Photography by Martin W. Kane
Chris Lester (left) and Kayne Fisher review plans for their new restaurant concept, Natty
Greene’s Kitchen + Market. The restaurant opened in July in what used to be the
Revolution Mill carpenter shop.
By Alyssa Bedrosian
Chris Lester and Kayne Fisher are pioneers. And they don’t just wade into uncharted waters. They dive right in.
The UNCG alumni took a risk in 2004 when they opened Natty Greene’s in the heart of what was then a sleepy downtown Greensboro. They took another leap this summer, when they opened a new restaurant concept at the city’s historic – but longtime vacant – Revolution Mill.
Without a doubt, the risks have been worth it. Natty Greene’s has evolved from a beer into a brand that is recognized statewide and beyond.
Yet amid their growing success, Lester and Fisher are the first to tell you that the beer and the brand have been built by the community – which is exactly how they envisioned it.
The beginnings of the brew can be traced back to UNCG’s campus in 1988 when Lester and Fisher met through their fraternity, Sigma Phi Epsilon. The two became good friends and roommates, and soon started working together part-time at a local beverage distributor. It was those late nights in the warehouse that spurred their entrepreneurial dreams.
Fisher (left) and Lester met at UNCG in the late 1980s.
“Back then, it was probably for all of the wrong reasons,” says, Fisher, with a laugh. “We didn’t have a concept for it yet, but we knew we wanted to open a bar.”
It seems fitting that they opened their first bar and grill right where it all began. In 1996, Old Town Draught House opened right across from campus on Spring Garden Street. The success of Old Town led to the opening of First Street Draught House in Winston-Salem in 1998, and then Tap Room in Greensboro in 2000.
“We started thinking, ‘we’re serving all of these great beers, we ought to brew our own,’” Fisher says. “That’s where the Natty Greene’s idea began.”
And that’s when the stars started to align for the young entrepreneurs. Downtown Greensboro was looking to revitalize, and the building on the corner of South Elm Street and East McGee Street became available. In 2002, Lester and Fisher secured the building, the brewing equipment and a head brewer from the West Coast.
“It was awesome,” says Lester, as he reflects on the first year. “Kayne and I were really dumbfounded by the community’s response.”
In 2006, Lester and Fisher sold Old Town, First Street and Tap Room to employees and expanded Natty Greene’s production with a new brewery on West Gate City Boulevard. But just seven years later, Natty Greene’s faced a capacity problem. Lester and Fisher knew they needed a bigger space for production, but they also knew they needed a different space.
The two decided to partner with the nonprofit community development organization Self-Help in order to relocate production and open a new restaurant concept, Natty Greene’s Kitchen + Market, at the historic Revolution Mill campus just minutes from downtown. The restaurant – with the tagline “The Butcher, The Baker & the Beer Maker” – includes a full-working butchery and a neighborhood market. The Natty Greene’s brew pub on Elm Street continues to be a downtown staple.
For Lester and Fisher, the goals are simple. They want to bring new life to an area rich with history. They want to provide a space for family and friends to enjoy time together. And they want to see Greensboro thrive. They also continue to invest in their alma mater. From speaking to classes to serving as a sponsor at homecoming, Lester and Fisher have remained loyal alumni.
“UNCG is the community that spawned us and our ideas,” Lester says. “When I first came to school I was a country boy from Virginia. UNCG provided me a canvas to grow.”