Black Mountain business makes it hard for customers to leave

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News
A.J. Stewart, left, and Jon Brooks opened Black Mountain Escape in the basement of the town's oldest building, The Junction, on May 27.

Most business owners place a premium on bringing people through the doors, but a new Black Mountain establishment focuses on making it particularly difficult for customers to leave.

To get into Black Mountain Escape, which opened its doors on May 27, adventurous problem solvers only need to step into the renovated basement in the oldest building in town — The Junction. To get out of the immersive escape room experience, they’ll need to do a lot more work.

In 2015, Jon Brooks and his wife bought the McKoy Building, as it was known since 1895 when it was built by the family from which the name is borrowed. The upper levels of the structure, in which the town’s first meeting was reportedly held, filled with tenants quickly after Brooks remodeled the space.

The basement, however, served as a storage area for items Brooks had collected through his involvement in theater and summer camp.

“I’m a collector,” Brooks said in the lobby of Black Mountain Escape, which features the building’s original rock walls. “With my background, I always see an alternate use for things so I hold onto stuff until that use presents itself.”

The inspiration for the project that could make use of random items he had amassed came in 2017.

An escape room with a time traveling theme will be the next immersive experience offered by Black Mountain Escape, which opened on May 27.

“I was in Charlotte visiting my brother for Thanksgiving,” Brooks said. “My cousin asked if I’d ever done an escape room, and I didn’t know much about them. We went to one and we loved it so much my family did three in three days; I was hooked.”

Brooks immediately approached A.J. Stewart, the son of longtime friend, with an idea for an escape room in Black Mountain.

“I think I asked like one question and I was like ‘I’m in, let’s do this,’” said Stewart, who shares another connection with Brooks through Camp Rockmont, where they both worked. “We probably spent like four or five months on the conceptual aspect. We would sit at Foothills, right next door, and draw out designs on napkins and think through different ideas.”

Stewart had never attempted an escape room, which places groups in a scenario that requires cooperation to solve a series of tasks in a set period of time to unlock the door and get out.

“There is a parallel in the escape room industry to my experience at summer camp,” he said. “It offers an opportunity to be fully engaged where you are and forget about the outside world for an hour. It also gives people the freedom to just have fun, because it’s hard for adults to find a chance to do that very often.”

To that end, Stewart continued, the owners wanted to make Black Mountain Escape room as immersive as possible. 

"It's an experience," he said. "We put a lot of time and effort into the details for the sets and even right here in the lobby, where people first walk in."

Groups of three to eight people book the room in advance through the Black Mountain Escape website ( Upon their arrival, participants receive instructions before they are locked in the escape room. The groups have one hour to solve the puzzles and unlock the door. 

Currently, the escape room offers one set, which is designed as a fictitious World War II destroyer named the USS McKoy, a nod to the building's history. The story calls for the group to enter the ship, which has been struck by a torpedo, to retrieve key information before making its escape. 

"There is a Marine colonel from the area who agreed to play a Naval admiral from World War II for the introductory video we use," Brooks said. "He sits behind a desk and tells you what your mission is."

Fifteen groups tested the room before Brooks and Stewart opened for business on Memorial Day.

"My family tried it first on Easter," Brooks said. "Then we brought in groups that we didn't know after that."

The USS McKoy room at Black Mountain Escape opened to the public on May 27, as owners A.J. Stewart and Jon Brooks unveiled the Swannanoa Valley's first escape room attraction.

The feedback from the testing process allowed the owners to fine-tune the experience. 

"One of our mentors in this process has been Ferrin Cole, who owns Fox-N-Otter Adventure Escapes in Asheville with his wife," Brooks said. "He immediately started sharing ideas and information with us. We learned so much from him."

Observing the groups navigate the experience was also a learning opportunity for the owners of Black Mountain Escape. 

"It's fascinating," Brooks said. "We learned that the size of the group changes how they approach things and how everyone hears each other's discoveries. The personalities of the people matter a lot, too."

Brooks and Stewart developed alternate story lines for the USS McKoy scenario, which will allow people to experience it more than once. Another escape room, which features a theme centered around time travel, will open in the near future. The stories and sets will change periodically. 

All of the escape rooms are family friendly, according to Brooks.

"Even though there is a little intensity to the story line, it's a family friendly experience; there is no gore or anything like that," he said. "We set a minimum age of 12 for it, without a guardian, and anything below that is at the parent's discretion."

Several families were among the first groups to visit the escape room since it opened on Memorial Day, Stewart said. 

Individual participants pay $25 each, or groups can privately book the room for $125. The escape room is a unique attraction in Black Mountain, according to Stewart. 

"Besides live music at bars and restaurants, we're the only entertainment business here," he said. "So we're really excited to bring something like this to Black Mountain."

The escape room gives area residents and visitors a local entertainment option after 7 p.m., Brooks adds. 

"We do the experiences by appointment only," Stewart said. "So we try to accommodate whatever hours work for the customers."

The rooms offers a challenging team building experience for camp staff, who receive a discount at Black Mountain Escape, and potentially for corporate groups as well. 

"A lot of the business in the escape room industry comes from corporate groups, because it's a great way to develop teamwork skills and learn how they interact with each other," Stewart said. 

"And really, it's just a lot of fun," Brooks said.