Dirty Dishing: ChurchKey’s Greg Engert and His Beery Brouhaha

EatbyNumbersChurchKey

Photo Credit: Kyle Martell

Tragicomic insider stories about the trials, tribulations, and just plain weird stuff that happens when you run a restaurant.

There’s a lot of red tape that needs to be cut through before you can open a restaurant. ChurchKey’s beer baron Greg Engert knows this better than most. When it came time to open the hoppy hangout on the 14th Street corridor in October 2009, he had to deal with a blizzard of bureaucracy in the final days before opening. Eateries need to pass their health inspection in order to get their liquor license. Only after that crucial piece of paperwork is in hand can they stock any booze. For a place that planned on offering more than 500 different kinds of beer, this necessary chain of events presented a unique pain in the ass.

ChurchKey passed its health inspection on a Friday, which meant that they couldn’t get their liquor license until after the weekend. When that was finally obtained late in the day on Monday, Engert called the beer distributors, who already had everything loaded and ready to go. Within minutes, eight trucks were lined up on the curb holding 150 different kegs, 12 kinds of casks, and over 600 cases of beer. “I overbought,” Engert admits now. “When you’re stocking, you’re like a kid in a candy store sometimes. You’re thinking, ‘Oh, I gotta get that and I can’t miss that.’”

Since there are two flights up to where the kegs were to be stored, they had to be winched upstairs. This took the rest of Monday and well into the next day. Stocking had to be halted on Tuesday, so the staff could run through a mock service. Later that night, the sorting and storing of the bottled beers began. “It took hours just to find some of the stuff,” says Engert. “If a distributor drops off 120 cases with a three-foot long invoice, it’s hard to find that one weird beer from Norway with a strange name. It was insane.”

As if that wasn’t complicated enough, beers had to be put into specific slots in three different coolers set at varying temperatures. The beer names and placement then had to be programmed into the restaurant’s ordering system. Each bottle also had to be priced out, which Engert hadn’t done in advance, so he found himself playing a guessing game with some of the rarer suds.

There was yet another problem: half the beer wasn’t going to fit into the coolers. So Engert and his team started to haphazardly stack cases in the space that is now the back lounge by the lavatories.

It quickly became apparent to Engert that he wasn’t going to be able to open the restaurant with bottled beer available, so the first tipplers at ChurchKey on Thursday evening would only be able to order draft. “There was a line stretching down around the block,” he remembers. “It was flattering, but frightening.”

From the moment the doors opened it was mayhem. “ I’m 100% certain that people were stealing bottles of beer from the open cases by the bathroom,” says Engert.

Five days later, the restaurant finally started offering bottled beer, but that didn’t mean that the pressure was off. “When you’re opening, you get there at 7 a.m. and you’re there till four in the morning,” says Engert. “You don’t sleep for the first two months.”