First Look: Original 40 Brewing Company
From drive-by shootings to mood lighting—the story of a North Park entrepreneur
Photos | Justin McChensey-Wachs
Steve Billings is a fifth-generation San Diegan. In a city of transplants, finding a native is like stumbling across a yeti. Finding a fifth-generation native is like stumbling across a yeti playing basketball.
Anyway. A while back, Billings and his wife Patricia had spent ten months working through the process for their small business loan. It was for their new brewery and restaurant, Original 40—named for the 40 acres John “Jack” Hartley bought in 1893 to form what is now North Park.
“Two days before Christmas we get a call,” Steve explains. “And we’re told we didn’t get it. We were $400,000 into the project. The only way we were going to be able to pull this off was a small business loan. It was devastating.”
As Christmas gifts go, financial ruin is not a good one. They called a friend, who talked them off the cliff, and they found another bank that eventually approved it.
Now the Billings and their partner/GM Sarah Devine are breathing a little easier. Original 40 is open, directly across the street from Billings’ other business, the nightclub U-31. It’s filled with 55 imported Italian barstools, not those metal ones everyone’s butt is too big for. Head brewer Christopher Gillogly—a former electrician who quit his job to become a brewer at Mikkeler, Green Flash, and Pizza Port—is fermenting blondes, hazy IPAs, pilsners, stouts, et al. The garage doors are rolled up, chef Luke Johnson—a local talent whose pedigree includes stints at Alinea, two-star Michelin Melisse, and La Valencia—is cooking up baby back adobo ribs, and crispy skin Scottish salmon with lemon-olive oil emulsion. Not your typical brewery food.
“It’s a brewery that your wife or girlfriend is going to want to go to,” Steve says. “The first breweries in San Diego were opened by brewers. They were so busy making good beer they didn’t have the time or the need to pay attention to those other details. Now that there are so many breweries, you have to execute well on everything. The atmosphere has to be great and the staff has to be friendly and welcoming.”
The Billings have seen North Park’s dark days, boom days, and the shrinkage days. They first got into business there when they bought old dive bar Buster Daly’s in 2006. Two weeks into escrow, the bar was the target of a drive-by shooting. “At that point there was no turning back,” Steve shrugs.
When they turned Daly’s into U-31 in 2007, they were one of the first new bar owners to invest in North Park. They saw its promise. It helped that they owned a small apartment complex, and watched the demographics of their tenant base shift. “I knew the area was ready for a new flavor of nightlife,” Steve says. “It was rough and undeveloped, vacancy after vacancy. You could’ve scooped up an entire block for half a million.”
U-31 opened in 2007, same year as (now, sadly, closed) Urban Solace. The North Park revitalization was on. Some longtime residents didn’t like this new development. They took aim at the Billings and U-31, said their shiny, dark, loud new place was a harbinger of ruin. “We were the first big, popular bar, so it was easy to point fingers at us,” he says. “Now it’s full of people who enjoy walking to restaurants, bars, coffee, breakfast. There aren’t as many disgruntled people fighting us. That’s been the most positive change for me and the neighborhood.”
They swore they’d never go through it again. And, yet, here they are. The proud co-owners of a new building, a new brewery/restaurant with 85 seats, white quartz countertops, plants to water, 26 taps with a couple dozen house beers, and a Luke Johnson.
Below, Steve shares a few stories about North Park’s evolution, the crowded brewery space, why it’s hard to open a restaurant or bar in San Diego, and his best advice for those who want to give it a go:
Why double down?
Billings:I swore I’d never do it again, and here I am. I think people get addicted. We wanted to renovate U-31, but we were having problems with our landlord. Then the building across the street came up for sale. We bought it with the plan of relocating U-31. I started the relocation process, and the landlord came back and renegotiated the lease. My wife and I looked at each other and said, ‘Do we want to spend the money moving, or do another project? We live five blocks away. They’re both across the street from one another. I think we can do this.’
Aren’t you cannibalizing your own clientele?
When U-31 stood alone with The Office, then True North opened. Every time a new place opened up, our sales would go down 10 percent, but then they’d work their way up 12, 15, 17 percent. With each new place, North Park would become a destination. Instead of people saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to U-31,’ they said, ‘We’re going to North Park.’ That was a game changer with the walkability of all these destinations.
How’d you get into the bar business?
My dad was a developer. I owned some rental properties, bought ‘em and fixed ‘em up. But the best time to sell property is never. It didn’t offer me a career on a daily basis, and I didn’t want a full-time job or career. So I ended up opening laundromats. Two were next to bars, and I became friends with the owners. I soon realized they were making 8, 10, 12 times the revenue as I was.
North Park has 13 breweries. Are you nuts? It’s a crowded field.
It looks that way, but they’re pretty spread out. Thorn and Fall aren’t really in walking distance. But now with Original 40, North Park Brewing, and Mike Hess, you’ve got three within walking distance in high heels. Now people can brewery hop.
How do you stick out in the brewery glut?
There are so many great beers in San Diego, so to say we’re ‘next level’ wouldn’t be fair. We make great beer and we’re on par. But where I think we’re next level is the beer and environment. We both came from hospitality. How comfortable is that chair? How bright is the lighting? Is the music coming from one source and not loud enough over in one spot?
OK, tell me why your lighting’s special.
Lighting can make or break a space. You don’t want the lighting just pounding people from one source. We used aesthetically pleasing lights, different styles of bulbs. Every single group of lights is independently dimmable, so you can really create different moods.
Hardest thing about opening a restaurant in San Diego?
I’d say permits and city entitlements. There’s a gap between what the city staff approved from the plans and what the inspector agrees to. Just because you get a permit that says you can build a ceiling 10 feet, the inspector can come in and say, no, it needs to be 12 feet.
What would you like to see for North Park?
More sit-down restaurants and public transportation. My brewer and I went to Denver for one of the beer conferences, and their public transportation is free and amazing. It was eye-opening. San Diego has nothing like that.
Best advice for future restaurant/bar owners?
I tell people all the time—SBA loans are amazing. You can own your own building. In 20-30 years, that building’s going to be worth more than the brewery. And more importantly, you control your own business.
Original 40. 3117 University Ave., North Park.