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Archive for Friday, April 14, 2000

Free State brewery is a local, regional draw

April 14, 2000

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A smooth jazz tune resonates over the clinking of silverware and the murmur of hushed voices, and to Matt Bunch, 26, the compilation is music to his ears.

"Free State is so comfortable," Bunch said . "I just love the way it makes me feel."

For the past 11 years, the Free State Brewery has operated from behind the doors of the old town bus station and has enjoyed an ongoing popularity throughout the Lawrence community. Since it began, the brewery has consistently provided a product and an atmosphere that has given it a unique place in the hearts of its patrons.

"This idea of starting a brewery had always been in the back of my head," said Chuck Magerl, proprietor. "I just had to convince people that this was something that was worth giving a shot at."

Before the Free State opened in 1989, there were liquor laws in Kansas prohibiting the brewing of beer on the same premises where it was to be sold. As a result of Magerl's lobbying and achieving new legislation regarding these laws, Free State was the first restaurant in Kansas that was able to brew its own beer.

Once the laws were passed, it was still difficult for Magerl to explain his vision of a brewery to potential patrons and investors.

"There wasn't a lot of activity going on when we first started," said Magerl. "There was no example of a brewery nearby for people to familiarize themselves with. We had to start from scratch."

Worth the effort

Starting from scratch proved to be well worth the effort, but Magerl stresses that plenty of work goes into gaining and maintaining Free State's allure and popularity.

"There's no such thing as just sitting back and resting," Magerl said. "The middle of the road is a nice place to be, but you get run over if you just sit there."

To sustain Free State's appeal, Magerl said that they change the menu regularly, alter the music and lighting, and sometimes redesign the facilities themselves.

"We have a restless spirit that tells us we have to keep making things better," Magerl said. "As long as we can see something better to do, we're going to do it."

In addition to changes in the brewery's product and atmosphere, Magerl's earth-conscious efforts such as recycling and composting have contributed to the success of the brewery. Magerl's position on environmental issues also won Free State Brewery the Environmental Excellence Award in 1998 from Bridging the Gap.

"Part of working for a living is working for a world that you want to live in," Magerl said. "That means not just going with the way things have been but trying to envision what would be a better way for things to be."

Free State's environmental stance hasn't gone unnoticed by the community.

"For environmentally concerned people, Free State is the best choice," said Stephanie Rogers, a junior at Kansas University. "They have good food, good beer and a good conscience in regards to the environment."

A local 'Cheers'

Although Free State has seen success through its products and politics, Magerl feels that there is another vital element that contributes a great deal to Free State's prosperity.

"It's more than just the building, the food in front of you or the beer in your glass," Magerl said. "A lot of it has to do with the people who work here."

Magerl says that Free State has been extremely lucky with the employees that it has had throughout the years, and that it is the level of attention that he and the employees put into the business that has caused the brewery to flourish.

Nick Gordon, 25, said he had noticed that Free State employees seem to care a lot about their jobs and the brewery itself.

"Even the employees come back to hang out here," Gordon said. "You don't often see people spending more time at work than they have to."

With the continual emergence of national restaurant chains in the Lawrence area, many locally owned businesses feel pressure to compete and possibly join the ranks of expansion and commercialization. Magerl said that he does not view other businesses in a defensive posture.

"I see being in business more as an act of friendship than as an act of competition," Magerl said. "People should come here if it makes them happy."

Free State played host to several celebrations to honor its February 23 anniversary. The events, products and services of Free State Brewery all combine to a dining experience that has become a Lawrence tradition.

To Bunch, Free State is definitely the place that he enjoys going: "It's all about summertime, getting off work, grabbing a beer at Free State and knowing there will always be someone you know. It's like 'Cheers' that way."

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