Matt Gray remembers the old J.J. Newberry's Downtown, with its creaky floors, dusty inventory and a lunch counter he would saddle up to next to his grandmother to enjoy a hot dog.
Now he owns that building, but his ambition far exceeds nostalgia. It's about revitalization and doing his part to bring vibrancy and economic growth back to his community.
Gray, along with partners Jon Mager and Matthew Boyd, will be the owners of the anchor tenant in an ambitious project backed by the Batavia Development Corp., Genesee County Economic Development Corporation, and Rural Development/USDA to help aspiring restaurant owners get a start in Downtown.
The partners are creating Batavia Brewing Company, a new microbrewery at 109 Main St., Batavia.
The location will also be known as freshLAB, a restaurant incubator where entrepreneurs with great ideas for unique menu items sourced mostly with local and regional ingredients can see if they can turn their food concepts into thriving businesses.
Mager said the ambition for the project is rooted in the fact that he and Gray grew up in Batavia, are businessmen in this community, are raising families here and want to see their community thrive.
"We wholeheartedly believe Batavia is a great place to live, work, play and raise a family," Mager said. "By joining the ranks of the many great places to eat and drink Downtown, we hope to be part of a complete and full resurgence and revitalization that is attracting people back to Downtown."
Gray said they picked a downtown location because that would generate the greatest economic impact, both for other restaurant and bar owners and for themselves.
"There were a lot of other pluses on a lot of other sites, including parking, but (what) it came down to, is we believe in the clustering effect," Gray said. "There are so many good restaurants and so much good nightlife already down in this area. Adding more to it is only going to make each one of us healthier. By going off on our own, we're going to have to fight uphill to trying to get people to come to us."
Mager and Gray, who got his start in food business ownership with Matty's Pizzeria and currently own's Alex's Place along with restaurants in Southern states, first started talking about opening a brewery in 2013. In 2013, Mager completed training with the American Brewers Guild.
At the same time, Julie Pacatte and the BDC board were looking at all this data saying too much restaurant and bar spending by local residents -- some $12 million -- was being spent outside of Batavia. People wanted more food choices locally. And there were a number of people who would come to the BDC for assistance in starting restaurants, but just didn't have the wherewith all to pull it off. So this incubator idea, which has been successful in other markets, started forming.
Pacatte heard about Mager and Gray's ambitions and recognized the possibility of a partnership.
"We want those dollars to say here," Pacatte said. "We want a reason for people to be eating and drinking in Downtown Batavia, more reason to do that. We want to offer a product that really ties our commerce, our downtown businesses to our agriculture community."
In a survey, the vast majority of respondents said they want healthier food choices in Batavia, they want more ethnic food (Millennials especially, marketing data shows, go for Far Eastern cuisines and spicier choices), and diners want more seafood.
"We're hoping that in this concept and in this project, that we're able to draw some of the folks in who can create some of those plates and meals and sandwiches or salads, that will be able to invent those kinds of meals and lunches and dinners and breakfasts here in Batavia," Pacatte said.
Rural Development is kicking in more than $67,000 in grants to provide equipment and furnishings for the "dining hall" element of the facility, that will be a shared space between the brewery and the food vendors.
Steve Hyde, CEO of GCEDC, praised Gray and Mager for their foresight and willingness to take a risk, as entrepreneurs, to start a new business concept in their own community that will help their own community. Batavia is on the rebound, Hyde said.
"We have the innovation economy in our community now, higher-paying jobs, bigger-paying jobs, so our kids (can) stay here, come back home, and guess what, it makes this place a great place live, work and play and opportunities like this are going to make this happen even more," Hyde said. "It's really a great way to shine up the apple here in the city."
He said Mager and Gray are visionaries.
"It's so rewarding to us to have our local guys step up to the plate, invest in their community, and do what they're good at, 'cause this isn't new news for these guys," Hyde said. "This is right in their wheelhouse and they'll make it a great success."