Sunday, April 14, 2024

Amber Ox owner plans beer hall, entertainment center in Merchants Square

Artists rendition of how the new beer hall may look from the outside. (WYDaily/ Courtesy Precarious Beer Project)
Artists rendition of how the new beer hall may look from the outside. (WYDaily/ Courtesy Precarious Beer Project)

A taco truck, vintage arcade games, live music and a selection of locally brewed beer could soon be found in one new business in downtown Williamsburg.

The folks who brought Amber Ox Public House to downtown are hoping to bring casual dining and nightlife to Colonial Williamsburg’s Merchants Square by next June.

Amber Ox owner Andrew Voss has announced plans to open a new beer hall in the nearly 10,000 square foot site of the former Seasons restaurant, which has sat vacant since closing in the summer of 2017, and Stephanos Pizza.

Now, when Voss walks down the sidewalk near the intersection of South Henry and Francis Street he said the area feels lifeless.

“There’s nothing going on,” he said.

He hopes his idea for a business can change that.

“The vibrancy and the growth of the late-night experience in Colonial Williamsburg is a big focus, I think for everybody, and that’s really where we’re going to be focusing this experience,” Voss said. “A lot of the breweries in the market close at 9, 10 o’clock. This place is going to be open until 1 a.m., 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays with the experience of driving the late-night vibrancy downtown.”

In addition to staying open late and being located a block from Duke of Gloucester Street, Voss said he hopes the beer hall will attract locals and tourists alike with a lineup of attractions that are tough to find in Williamsburg.

For one, guests will be able to choose from a selection of a dozen or more tacos by walking up to an actual taco truck that will be in the center of the building. Just as many beers will be available a few feet away at the bar.

Voss said guests can expect a casual, social atmosphere with seating at 30-foot-long communal tables, on couches or on the expanded patio facing South Henry and Francis Streets.

After eating and grabbing a beer customers can play classic arcade games like Pac-Man or Galaga for 25 cents per game.

They can then settle down and enjoy live music that will be performed most nights on the indoor stage.

“A lot of these breweries these days, it’s not just about the tasting room experience,” Voss said. “It’s important, but it’s really about guest retention, family-focused atmospheres, a food component, kid friendly activities, things like that. That’s really what this space is going to be.”

A floor plan of the proposed beer hall. The taco truck will sit in the center of the building, with seating in the lower right of the floor plan. (WYDaily/ Courtesy Precarious Beer Project)
A floor plan of the proposed beer hall. The taco truck will sit in the center of the building, with seating in the lower right of the floor plan. (WYDaily/ Courtesy Precarious Beer Project)

Two spots, one brewery

The brewpub Amber Ox opened on Prince George Street in December 2017 with a seasonally rotating menu of locally-sourced food and beer. At the time, owners Andrew Voss and Chris Cook rebranded Amber Ox’s brewery as the Precarious Beer Project.

“That was done intentionally to give us an opportunity to essentially market and grow our beer independently from the restaurant side,” Voss said. “That’s been the master plan since the get-go. … As we looked to develop this concept one of the central focuses was giving Precarious its own space, which we’ve done in this location.”

Precarious beer is on Amber Ox’s menu, and Voss said in the months since Amber Ox’s opening he’s been surprised to see food sales outstrip beer sales. Before opening, he said he anticipated the opposite would be the case.

By opening a second space Voss said they can expand the operations and reach of Precarious Beer Project.

“The development of this space, even though it’s three blocks from here, actually assists in the growth of Precarious Beer Project at Amber Ox,” Voss said. “Because of how close we are, we have the ability to treat this as one brewery.”

Precarious has outgrown its roughly 700-square-foot corner of the Amber Ox. From the new hall Precarious will be able to can, package and expand the distribution of their beer. Precarious distributes in locations like Richmond, Virginia Beach and Washington, though a partnership with Reverie Distribution, but Voss said they are only able to meet about 20 percent of demand because of their current confines.

Now they’ll be able to produce larger batches of their most popular beers and experiment with even more new brews which might be found at either Amber Ox or the beer hall.

Beer and tacos

“People have come to know Amber Ox as a great food experience,” Voss said.

As popular as Voss said Amber Ox’s food has been, the beer hall will have a totally different menu – comprised entirely of tacos.

“Tacos transcend a lot of demographics,” Voss said.

Amber Ox’s menu is sourced from regional producers, and Voss said many of those professional relationships with farmers and fish mongers will carry over to the beer hall. Their corn tortilla shells will be made in-house, and guests will be able to garnish them with house-made salsa and sauces.

The various types of tacos will be available between $3 and $5.

“We’re able to execute high-quality food and make it affordable,” Voss said.

Beyond purveying food, Voss said the taco truck will be critical in establishing the ambiance of the hall.  In addition to the original flooring, ceiling and brass fixtures, Voss envisions a relaxed atmosphere that mixes urban and rustic.

He also expects the tacos to be ready in a timely manner, making a good option for families on the go.

“We want to be able to create a space where you can come in, you can order a few tacos and get a beer, and hang out with your family and not leave having spent 80 or 100 dollars for lunch,” Voss said.

Multisensory experience

Voss said he hopes to capitalize on a new trend he’s seen across the East Coast: lining bars with arcade games.

Guests can boot up games of classic games like Tron or even pinball in an area of the hall beyond the dining area.

“It’s an additional step for guest retention,” Voss said. “Kids a lot of times get bored at breweries and run around, this is a great opportunity for them to be entertained. At 25 cents a play they can hang out for a while.”

“It adds another element that isn’t really found in Colonial Williamsburg’s portfolio or really in the city, period,” he added.

Vision for downtown

In order to see the beer hall come to fruition, Voss and the Precarious Beer Project will need to receive approval from Williamsburg’s City Council.

The city has already identified boosting visitation to downtown, including Merchants Square, as a goal. The subject was also studied by an independent consultant and is currently being reviewed.

Precarious Beer Project received a $220,000 grant from the city’s Economic Development Authority on Wednesday, along with a corresponding performance agreement. The grant was awarded to the business at 110 South Henry Street.

If approved, the beer hall will open in the same building as Mellow Mushroom, which is currently under construction and expected to open this fall.

“If you want your quiet space it’s a block away at Duke of Gloucester Street,” Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Vice President of Real Estate Jeff Duncan said. “This will be a destination within Merchants Square.”

Voss said he had appreciated the city’s support and shared their vision for adding a spark to downtown.

“There was a clear and defined focus to develop that corner that is such a prime corner for the city in general, not just Colonial Williamsburg, and developing that is going to bring a lot of life to that side of CW,” Voss said.

Note to readers: A quote from Amber Ox owner Andrew Voss has been removed from this story at the request of Barcade, which claims Mr. Voss’ use of the portmanteau — which is often used to describe entertainment complexes that combine bars and arcade games — infringes on Barcade’s trademark. 

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