The Story Behind Junction West
- By Gray C. Sandford
What once was just a couple buildings on a dead end street in Raleigh's downtown Warehouse District is not only not dead - it's become the delivery room for a burgeoning creative rebirth.
Nestled into its own little world between the recently completed Union Station and the railroad tracks at what used to be the end of S. West Street sits Junction West, a fascinating new bar/event space concept from Raleigh natives, Rob and Gabie Frantz.
Originally a warehouse built in the 1880s and more recently a nightclub that housed caged dancers and a 2Chainz after-party, the concept did not come easily for Rob and Gabie but evolved naturally around the couple's passion for community, collaborative creativity, and good craft beer - ultimately filling an unmet need the Frantz's didn't even realize existed.
A WEDDING GIFT TO RALEIGH
Raleigh natives and graduates of Broughton and Saint Mary's School, Rob and Gabie have been passively observing the Raleigh growth explosion from the sidelines their entire lives. But a little over two years ago Rob and Gabie got aggressive. Their time to do something was now - and as you'll soon learn - that something became part craft beer, part creative event space, and wholeheartedly their 'thank you' to a community that has given them the world.
Married in Raleigh in 2017, the newlyweds had seen firsthand the challenges of finding a good event space in town. As fate would have it, those lingering frustrations still fresh and top of the mind, would spark the light bulb atop their heads and ultimately galvanize their vision for Junction West.
"Luckily, we ended up finding an amazing venue - The Fairview in Five Points - but after a never ending search, we were certain that Raleigh really needed a space like this." says Gabie Frantz, with the veteran-like confidance you'd expect from a newly-wed millennial.
A BLURRY VISION BEGINS TO CLEAR
When Rob and Gabie first found the space, it featured two seperate buildings physically connected on the outside but without a connecting door or opening on the inside. At that time Rob and Gabie were only interested in the south building that they viewed as perfect for the first half of their vision - which Rob intitially referred to as, "some type of restaurant or bar."
"Originally we were just interested in the building closest to the train tracks. It was built in the 1950s and connected to the neighboring Cherokee building which is listed in the registry of historic places. But once we learned the history behind the building, (and) realized it too was available to rent, we pulled the trigger. That's really when the plans for what you see today really started to take shape." says Gabie Frantz.
"Well that and planning our wedding."
"We've been talking about doing something like this since the day we met, but we didn't know exactly what that something was. But once we stumbled upon this second space (northern historic Cherokee building) and the events side of the equation started to come together in our heads, we knew this was our home." says Gabie, punctuated with a soft smile and comforting shoulder shrug that accompanies those moments that just feel right.
A BURIED STORY FINDS NEW LIFE
But 'seeing it' wasn't that easy. Needing to create an interior connection between the two buildings so they could serve as one, and knowing the entire space was well overdue for a major facelift, the couple turned to bulldozers and an aesthetic surgeon for answers. What they found was a storied past, a brilliant friend, and one very old truck.
"We gutted both buildings to their core and shell. When we dug up the concrete floor, we found all sorts of crazy stuff; horseshoes, all types of gear, (we) even dug up an old truck chassis down there," says Rob with a look of comical disbelief.
Rob and Gabie had plenty of thoughts on the updated design feel of their new space, but called on their friend already shaping the skyline of downtown Raleigh, to bring it to life.
Known for her ability to restore and revitalize Raleigh's downtown eyesores, local designer and architect Nicole Alvarez was tapped to modernize and match the decaying appearance of 310 S. West Street with the rich history oozing from within.
"Maintaining the history was really important to the project, so we did everything possible to accentuate it, while softening and modernizing it when possible," says Nicole.
"And Nicole was amazing. She really helped focus us, keeping our vision simple and centered around our likes, our passions, and what we though Raleigh and the neighborhood needed."
EVENTS AT JUNCTION WEST
To give Raleigh a totally unique and customizable event venue, Junction West boasts over 5,400 sq-ft of rentable space (3,434 sq-ft indoors), offers multiple beverage packages, and prides itself on doing what other venues either can't, or won't.
And they're not just talking about wedding receptions and holiday parties.
"We're open to any and all ideas really. There's a lot of cool people doing a lot of really creative stuff in Raleigh these days and we wanted to create a space where that creativity can happen, live, and be enjoyed."
"And the nice thing about being a bar - if an event wants a rare bourbon or some super unique local beer on tap, we've already got those relationships and ordering methods in place, so we can make it happen," says Rob Frantz.
A former brewer for Trophy Brewing Co. and the beer half of the Frantz duo, Rob Frantz says they've always known that whatever this place became, local breweries and craft beer would play a vital role.
ROB FRANTZ LOVES BEER
Like, really loves beer. Not like you and I love beer.
Rob loves beer like scientists love experiments, like babies love keys, cats and laser pointers. The constant awe and confusion it brings is exactly what Rob can't get enough of.
Rob first whet his palete for craft beer at the University of Georgia, where Terrapin Brewery sits just a short five minute drive from downtown Athens. It was there, as he puts it, "I realized there is more than just Natty Light."
After ditching the Natty Light and graduating from UGA, Rob moved back to Raleigh and began plotting what he thought would be a career in the music business. Unfortunately, ? doesn't pay the bills - but learning to brew beer alongside some of the best brewers in Raleigh just might. Eager to learn the trade, Rob scored a gig waiting tables at Trophy Brewing Co. As he would go on to explain in great detail, the experience was an invaluable stroke of good luck and even better timing.
"I had done some homebrewing so I knew a little bit, but then I got the gig. Immediately I was fascinated with their brewing facility because up until that point, I had only imagined what would go down in a small-batch brewing facility."
"So I started asking a ton of questions, loving everything about it, and eventually worked out a deal where I could brew with them once a month. Didn't get paid at first but after awhile it turned into a regular thing." said Rob.
Beginning his apprenticeship at Trophy's smaller 3 barrel facility (where one batch = 6 kegs) rather than Trophy's current 20 barrel facility (one batch = 40 kegs), Rob and the guys were able to be more experimental since the risk of a bad batch is much lower when only producing a half-dozen kegs.
"It was fun as hell, I learned a ton. We were always trying to come up with the weirdest thing we could do that might actually taste good. My first idea was a banana pudding beer, which actually turned out pretty tasty," says Rob through a nostalgic smile and chuckle.
As his obvious passion for brewing spilled out through his every word, I was sure I already knew the 'real' long-term plan for the over 2,000 square foot warehouse. But realizing the danger that lies in assumptions, especially mine, I did what every fascinated human seeking the truth does - waited for him to step away and asked his wife.
Sure, there are a million reasons to start a brewery in your empty warehouse perfectly built for just that, but Rob and Gabie didn't pick a single one. Instead, they chose the betterment of Raleigh over themselves. And no, you didn't read that wrong.
"Is Rob thinking about turning the event space into his own brewery at some point?"
With a grin and loving roll of the eyes, Gabie began to not only answer my question, but more so reveal to me what it is exactly that makes them both tick - their true governing passion - and the real 'why' behind this whole endeavor.
And it was beautiful.
"No, not really, that's not what he's really about. Having been in the industry the past few years he's made some really good friends that are doing that (brewing). Rob wants to be more of a supporter and facilitator to make this place somewhat of a local incubator, encouraging experimentation and showcasing the latest creations from the community.
"Rob's all about that type of stuff." finished Gabie, while smiling through a face only a loving wife wears while talking about her husband's obsession.
Junction West continuously rotates 12 craft beer taps and keeps a limited selection of bottles and cans to round out their in-house inventory. On the wine front, Rob and Gabie have all the typical styles covered and most likely, something for every wine drinker.
THE GIFT OF GABIE
The giving-back to the community doesn't stop at the taps. Gabie's vision for the event space is already bearing fruits in the form of 20 newly-registered voters in Raleigh. In the week before the recent midterm elections, Gabie and friends from the neighborhood partnered with headcount.org and hosted a free and catered voter registration lunch event.
"We had maybe 40 people show up, several of which registered to vote for the first time! It was amazing," says Gabie, glowing with pride.
"It's exactly how we want the space to be used. This place is about something bigger than just handing someone a beer. Something different. Something that's positive."
It isn't only voter registration events either. In barely their first full month, Junction West has already hosted the likes of a cat-themed beer release party for a mysterious group of local brewers (Ancillary Fermentation), and an intimate pop-up concert for 200 music lovers, just to name a few.
Even Ashley Christensen, award-winning local chef, recently chose Junction West to host an event dear to her heart - Gone Fishin' - a benefit to raise money for fishermen and shellfish farmers who saw hurricane Florence destroy property, product, and income. The fundraiser featured catered food and beverages from an all-star cast of local chefs and restaurants including Poole's diner, Vivian Howard of PBS's A Chef's Life, and local restaurant Chef and the Farmer, Jeff Seizer and his hotspot Royale Raleigh, Garland, and The Umstead just to name a few.
"It was our third week open, so we are still amazed we were asked to host such an incredible event that raised over $30,000," says Gabie with a lingering look of awe.
PLANS FOR FOOD
Now that I understood the 'why' behind their event space and bar, I was curious to know whether there were plans for serving food. Well, that and the fact that I was starving.
"We're still talking about our food plan. Maybe smaller condiment bowls with 3 sections, where customers can pick their 3 from a short, possibly rotating list of goodies. Possibly some basics like pretzels abd popcorn, or something a little more upscale and more product-quality focused such as olives and cheeses," says Gabie.
From olives to Chex Mix, salty to sweet, bar staples to toothpicked mini-pickles and other delicacies, Rob and Gabie are considering almost everything. But whatever they end up doing food-wise, they'd prefer to partner with and support local businesses and growers.
"It's more rewarding and really just better for everyone, especially the community," says Rob.
At this point in the conversation, I had answers to all of my questions and felt as though I actually knew the story behind the place seemingly everyone in Raleigh was talking about. I was content.
AND FINALLY, WHY THE NAME, 'JUNCTION WEST'?
While giving Rob a funny look that immediately had me assuming this story was going to be a good one, Gabie said,
"Actually, that's a really funny story. And I wish we could take credit for it. But Rob and I thought of a million names over the past few years. Some we really liked and others we're kind of embarassed we even considered honestly. But the name we decided on, the one that even made it onto our LLC paperwork, isn't Junction West.
"On the registry of Raleigh historic places, the actual name of this property is 'Junction West', which is a reflection of our location, Union Station - a 'railroad juction' - is right behind us, and we're on West Street.
"Funny thing is, the developer, first and then us for the past 2 years have been referring to this project as 'junction west'. And then one day, thank God, we just realized it could also be our name."
I mean....I wasn't not going to ask.
"So...what was the name you almost went with?"
Gabie hesitates, and looks at Rob with a smile. Rob's eyes wander down to his shoes attempting to hide his smile, but quickly turns it into an outright laugh. I look back at Gabie hoping she's going to be the one to let me in on the inside joke. Then, after some sort of 'unspoken eye agreement' made between the two, Gabie turns to me and says,
"How about this - if you don't say it in your article, I'll tell you. AND you can tell your readers that if they come in and ask one us...we'll tell them."
Raleigh Beltliner would like to extend our sincere gratitude to Rob and Gabie, and wish them continued success!
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