Entrepreneur, depot owner enjoys role in Johnson City downtown renaissance
By Jeff Keeling
Photos by Adam Campbell
Set to become the largest craft brewery in the Tri-Cities, and something Baker hopes will be a source of both civic pride and significant employment, Yee-Haw will occupy the second historic Johnson City depot Baker has purchased since 2012. The first, the former Carolina, Clinchfield & Ohio just across State of Franklin Road from the ET&WNC, is now restored and home to Tupelo Honey Cafe. (It is now held in a family trust.) Baker also owns the former Free Service Tire Center office building – once a hotel – next to the ET&WNC, giving the co-founder of Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine a substantial stake in some of Johnson City’s most historic real estate.
Yet Baker, a Gatlinburg native, might still be focusing his efforts primarily in Sevier County but for a complicated pregnancy with the youngest of their three children. The experience had inspired Baker’s wife, Jessi, who is also a lawyer, to pursue medical school. That, in turn, led the couple to Quillen College of Medicine and to Johnson City, where they were house hunting in 2011 as Jessi prepared to start med school (the Bakers eventually bought a home in the nearby Tree Streets).
Baker remembers noticing the empty, dilapidated CC&O depot while the real estate agent drove them around.
“It was such an interesting building, but it was in obvious disrepair and didn’t seem to be getting any better,” Baker said of the now 116-year-old depot. “Overall, just coming into the city it was interesting to see the potential that was there.”
Baker’s relationship with Johnson City, and his interest in the community and downtown as a place to conduct business and accomplish some historic preservation along the way, was just beginning. He soon learned the Johnson City Development Authority (JCDA) had purchased the CC&O Depot out of foreclosure. The JCDA was looking for a buyer who could appropriately restore the depot, secure good tenants and turn it into a source of community pride while also generating tax revenue and attracting people to downtown. Over a period of more than two years, Baker and a lot of others made that happen, with Tupelo Honey opening in late June 2014. Long before Tupelo’s opening, though, the depot across the road had caught his eye.
Even in 2012, Baker was thinking about the possibility of a brewery/depot combination. Tupelo Honey’s first foray into the Tri-Cities put the brewery idea on hold, as the restaurant signed a lease with Baker to use the warehouse section of the CC&O for its Johnson City site. But about the time renovations began on the CC&O, Free Service Tire Co. was moving out of the even older depot directly across State of Franklin Road. The former East Tennessee and Western North Carolina (Tweetsie) depot had been constructed starting in 1891, 18 years before the CC&O.
“I would stand there and know we had a lot of work to do on that property, and across the road see something that was also pretty spectacular,” Baker recalls. “To me, because the foundation of this city exists among the three depots that were once here (the Southern depot was the other), to have two preserved, that’s more than just about any other city in America can offer.”
With Ole Smoky’s runaway success providing him the means to continue pursuing his interests in Johnson City, Baker began inquiring about the ET&WNC, owned at that point by Genessee & Wyoming. With the JCDA, Baker had a willing seller that had completed the heavy lifting related to purchase. He simply needed to convince the board – which had used tax increment financing dollars to purchase the CC&O Depot out of foreclosure in 2010 – that his plans complemented its vision for the historic landmark.
“After we got started on (the CC&O), it became apparent there was a lot of opportunity with this property, too.”
So Baker went to work, and quickly learned that unlike development authorities, “railroads aren’t in the business of selling real estate. There wasn’t a whole lot of negotiating. They set the price and that was kind of how it was.”
Baker had his second depot, though, and this time his sights were set clearly on a brewery.
“I enjoy good beer,” Baker says as he strolls through the depot’s old warehouse and workers secure the gleaming, 60-barrel stainless steel brewing tanks onto the concrete floor. “For a long time I’ve wanted to create a product made here in East Tennessee that we could not only enjoy personally, but also promote, and create something that local people can be proud of and enjoy.”
So Baker – again in partnership with high school friend, fellow attorney and Ole Smoky co-founder Cory Cottongim – embarked on a venture to create a craft brewing operation in Johnson City. The result is Yee-Haw, and Baker expects what he calls, “an undeveloped industry” in East Tennessee to flourish. He’s quick to point out the quality microbreweries dotting the Tri-Cities – “we’re certainly not the pioneers” – but Yee-Haw is bringing capacity far beyond that present at the Depot Street (Jonesborough), Wolf Hills (Abingdon, Va.) or Holston River (Bluff City) breweries.
Under the depot’s unique metal roof trusses and aged but still solid timber joists, Baker stops to watch progress. Each tank holds nearly 2,000 gallons of liquid, and Baker wants the product to make a quick impact across East Tennessee, from Chattanooga to Mountain City.
“Our hope is to be able to produce a fairly substantial quantity of beer. We’re looking to try to share this in a lot of areas. This for us is about building a brand, and we want to make some of America’s best beer. We’ve built a team to do that. We’ve got some folks that are among the best in the business working with us to create beer that would stack up against anybody anywhere.”
Chief among those, and also puttering around the premises on an unseasonably cold day, is Yee-Haw brewmaster Brandon Greenwood, late of Lagunitas Brewing Co., where he oversaw the California-based craft brewery’s foray into the Midwest. The Westchester, Pa. native, who got his start as head brewmaster at Philadelphia’s Nodding Head Brewery more than a decade ago, says East Tennesseans can expect something a little different than the focus on ales common to many craft and micro breweries. Greenwood is happy to oblige Baker’s interest in a greater focus on lagers and pilsners (a type of lager) than most craft breweries. Lagers take a month to brew, compared to half the time for ales, and many smaller breweries simply don’t have the capacity to let much of their product fill brewing tanks for twice as long.
“People would argue with me, but lagers are more sort of subtle and refined – require a bit more attention to detail,” Greenwood says. “Lager yeast tends to be a bit more finicky, it’s not as robust as ale yeast is. But we’re set up to do proper lager brewing here, from the brew house all the way through to the finishing cellar.”
Though the craft market has fewer lagers and pilsners available, Greenwood says East Tennessee and Southern beer aficionados are, “absolutely ready for what we’ll brew. The palates will be a little more refined, and softer – I’d say not so much in your face. Our intent is not to coat your tongue with hops. They’re social beers. Beer drinking is a social event. Now I need to be careful, so I’ll just smile at this point. But we’re not making red wine, we’re making beer, and we’re making beer that people can sit down and have more than one of.”
Baker says Yee-Haw will offer a breadth of beer styles, including four main varieties, punctuated with plenty of seasonals and special runs. The two main accompaniments to the dark lager and the pilsner will probably be a pale ale and an IPA. “We probably will explore all different kinds of beer, but certainly a heavier focus on the pilsner, on the pale ale, the IPA and the dark lager. I think those will be the staples.”
Baker chooses his words carefully when asked about growth outside East Tennessee, but the capacity exists to send bottled six packs to stores, and kegs to restaurants and bars, into a wide swath of the Southeast. “This is an East Tennessee brand, but if we’re fortunate I think we’ll see it grow outside of that over time.”
Yee-Haw’s fare will be readily available to locals, and not just in stores and establishments. Adjacent to the production facility at the depot’s west end, a tap room will offer people the chance to sit and sip while watching activity inside the brewing area. The third primary space, on the building’s east end and with the highest ceiling, is set to become home to a restaurant that hadn’t yet announced when the Business Journal went to press. In addition, porch space and tables will be plentiful outside the building, with a garden and lawn games also planned to be on offer.
“Both on the State of Franklin (south) side and the Founders Park side there will be outdoor space for people to sit and enjoy. It’s space that I think will be well-used. It won’t be a late night establishment and we expect it to be attractive to families,” Baker says.
The inside of the building is what prompts Baker to nearly wax rhapsodic about its character. And indeed, a look at the ceiling shows many odd angles of joists, along with the variably sized trusses – all part of a design that Baker’s father, Gary, says earned the building a mention in Architectural Digest when the warehouse section was built in the early 20th century. (Baker credits his dad for seeing that they get the most out of the old buildings’ potential, saying, “he’s got a vision for things that really allows us to do things right and create a good experience when you go into a building.”)
Baker says he was fascinated by the rooflines as years of added ceilings were removed during demolition. “To see those open to the cathedral ceilings and see the work that had been done more than 100 years ago, it’s pretty awesome to realize not only what work was done, but how it’s lasted.”
Baker says he feels fortunate to have the resources required to help bring some of a city’s most iconic structures back to viability while preserving their integrity.
“When these things are gone, they’re gone, and you can’t rebuild them. The craftsmanship that’s there, the history, all of those things, if it’s lost, it’s lost for good.”
Just because Baker wanted to start a craft brewery didn’t dictate that it would wind up in the Tri-Cities. But the shine he took to Johnson City during the year he lived there (2011-2012) when Jessi attended Quillen College of Medicine hasn’t worn off. With two brothers-in-law and a sister-in-law living in Johnson City, Baker says he hopes to be actively involved in the general community and the business community. Jessi Baker’s brother, John Edwards, occupies a key role at Yee-Haw and lives downtown.
While he expects to have his hands full with the nascent brewery and leasing of the former hotel building over the next couple of years, Baker says his eyes are always open to opportunities in downtown. He hopes his investments to date will be part of a downtown boom that fuels economic growth and civic pride.
“We’re certainly not alone in trying to improve a great downtown area,” Baker says. “We’re just hopeful over the next few years to be a part of a real renaissance.”
Around the time he purchased the second depot, Baker bought the 15,000-square-foot former Greenwood Hotel next door, where some of Yee-Haw’s office work gets done on the still-unrenovated first floor. It’s about as old as the depot, and Baker calls it, “a great building. You can just feel all the historic elements around you.” Prowling that building’s second and third floors, now gutted to the studs, he adds, “These walls could tell a lot of stories.” Soon, Baker hopes, the walls will contain commercial or residential space on the upper floors. He already has a couple of prospective retail tenants interested in the first floor. And Baker probably isn’t done investing in the downtown, which he believes is on the cusp of significant growth.
Baker says he’ll be happy creating jobs, something he’s found rewarding as Ole Smoky has grown in fewer than five years to an employee base of about 300.
“I would say that the greatest return on my investment has been when I have employees come up to me and say thanks because they were able to buy their own home. To know that we’re affecting lives – it helps you sleep at night.
“It’s the same working in a community like this, knowing that you’re creating energy and excitement and causing good things to happen for the community,”Baker says.
“It’s a business, and we want to make money. But if you can do good things, have fun and also make money, that’s kind of the ideal scenario.”