By: Molly Gleason
Three adorable little boys sit at a table at Engrained Brewing Company as I walk in, big eyes smiling over big plates of fresh-cooked French fries. The owners, Brent and Melissa Schwoerer sit on either side, just as proud of their small family as they are of their up-and-coming restaurant. The restaurant turned three years old this past month, fitting in squarely with Jack, 6 years old, Wyatt, 4 years old, and Mason, who will be two at the end of the year, and the restaurant is as much a part of the family as they are.
Brent and Melissa met in their college years at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. Brent was studying mechanical engineering, Melissa, law. Both served and bartended back in those to help pay for school, and both loved the fast-paced and fun work environment. After graduation, Brent put his mechanical engineering degree to work at Caterpillar and Melissa went on to the McLean County State’s Attorney’s office. And then shortly after they were married life swooped them up and plopped them down in Brazil when a position with Caterpillar opened up for Brent there. The position offered a lot of autonomy, which Brent enjoyed, and it was there they began to explore ideas about what they wanted for their future, including the idea of owning their own business.
After returning to Illinois, Brent continued to work for Caterpillar, but the two began to think more seriously about their entrepreneurial dreams. Drawing on their experiences bartending and serving in Champaign, they began to explore the idea of brewing and running a restaurant. “I bought Brent a homebrew kit for Christmas one year,” says Melissa, “and he fell in love with the science of brewing, and of course, the sampling part.” Brent spent the next couple of years brewing as a side hobby, thinking about it more seriously with each new beer. His mechanical engineering background turned out to be invaluable with the exact science of brewing, and by 2010 he was working on a restaurant and brewery business plan.
It wasn’t until the birth of their first child later that year though, that the couple really began to think seriously about the restaurant side of things.
“After having Jack, we became really focused on eating local, chemical free food, and we wanted a place where we could take our kids to eat– some place family-friendly but with quality ingredients– and we didn’t really have that in Springfield,” says Melissa, “and so our farm-to-table idea was born.” She jokes, “We wanted to bring farm-to-table to the masses!”
In 2011 Brent took a leap of faith and left his full time job to start finding financing for their craft brewery and farm-to-table restaurant vision. “It was definitely an uncertain time,” says Melissa. “We weren’t sure if anyone would believe in our concept as much as we did. I’m not sure if we ever felt scared, but definitely determined to do whatever we had to do to make it work. We knew that if given the opportunity we could make something great, so we persevered.”
Brent himself is no stranger to the farming side of farm-to-table. Having grown up on a small dairy farm, he understands the importance of supporting local farmers, especially in the ever-changing landscape of agriculture. “We milked cows daily and raised a rotation of small grains, and I really loved that style of farming because it was good for the farmers and good for the environment. But there are so few farmers that can do that anymore. We want to keep supporting those farmers and keep food dollars in our own communities when possible,” he says. “We only work with farmers who meet our quality standards as well- no chemicals, steroids, or antibiotics and pasture raised livestock. Currently somewhere close to 50% of our menu items are local, which includes 100% of our beef and pork, most of which we get from neighbors near my family’s farm. We work with Waller Farms, Lane View Farms, Ropp Farms, Reliant Farms, Abbey Normal Produce, Clover Hill Farms, and Danenberger Family Vineyards on a regular basis.”
Buying locally is not without its challenges though. In order to keep prices down and bring the farm-to-table experience to more of the public, Brent buys whole steers and pigs, rather than specific cuts of meat. It’s extra effort since the restaurant has to balance their menu in order to ensure that they are using the different parts of the animal efficiently, but it also means their menu remains affordable. The couple also shared their concerns about the education that’s still needed regarding knowing and valuing where our food comes from and how it’s raised. “I think we took it for granted when we opened that this would be a concept that was openly embraced, but we found that wasn’t necessarily true” says Brent.
Still, the two are hopeful for the future:
“I really feel good about being part of a business that helps to improve our customers’ well-being by using high quality and local products” says Melissa. “More and more of our community is seeking out local and natural food, and it’s exciting to be part of what I feel is a food revolution.”
We head back to the on-site brewery where Brent explains more about the brewing process as Jack and Wyatt pick up the squeegees and begin cleaning the floors. I can’t help but notice that everyone works hard at this restaurant and seems to love doing it, right on down to the 4 year-olds.
I figure if I want to know more about the best items on the menu, now’s the time to ask.
“That’s a tough one!” says Melissa, “I think our burgers are one of my favorite options, because I know the meat comes from healthy, well-treated animals, and because it tastes so good! I always get the local veggie of the day as well.”
As for the beer, they both agree it has to be the oatmeal stout. Melissa smiles over at Brent and adds, “It was the first beer that Brent tried making on his own, because it was my personal request, and the recipe hasn’t changed since then.” And with that statement, Brent and Melissa win the cutest couple award forever.
I’m still working my way into stout beer, so I sampled the blackberry lager instead and picked up a growler to share with friends. After speaking with Brent and Melissa though, I wanted to buy every beer on tap and try every item on the menu– not just because farm fresh cheese curds and craft brews sound delicious– but because I realized how important it was to support THEM, a small family-owned restaurant, going about business in a way that would make anyone proud. I know that part of my order of cheese curds will help Brent and Melissa pay for football uniforms and science club projects and college educations for their boys one day, and part of it will go back to supporting small farmers in the community. I’m not sure I could ask anything more of my cheese curds and beer.
Location and Phone: Engrained is located on 1120 Lincolnshire Blvd, Springfield, IL 62711. For reservations call (217) 546-3054
Private Parties: Engrained has a spacious dining area with a seating capacity of over 200 and a large private room. They can accommodate large groups of families, business meetings, birthday parties, rehearsal dinners, and other private parties.
Local Flavors Dinner: On Thursday, September 15th, Engrained will be hosting a Local Flavors dinner. In addition to their usual menu, they will be creating a special menu highlighting locally-grown ingredients. Stop in on September 15th for a truly farm-to-table meal, or make reservations in advance.
Annual Harvest Celebration: On Sunday, September 25th, Engrained will be serving local libations at the Illinois Stewardship Alliance annual charity fundraising event. Purchase tickets for the Harvest Celebration to enjoy an evening of locally-grown food, beer, and wine from central Illinois’ leading farm-to-table chefs and brewers. Proceeds will support the Alliance’s work to develop vibrant, resilient local food systems.
Engrained is a member of the Buy Fresh Buy Local Central Illinois Chapter which aims to raise awareness for the importance of buying locally and build connections between small farmers, farm-to-table restaurants, local food retailers, and the public.