Old Mill Brewpub in Lexington SC opened last year (2013) to rave reviews. Folks from all over the Midlands have come to enjoy a great dining experience as well as beer aficianados getting to sample the award-winning craft brews made on premises. We wanted to find out how this place came to be, and the details behind the success of this restaurant, located in a spot where other dining establishments have failed. We sat down with John Clinger, proprietor, in late July and he graciously answered our queries. He’s one heck of a funny guy, so a great time was had by all.
Where did the idea for combining a brewery and a restaurant come from?
Brewpubs have been around for years and years, of course. In the United States, not as much as they are world wide. It seems like most every town of village in other countries have a brewery. The US is catching up and the option in South Carolina to have a dining establishment as well as a brewery is wonderful. Lexington needed one and we decided this was the spot for it.
What made you decide you wanted to become a pub and restaurant owner?
Stupidity (laughing). I’ve been in and out of food service since I was 14 years old, so I’ve been in food service pretty much all my life. I owned two restauants up north, did well with those. This job (restaurant ownership) requires an awful lot of hours and I was missing the growth of my children. So I took a position with a restaurant chain here in South Carolina. When I took the position down here, I did it to get away from ownership for a while, to be with my kids. And then this (Old Mill Brewpub) just happened. I knew it was time. The kids are getting older now, and I missed it. I really did. It’s still a lot of hours, very little pay, so back to my original answer, stupidity.
You still enjoy working in food service though, right?
I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t enjoy it. Even though it’s pretty much what I’m good at and what I know, I did dabble in other things like graphic design. I was a nighttime composition supervisor. I made newspapers look the way they did. But I kept going back. I loved the energy and the chaos of restaurants.
Did you use these designer skills to help you decorate the Brewpub?
A little bit. The logo is my design and I designed my menus. The concepts of doing certain things are mine. I can’t take full credit for the way the place looks. I understand color and scheme, but my wife had a lot to do with how it looks. I knew where I wanted everything to go and she helped me in delivering it. For the brewery, you can see it, but we wanted to create an area so when he’s producing beer, you can smell the malts and everything. I want people to be able to smell it. The walls will never go all the way to the ceiling because I want the smell to come through.
I see that your restaurant overlooks the pond. How did you decide on this location for the Old Mill Brewpub?
That was easy! When my wife and I moved down here from Pennsylvania, we lived in those apartments [across the pond from the Brewpub] on the water. I was Director of Operations for a restaurant chain and so we lived there while our house was being built. I came over here and I loved the antiquity, loved the old building, and thought, “Boy this would make a great Brewpub!” So this place has been in my head for quite a few years. I actually thought about the boiler room, down on the far end, which is vacant. I thought that would be even better but the people [who owned the property] were not willing to upfit that. This space became available and my wife and I prayed about it, and we thought this was bigger than what we wanted, much bigger, but it worked out.
What are some of the challenges you have faced when dealing with running a restaurant on top of maintaining a brewery?
Obviously the biggest one was cost. The brewery equipment you’re looking at right there is about $100,000. It was shipped from Portland. To be quite honest, this was my first brewery, so there were a lot of little teeny cogs I was unaware of with the machinery. I was unaware of how it all worked, and of course, now I know. I was ordering $283 solenoids online that needed to be here in two days to get this thing up and running. We’re happy we have the restaurant to kind of carry us through, but when we started brewing beer, we saw a nice little spike in business and it helped us out tremendously. Restaurants are hard and there’s so much overhead that people are unaware of going into it.
What’s your favorite spot in the whole restaurant?
I guess a wise man would say the office, but it’s not. The brewery is my absolute favorite spot. Now, I do enjoy the view too, so I like it outside, but all things considered, the brewery is my favorite.
Describe your dream customer.
That is a great question because no two customers are the same. A dream customer comes in with the understanding of what we’re trying to do. We’re not a corporate entity that has a hierarchy of business suits. This is a mom and pop shop. My wife and I run this place with the help of our close friend Doug, and we keep our prices on our food as close to the bones as we possibly can so people find it affordable. With the rent and utilities we have to pay, we sometimes keep our labor down by having a small crew at times when we aren’t normally busy. That’s when it’s just my bartender, myself, and one cook, and if 15 people came in and they were wondering why there’s only one server on, they don’t see the big picture. I can tell you that more than half of the people who walk in those doors were either a server, bartender, host, dishwasher, and some of them get the picture and understand how it is. The ultimate customer understands what we’re trying to do, understands that we are not a corporate entity, knows that we are doing the best we can with what we have, and appreciates what we’re doing with the quality of the food and beer. And of course they come back.
How do you go from having the idea for a new beer, to actually brewing and selling it to your customers?
I’d defer that to my head brewer, Matt Rodgers. I know styles of beer, but he has in his mind what he’d like to do. Right now, he’s brewing an Imperial Pumpkin Porter, and not too many of those are brewed in the United States or anywhere. The pumpkins actually came from his farm. He also grows his own hops and uses them for our ingredients. We have a Pineapple Kolsch on draft right now, where we actually grilled pineapples to put in with the mash. These ideas come to him and I don’t question it because he has the Midas Touch with beer. Everything he comes up with makes sense.
How long does it take to brew a beer?
The beer he’s producing right now will be put from the mash and lauter tun into the fermenter and once it cools down, he’ll pitch the yeast in and it will ferment for a good, solid 2 weeks. Then it gets put into the bright tank where it clarifies the beer and then it gets kegged. So, about two weeks. Some beers take a little less or a little more, but that’s approximate.
I hear that you work alongside your wife, Kelly. What’s it like working with your spouse?
I love it! Absolutely love it! We work well together. We have the same focus, the same ideals on how we want to run this. That helps. She’s definitely tremendously more organized than I am. I have a little bit better peripheral, but her organization skills are unmatched and we work so well together. We still have a 15 year old son and a 10 year old daughter, so we try to leave what we can here when we go home.
Looking back on every obstacle and every success that you’ve had, is there anything that you wish you could go back and tell yourself to do differently?
I’ve key-holed myself in restaurant ownership. It’s what I do. It’s what I’m good at. I’ve discussed with my 15 year old that I prefer he doesn’t follow my footstep. I prefer that he works and gets his degree and pursues something outside of this because of the demands it poses. I’m not saying poor me, but I want something different for him. Going back in time, I doubt I’d alter anything because my participation in food service lead me to my wife. I would never change anything as far as that goes.
What’s next for the Old Mill Brewpub?
Old Mill Brewpub is going to morph annually. Little tweaks and changes are going to happen. We just put a cooler out on the screened in porch and we’re going to build an outdoor bar area with high end Belgian beers, cigar humidor, and select draft ales. We want to create more beer dinners and make people more aware that beer has been around for many centuries. It dates back to very early times and it’s been an accepted part of life. We like to provide an environment where it’s fun, inviting and responsible.