Where everybody knows your name

Fred McCormick

Super Bowl Sunday will be a big day for Carolinians, as Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers take the field in Santa Clara, California to battle the dominant defense of the Denver Broncos for the Lombardi Trophy.

Fans back east will don black, blue, silver and white while gathering around TV screens to cheer everything from their favorite play to the most memorable commercial.

On Cherry Street, the scene at the Black Mountain Ale House will be reminiscent of the one in 2011, in which the Packers outlasted the Steelers 31-25. That was the night that Ale House owner John Richardson’s vision began to take shape.

“What I wanted to create here was a sense of community,” he said. “A place where people could gather around the table, break bread together and feel welcome.”

Richardson decided to move to the Swannanoa Valley a decade ago after a childhood filled with memories of summers spent in Montreat.

“My dad was a Presbyterian minister, and we would come up here for camps in the summer,” he said. “And I fell in love with the place and have continued to come up here ever since.”

Richardson, who holds a master’s degree in theology, wanted to find a way to cultivate an environment that reflected the warmth that drew him to Black Mountain. He decided to open a business that would serve the community in a unique, if not meaningful, way.

“From a theological perspective I think what the church’s mission is, is to create community,” he said. “When people aren’t at home and not at work, where do people go? That place used to be church, but now a lot of folks find that feeling of community in places like the Ale House.”

A traditional public house, or “pub,” the Ale House became a place where the community gathers for everything from football games on Sundays to bluegrass performances on Thursday evenings and everything in between.

Much like what was portrayed in the sitcom “Cheers,” the Ale House is a space in which locals and tourists alike step down below street level into a welcoming environment.

Amy and Jason Ward were among those in the large crowd watching the Super Bowl when the Ale House first opened its doors. They plan on being there on Sunday, Feb. 7 to celebrate the anniversary of what has become one of their favorite local hangouts.

The Wards’ two daughters, 10-year-old Macie and 4-year-old Vallie, are also quite fond of the atmosphere and the food at the Ale House.

“We go quite often, per the kids’ request,” Amy Ward said. “A lot of times we take them up there on Sundays for brunch or lunch after church.”

Amy and Jason visit the Ale House even more frequently, as the location has become a meeting place for them and the vast majority of their friends as well. The atmosphere - relaxed, Amy said - is what brings people back regularly, she said. The food is also a major draw, she said - sweet words to Richardson and his staff, for whom flavor is a focus.

“They really pride themselves on carrying a wide variety of food,” Ward said. “My husband thinks that the burger that has the pimento cheese on it is one of the best burgers he’s ever had.”

When Ale House bartender Lucie Adkins, who grew up in Black Mountain, started working for Richardson three and a half years ago, she could sense the strong local connection.

But she is particularly proud of the growth she has witnessed through the years.

“It has evolved over the years to become much more than just a bar. We have gotten so much better at what we do,” she said. “Now we have a menu where you can come get awesome wings or sit down and have the best pork chop you can find in town. We get anyone from younger kids that come in to play trivia to people of all ages that come in.”

Adkins believes the Ale House provides a snapshot of Black Mountain’s diversity, as well as an accurate representation of the town as a whole. It is also a place where employees typically know the patrons by name (a la “Cheers”).

“A lot of our regulars come in and sit down and don’t even need to say anything,” Adkins said. “You already know what they’re drinking, and you just slide it right across the bar.”

The community connection that Richardson coveted for his business through its first five years extends to staff as well. Many of his employees have been around for years.

“We have a really tight-knit group,” Adkins said of her fellow workers. The staff has done team-building activities.

As he prepared for the Super Bowl crowd and those that will help him celebrate the restaurant’s first five years, Richardson is, as always, it seems, considering ways that his business can better serve the community.

His long-term goals include establishing a brew pub. He also hopes to retain the staff that he believes is the foundation of the Ale House’s community-centered mission.

“I really look forward to continuing to change people’s perception about what a community pub looks like,” he said. “It’s really amazing how we have become a community center for so many folks.”

Super Bowl XXXVIII, Ale House V

Watch the game and celebrate the biz’s fifth-year anniversary beginning at 4:30 p.m. Feb. 7. The $10 cover includes complementary food.