re vaccinated. There’s Lemmo and Grandgeorge, Neil, Ut, Meghan McC and so many others that are still a part of my life today, and the seeds of those relationships were planted in the walls of that brewery.
“I moved to Miami Beach years ago now,” notes Schoh, “however I still keep in regular touch with at least a couple dozen former and current employees, and friends that used to frequent CABCO. That alone says a lot about the type of establishment this was and is.”
According to Perry Group International, the average lifespan of a restaurant is five years. Twenty-five years is a good run by anyone’s standards. Twenty-five years is a reason to celebrate. Come down and toast a quarter of a century of brews, food and yes, feelings, on Sunday, September 5 from 4 p.m. – 11 p.m. with live music, limited-batch beer and some of the best misfits I’ve ever known. Cheers.
Downtown Des Moines (DSM) is a growing, vibrant community that offers the energy, sophistication, housing and attractions of a burgeoning city with a brilliant future. It’s also easy to visit with plentiful and affordable street and ramp parking options.