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COVID-19 Entrepreneurs Kzoo Kitchens

Pandemic pivot leads to more high-fives for One Well Brewing

The Milwood neighborhood's fun-focused brews and food spot will swap kids' stuff for an arcade in expanded location.

About a year ago, in the midst of the state’s second shut-down of indoor dining in eight months and uncertainty seemingly all around, Chris O’Neill saw an opportunity – right next door.

One Well Brewing, where the etiquette is deliberately more chummy than the standard bar (“high fives over handshakes” is a slogan painted on the wall), is set to expand the physical space by about 40 percent later this month.

It’s his second expansion since opening the doors seven years ago in this Portage Street strip mall just north of I-94.

“It’s one more for the books,” O’Neill said. “The timing was just right.”

When the former Bernina Sewing Center and Quilt Shop closed last fall and the owners struck-out trying to find renters while COVID cases once again began to rise, O’Neill approached them about purchasing the 5,500-square-feet space.

Workers using reclaimed and upcycled materials where possible are now putting the finishing touches on a makeover that will become one of Kalamazoo’s largest game rooms.

The shutdowns “gave us a lot of time to talk about what to do,” O’Neill said.

With the smell of new carpet in the air and remodeling dust thinly coating tables, O’Neill explains his plans for the new space, set to officially open Nov. 26: 50 pinball machines, 19 arcade games, and two (possibly three) pool tables. That’s in addition to the pinball machines and dart boards that are housed in an adjacent room off the brewery’s original space, an expansion into a former Snap Fitness center that opened in 2017.

chris oneill playing pool

When One Well Brewing launched in 2014, it had space for 100 people in 4,200-square-feet. Now, the business is set to comprise 13,500 square feet. 

What were business decisions to try to maximize revenue during the lockdowns have now become efficiencies that O’Neill said just make sense going forward into a post-COVID world. 

One example is the continuation of online ordering, right from a table inside or outdoors, which comprises 65 to 70 percent of food orders, he said. 

Well-known as a family-friendly spot, O’Neill decided to do away with the children’s play area during the pandemic to minimize close-contact. The same went for the pinball machines, with concerns about the potential transmission of COVID on touched surfaces. But as pinball is back – with leagues and tournaments to prove it – the kid’s area is out for good. 

“It just made sense,” he said. 

O’Neill is proud of the service model he instituted at the brewery. The antithesis of what he calls “the Applebee’s model” of getting people in the door, serving them, and then getting them to pay and leave as soon as possible, he has always wanted guests to come in and stay awhile, he said. 

With only bartenders and food runners in the front of house, customers order their own food and drinks. That frees up space – and time – to make a homey atmosphere, a place for long conversations over one of the brewery’s 19 beers (and one root beer) on tap. 

“We provide a place for people to come and stay,” he said. “We want people to feel welcomed here, not like they’re being rushed out the door.”

A menu that includes vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, and meat options, as well as weekly rotating appetizer and entrée specials, is “the most inclusive menu” in the city, O’Neill believes. A challenge going forward, he said, will be how a kitchen will keep up with a larger clientele, an issue that will be ironed-out as time goes on. 

The Black Friday official opening of the new space also marks the brewery’s anniversary. O’Neill plans on releasing some specialty beers for the event, and also hosting a food drive and fundraiser for the Southwest Michigan Food Bank, with a portion of the proceeds of that day’s sales donated to the agency. 

“It’s our annual anniversary party,” O’Neill said. “This year, though, it means a lot more.”