The building at 131 North Queen Street in Martinsburg has come a long way. Built in the early 1900s, the old brick structure was abandoned and fell into disrepair before Andrew Johnson and his wife Amber came across it.
Where others saw a mess, they saw potential. They purchased the building and started brainstorming what to do with it. “We threw around a whole bunch of ideas,” Johnson said, “before we started messing around with the concept of self-service wine machines.”
Self-service wine is a relatively new idea cropping up in wine bars and restaurants around the country. Johnson figured that, although West Virginia doesn’t allow bar customers to serve themselves alcohol, the machines are still an intriguing concept—one the area hadn’t seen yet.
A plan was beginning to take shape. Johnson maintained that he never set out to become a restaurant owner, but he appreciates the local aspect of farm-to-table restaurants and figures the people of Martinsburg will too.
“My wife and I try to eat organic as much as possible and be as healthy as possible, so we wanted to incorporate that into dishes,” he added.
They looked to local farms such as Green Gate and Crestview for inspiration. “We’re trying to source as local as humanly possible,” Johnson said—noting that, unfortunately, good-quality food isn’t always cheap. “We wanted to try to figure out how we could offset charging too much money for good food. That’s where beer, wine, and liquor came into play.”
The idea for Brix 27 was born. But, while the couple was excited about introducing a unique concept to Martinsburg, they were far from wine experts. So they set out to learn as much as they could about their new venture.
“We traveled out to Napa,” Johnson explained. “We figured, if we’re going to do this wine thing, we probably should learn about wine.”
An Emerging Trend
Their host in Napa was a man named Toby Hovanski, who’d worked in the wine industry his entire adult life. Hovanski taught them all he knew about wine, and Johnson and his wife appreciated his extensive knowledge so much that they jokingly suggested he come back with them to help with the business.
“I said, ‘Hey man, do you want to move out to Martinsburg?’ I never thought he would consider it,” remembered Johnson. “But I did invite him to come out, no strings attached, just to see what we were doing. He ended up falling in love with our idea and the area.”
Hovanski loved it so much, in fact, that he couldn’t resist getting further involved. “I came and checked it out and figured, this is pretty cool,” Hovanski affirmed, now the wine professional at Brix. “Timing is everything. I packed up, drove across the country, and ended up here.”
Like the Johnsons, Hovanski appreciated the idea of introducing a unique idea to the area. “Where I’m from, farm-to-table is everywhere. But here, the trend is just growing. It’s fun to be ahead of the curve—and show people a new way to enjoy wine.”
One nugget of information they picked up in Napa ended up being particularly important for Andrew and Amber: the meaning behind the restaurant’s name.
“It’s a play on words,” Johnson admitted—waxing poetic on wine with information fresh from Napa. “Brix is a measurement of sugar content in wine grapes. Each type of wine grape has an ideal degree of brix. Chardonnay’s magic number is 27.”
When they came across that gem, it was an aha moment—considering they had a building overflowing with old bricks. “We heard that and thought, ‘Oh, wow,'” he emphasized. “Then, as we restored all the old brick, the name just made sense.”
Brix 27 displays its namesake flawlessly, both by concept and appearance. The Johnsons, and the team they’ve put together, have put a special focus on the wine aspect of the restaurant, stocking the machines with 48 different bottles.
Further, they’ve managed to restore the old building and ensure that when folks walk into Brix, they’re surrounded by thousands of century-old scarlet bricks.
“It was really hard,” Johnson said of the restoration process. “There was about four inches of solid mortar and concrete on top of those bricks.”
The process took a month and a half, and required beating, chipping, grinding, sand-blasting, soda-blasting, and an acid wash. But Johnson said the hard work comes with the territory.
“When you deal with old buildings, the floors aren’t level, the walls aren’t square, everything is bent or needs to be replaced. You learn to work around that. It is a ton of work, but it’s important to the restaurant as a whole.”
A Labor of Love
Once the restoration process was complete, Amber took over the interior design. “Amber tried to keep a bunch of the old stuff in the building—old pipes, windows, things like that—while giving it a modern touch,” Johnson explained.
One of the goals the couple had with the old building was to make sure it was fit for multiple uses. The result is a 127-seat restaurant, complete with a lounge on one side, a wine bar and connected retail store on the other, and a multi-purpose event space in the back.
“I think it offers a lot of different things for different people,” Johnson said. “Maybe you don’t drink wine—we have twenty different types of beer from microbreweries. Maybe you don’t drink at all, so you just come for the food. Maybe you need a little place to have a baby shower or a birthday party, so you use the event area. We really tried to come up with a whole bunch of different ways to utilize the building. It certainly isn’t a one-trick pony.”
(Hungry? Check out the menu at Brix)
Creating a space with multiple uses is one factor the couple enjoys about real estate. This can be seen in their other projects, such as Martinsburg’s popular HUB. A community workspace with a twist, The HUB features offices, conference rooms, an event space, a café, and even a game room and “man cave.”
In all their ventures, Andrew and Amber Johnson aim to give their buildings a true purpose in the community—multiple purposes, even. And, of course, to have fun while doing it.
“I think there’s just something special about it,” Johnson pointed out. “There’s something cool about having a vision and being able to pull it off.”
They also find it fascinating to see the community’s reaction to the drastic before-and-after. Most importantly, Johnson added, Martinsburg deserves it: “It’s a good city with good people. I don’t know what to expect yet. I just know what I’m hopeful for.”