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How Roosters Brewing Co. Revitalized America's Most Dangerous City

November 08, 2018

By Jess Lander, November 08, 2018

Imagine a place that’s said to have been too wild for Al Capone. That was Ogden. A tiny town in Utah that sits 40 miles north of Salt Lake City, it was once considered one of the most dangerous cities in America.

By the 1870s, all transcontinental trains, about 100 a day, connected through Ogden, earning it the nickname Junction City. As a result, the town’s main drag, Historic 25th Street, became a bustling concourse with its own less-flattering nickname: Two-Bit Street, because you could get anything for two bits. Peaking during Prohibition in the 1920s, 25th Street’s short three blocks were packed with brothels and boarding houses, roughly 75 bars, and all sorts of illicit activity, from gambling to murder, that thrived via an underground tunnel system.

Yet as quickly as it emerged, Two-Bit Street shut down seemingly overnight. The city initiated a serious crackdown on crime and the trains stopped passing through with the creation of the Interstate Highway System. By the 70s, most businesses had closed, 25th lay in squalor, and continued to be a hot-bed for crime that residents actively avoided. A few years after the horrific Hi-Fi Murders, in which three people were brutally murdered during a robbery at Ogden’s Hi-fi Shop, the 25th Street Master Plan was adopted to start a massive clean-up of the street. But it wasn’t until the mid-90s—after, according to Census Bureau data, Ogden’s population had declined more than 23 percent in 40 years—that 25th saw a flicker of renewal.

Historic 25th Street. Photo courtesy of Visit Ogden.

One of the first storefronts to reopen was Roosters Brewing Co, who bravely set up shop in 1995 and lit the flame that brought Ogden back to life. Today, much in thanks to their efforts, the ski town is a popular destination among outdoor enthusiasts. “We were just young enough and dumb enough,” laughs Kym Buttschardt, who opened Roosters with her husband Pete when they were in their mid-20s. Roosters was also one of the first seven breweries to open in the state, which is notoriously strict with its liquor laws. “The whole street was boarded up; there were only a handful of businesses open. Our building literally had holes in the floors, in the walls, and they had plastered over the brick, so we had to chisel it off. It was a total labor of love to get Roosters open.”

The three-story, 1890s building had been everything from a house of ill repute to a Chinese laundromat, antique shop, and Salvation Army Hotel, but, “they all were houses of ill repute,” says Pete Buttschardt, only half-jokingly. “A lot of the businesses had the store up front and the madames were in the back or in the basement.”

Growing up in Ogden, Kym never hung out on 25th Street, recalling, “We didn’t come downtown, or if we did, we had our windows rolled up. There was a lot of crime. It was just a sad place to be.”

The couple had already opened a restaurant in the old train station called Union Grill, and always toyed with the idea of adding a brewery to it, but opening a business on 25th came with much greater risk. After a year of demolition and restoration, those fears dissipated. Roosters became an overnight success and quickly established itself as the street’s anchor. “People were just so excited watching us rehab this building,” says Kym. “It was an overwhelming opening. We really did open to pretty instant success.”

Kym and Pete Buttschardt. Photo courtesy of Roosters Brewing Co.

Crafting a wide variety of beer styles with clever names, like Helevation IPA and Niner Bock, Rooster’s signature brews include the Honey Wheat, Irreverent Pale Ale, O-Town Nut Brown, and the Junction City Chocolate Stout, a tribute to 25th’s history. But due to Utah’s strict liquor laws, Roosters’ biggest challenge is brewing separate beers for draught, which can’t go over 4% ABV, and bottles, which are unregulated. Head brewer for Roosters’ 25th Street location and one of the first female brewers in the state, Jacquie King Wright loves to experiment, oftentimes tinkering with old recipes or developing SMaSH (single malt and single hop) beers. Last year, inspired by the growing demand for gender equality nationwide, she made Femination, an American Strong Ale that packed some serious power.

Utah law also requires that patrons at a restaurant must order food before being served a beer, so Roosters pairs pints with inventive comfort food dishes. Its Naughty Fries, served with a trio of sauces (pepper jack, gorgonzola, and Louisiana hot sauce), are another way the Buttschardts pay homage to Ogden’s dark past and have become a favorite item around town. But Roosters and the Buttschardts didn’t just rebuild 25th—they rebuilt the local community. Suddenly, the people of Ogden had a place to gather, a place to bring their families, grab a drink after work, or refuel after an adventurous day out on the mountains.

Some of Roosters' brews. Photo courtesy of Roosters Brewing Co.

Moreover, the community supported them because they supported the community. The Buttschardts got involved, and along with many Roosters employees, they’ve won local loyalty by building trails, sponsoring races, and serving on countless boards and committees. “The Buttschardts brought people downtown and made people feel like it was safe to come downtown again,” says Ogden mayor Mike Caldwell, who’s about midway through his second term. Like Kym, he was born and raised in Ogden and remembers driving downtown with the windows up and doors locked. “They’ve volunteered for almost every special event and I can’t tell you how many special events have been birthed because they sponsored meetings, dinners, and get-togethers at Roosters. They were pioneers in restarting our downtown and took risks when not many other people would.”

This enthusiasm for Ogden’s rebirth sparked a renaissance. In 2002, Ogden was chosen as a venue for the Winter Olympics, an opportunity that helped solidify the city as a top ski destination in the state. (Ogden is surrounded by three major ski resorts.) In 2014, the American Planning Commission named Historic 25th Street one of the greatest streets in America, and the city has more than once earned accolades as one of the most charitable cities—a testament to the Buttschardts, says Caldwell.

Now the site of countless concerts and community events each year, 25th is prime real estate for eclectic, new businesses; restaurants, shops, and bars (no chains allowed) are often run by young, independent entrepreneurs. Locals and visitors alike get Southern cookin’ at Pig & a Jelly Jar or stock up on yarn in a hundred colors at Needlepoint Joint. The upstairs boarding houses have been scrubbed clean and transformed into modern condos and chic, urban lofts that tourists book on Airbnb. “The downtown area is now the place to be,” says Pete. “If you had told me 20 years ago all those buildings would be filled and all those condos would be sold, I wouldn’t have imagined it.”

Outside Roosters. Photo courtesy of Roosters Brewing Co.

The town’s shady past is really only visible today in some preserved signage, or heard about in stories, passed down by generations and recounted by proud locals, who call themselves the sinners of Utah. Reminiscent of the Junction City days, tens of thousands of people once again come through Ogden each year, but now they’re on their best behavior.

Twenty-three years and a second brewery location (in Layton, just south of Ogden) later, the Buttschardts’ work on 25th continues, but they’ve refocused the crux of their efforts on resuscitating another part of town with their third. The new Roosters B Street Brewery, a larger-scale production facility with a small taproom attached, will enable Roosters to begin canning. It’s set to open by the end of the year in an industrial area formerly known as the Ogden Stockyards. Once a thriving economic hub, it’s been mostly abandoned since the 1970s when the stockyards closed.

Sound familiar?

Roosters is, perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the first businesses to join in the area’s redevelopment. “It feels like we’re returning to our roots,” says Kym. “We’re in a part of town that’s been forgotten—a pretty up-and-coming, old, and neglected area. It feels gritty, just like it did downtown when we first opened.”

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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