Downtown Rockford got the boost it needed when three friends opened a restaurant and brewery on the riverfront in 2014. Now, Prairie Street Brewing Co. has even more to offer.
When told they seem to have the Midas touch in business, Chris Manuel, Reed Sjostrom and Dustin Koch let out a hearty laugh.
The childhood friends had modest dreams when they brought Prairie Street Brewhouse to life at 200 Prairie St., Rockford, in 2014. But the quick success of the brewery/restaurant, housed in a former warehouse, allowed them to branch off into multiple ventures.
Taking advantage of their location on the Rock River, the owners introduced Dinner on the Dock, which has become a popular Thursday-night staple that prompts traffic jams to form along Prairie Street. Then, in 2016, they won the bid to open Owly Oop, a sports pub in the new UW Health Sports Factory.
They’ve since added more popular events including Dockside Live, the Elevate Palate Trip Series and Ale Yeah Yoga, and expanded the availability of their handcrafted beer to such venues as Rockford City Market, Anderson Japanese Gardens, Nicholas Conservatory, and area bars and stores.
“I think we all knew this was going to be something big and special, but none of us thought it would be as big and crazy as it is,” Sjostrom says.
It was Koch’s parents who saw the potential in the building, which began as the Peacock Brewery in 1849.
“My dad used to own a marina next door about 45 years ago,” Koch says. “They looked at this big old building and thought it was really cool and had a lot of potential, but was underutilized.
“Fast forward to 1999, and my sister suggested we buy it and develop it into a marina. So, my parents had been talking about it for a long time and decided to go for it, and they bought it in 2000. And my sister started Rockford Marina and installed all the docks, and that went on for about five years.
“Then, she got out of the marina business and it sat here for awhile until my family, along with architect Gary Anderson, decided to just develop the whole building. Reed’s family, who owns Sjostrom & Sons Construction, became the main contractor for the job, and Chris was also a contractor on the job.”
Manuel was managing the building before the main construction began, and he had already started the events side of the business along with the banquet area.
“That was kind of the motivation to develop the whole building, having seen how successful the events part was going,” Koch says. “Everybody loved coming down here. They thought it was so cool.”
That’s when Koch and Sjostrom – who both went to Eisenhower Middle School and Guilford High School – decided along with Manuel, who grew up across the street from Koch, to put a brewery back in the building.
“It was cool to have all three of us working on this construction project together,” Koch says. “We couldn’t help but think this building needs a brewery to go back in, so we said, ‘let’s do this!’”
The brewery became part of the first floor, while the second floor was dedicated to office space and the third through sixth floors were set aside for residential.
It was a bit of a risk, opening a brewery and restaurant in downtown Rockford. The city had been trying for years to develop and grow that area of town, and it was slowly coming back to life.
But it needed a kick. And Prairie Street Brewhouse provided it.
“We didn’t think it would be as big a driver as it was,” Koch says. “There wasn’t much going on downtown, just five years ago. There were a lot of vacancies on State Street, and now it’s full.”
He sees an influx of downtown development happening lately, from the opening of the UW Sports Factory to Gary Gorman’s $64 million plan to transform the former Amerock factory into an Embassy Suites.
“There were people like the owners of Kryptonite Bar who were doing things downtown for a long time and were trailblazers,” Koch says. “But ours was the first really large downtown project Rockford had seen in a long time.”
“I think it certainly helped spawn a confidence level for other businesses,” says Anderson, who now serves as downtown business development chair for the River District Association. “They proved you can do something like this in this industrial zone. It opened the opportunity to really use our river and it also spurred others on.”
While the opening of the Brewhouse was the genesis, the start of Dinner on the Dock ignited a surge of downtown visitors. Every Thursday from 5-10 p.m. during the summer, hundreds venture to the marina behind the Brewhouse to enjoy food, beer and live music while relaxing outdoors on the dock.
“Dinner on the Dock was kind of the big kickoff or starter for all of this,” Sjostrom says. “I think people were just craving something different, and this provides a bigger place for more people to go. The ability to keep people downtown with larger events has been big for us.”
Sjostrom estimates between 1,000 and 1,500 people attend Dinner on the Dock. And that number will grow with the planned expansion of the dock.
“We’ve all experienced how packed it has been,” Sjostrom says. “It almost gets annoying when you can’t walk up and down the dock. We’re going to add a good chunk of real estate on the boardwalk, and we should have room for a couple of hundred more people, for sure.”
The expansion will also benefit Dockside Live, which occurs on Monday nights from 6-9 p.m. during the warm-weather months.
“It’s kind of a trimmed-down version of Dinner on the Dock,” Sjostrom explains. “Dockside Live is always a great way to kick off the week with some great live music in a relaxing environment.”
To accommodate the growth of their outdoor events, the trio made some changes in the Brewhouse’s 60-slip marina.
“We haven’t expanded the slips since they were put in, but they used to all be rented, until we took the south dock and made that a transient slip for customers,” says Koch, who points out that their dock is the only place that sells gas on the river.
In addition to outdoor events, Prairie Street Brewhouse also hosts the Elevate Palate Trip Series three times a year, where a unique-themed dinner is served with beer pairings. The first event was in May, which featured beer can chicken. The July 18 event will be a shrimp boil, and the Sept. 26 theme is Oktoberfest. Each event has a four-course meal with limited seating.
For the more health-conscious, the Brewhouse has a partnership with 815 Yoga to host a one-hour yoga lesson that’s followed with a pint of beer and a granola bar. It runs one Sunday every other month, with the next three sessions scheduled for July 22, Sept. 23 and Nov. 25.
With the success of these specialty events, Koch, Sjostrom and Manuel continue to look for new ideas.
“We’re working on trying to get more in the music scene and bringing in some concerts and bands that Rockford doesn’t traditionally see,” Manuel says. “We’re trying to do that this summer. And possibly add a festival as well. Some of it will be here on the dock, and some possibly at Owly Oop. And maybe some other venues that we’re talking about. We’re looking at maybe a once-a-month kind of thing.”
While all of these specialty events bring in patrons, it’s the Brewhouse itself that serves as the anchor. Its first-floor brewpub/restaurant and downstairs Tap Room are open seven days a week, featuring handcrafted beers, some of which are seasonal.
The food is also seasonal.
“Our menu changes,” Manuel says. “Our chef does a good job of seeing what’s growing locally so we get the freshest product. He tries to use local farms as much as possible.”
The events and banquet portion of the Brewhouse has continued its steady growth. Manuel oversees that aspect of the business, which has grown in popularity, especially when it comes to weddings.
“Wedding season kicks off for us in early spring and doesn’t slow down until January,” Manuel says. “Every Saturday is booked for the rest of the year. People wanting to use the main wedding hall need to book it at least a year in advance.”
There are three rooms that can be used for weddings, corporate events or fundraisers. The largest is the Barrel Room, which is nearly 6,000 square feet and can hold 500 people in rows, 300 at round tables or 700 standing. Adjacent from the brewpub, The Malt Room can hold up to 160 people in rows or 70 people at tables, and is ideal for meetings and seminars. The Ice Cellar, in the lower level, includes a bar and 10-line draft system. It’s similar in size to the Malt Room.
The building also features 10 loft residences that range from 1,400 to 3,200 square feet.
“They’re all different, with different flooring, cabinetry and countertops,” Koch says.
“We have everything from single people to families,” Manuel adds. “There is a waiting list to get in, and we get about two to three inquiries a week.”
The popularity and success of the restaurant, the brewpub, the events and the lofts was not lost on downtown developers.
“It has certainly helped to change the attitude about investing downtown,” Anderson says.
And that’s a big reason why three years ago, Manuel, Sjostrom and Koch won the bid when the Park District sought someone to manage a sports bar in the newly renovated UW Health Sports Factory along the Rock River.
“They asked us to put a bid in for the space and we were excited to do it,” Sjostrom says. “It gave us a chance to expand our footprint. It was a formal bidding process. Everyone had a chance to bid, and fortunately we won and put Owly Oop in the Sports Factory.”
Featuring a long bar in front of a giant, 13-foot video wall with multiple HD TVs, Owly Oop sits on the second floor of the Sports Factory, perched above two large gym areas. Patrons can enjoy food and beverages while watching basketball, pickleball, volleyball, and other youth and adult sports.
“That’s one thing that’s nice about our places,” Sjostrom says. “We try to cater to everybody. Yeah, we’re a brewery, but you can still bring your 1-year-old or 2-year-old and enjoy the dock. And Owly Oop, with the sports tournaments, is very family-friendly, too.”
Owly Oop is only one aspect of Prairie Street Brewhouse’s growing footprint. The beers are now available on draft at roughly 35 bars in the area, and some are also being canned and put in area stores.
“You can also get our beer at summer events,” Sjostrom says. “We’ll be at Anderson Gardens on Tuesdays, the Rockton River Market on Wednesdays, of course City Market on Fridays, and Nicholas Conservatory on Wednesdays for Tunes on the Terrace.”
“Our goal right now is to be the first beer people think about when they think Rockford,” Manuel adds.
And, while they want others to think of them, the Brewhouse trio is also thinking about others.
“We’re trying to help save the Forest City Queen,” Manuel says of the riverboat that brought people up and down the Rock River before being shut down this summer due to budget cuts at the Park District. “We’re trying to get some public funding to get it fixed so it can be active. We’ve raised $10,000 recently so it can be fixed and get back on the water. Now, we’re trying to raise another $12,000 for it to be operated by the Park District.”
The Brewhouse is also sponsoring a golf outing on Aug. 9 where golfers will ride the Queen from Prairie Street to the Rockford Country Club for lunch and a round of golf. They’ll then return to the Brewhouse for dinner, which will be tied in with Dinner on the Dock
It’s all a matter of continuing to build on the potential of downtown Rockford.
“The sky’s the limit,” Manuel says. “I started working downtown in 2008 and it’s transformed more than I ever dreamed it would back then. Now every storefront is filled with retail, restaurants and bars. The occupancy has doubled in a short time. There’s more people enjoying the city life down here and I don’t think there is a limit.”