For over a decade, Damgoode Pies owner Jeff Trine has developed his particular brand of irreverent pizza restaurants into a regional chain that consistently ranks as a favorite spot for American-style pizza — but while Trine is understandably proud, he isn’t satisfied.
“Damgoode needs a shake-up,” he says with a grin. He uses words like “amazing” to describe the growth of the Little Rock food scene in the past few years, and it’s clear that despite his success (and continued strong sales) the status quo isn’t nearly good enough for his vision of what he wants the Damgoode brand to be. “This past year has been all about breaking free,” he continues, and for Trine, “breaking free” means finding a way to maintain a unique identity across five stores while improving standards and training for a team of employees that is now approaching 200 members.
Trine delivers this assessment of the restaurant chain he founded as a way of explaining and officially announcing what has become one of Little Rock’s worst kept food secrets — Damgoode is getting into the brewpub game in a big way by moving into a space that will be familiar to many Central Arkansas beer drinkers, the former Boscos space downtown. Trine expresses some nervousness about opening a brewery in a town that’s seen an explosion of local brews, but he’s entering the market with two seasoned pros who are both familiar with the local beer scene: Josh Quattlebaum, who brewed over 150 batches at Bosco’s on the same seven barrel system that Damgoode is taking over, and Josiah Moody, current Moody Brews “gypsy brewer” and former brewmaster at Vino’s.
I caught up with all three at a downtown restaurant space that’s obviously in transition. Gone are the faux shutters that Trine says were just too much like an Olive Garden, and as he reveals plans to transform an area behind the main bar into a stainless steel pizza-by-the-slice and salad station that will operate separately from the main kitchen, it becomes clear that Damgoode’s owner has spent a lot of time thinking of strategies that will help his brand survive the fast-paced River Market crowds. The process has taken longer than Trine intended, but while he isn’t ready to commit to an opening date, he’s adamant that the new brewpub will be open before spring.
The backbone to any brewpub is, of couse, the beer. Trine has plans to open with three original “Damgoode Brews,” developed by Moody, a brewer whose pizza-and-a-pint experience at Vino’s was a fundamental part of the elevation of the Central Arkansas beer scene. Moody isn’t giving up his Moody Brews day job, but plans to oversee at least the first few batches of Damgoode’s beer as well as guest brewing his own label when space at the brewery allows. The day-to-day duties of head brewer will fall to Quattlebaum, who laughingly refers to himself as the Jesse Pinkman to Moody’s Walter White. “My fingerprints will definitely be on the recipes,” says Moody, “but there was no way I could take over the same role as I had at Vino’s.” He considers himself lucky to be working with Quattlebaum, who he calls the perfect brewer to bring delicious consistency to the Damgoode Brews name.
As for Quattlebaum, he modestly refuses to apply the title of “head brewer” to himself, but can’t help but express excitement at coming back into the space where he first trained with Boscos head brewer Will Gillespie before heading to Memphis to train at the main Boscos location. Quattlebaum’s approach to brewing matches that of every experienced brewer I’ve ever spoken with: maintain a spotless work environment, develop great recipes, and create a reputation for consistency and excellence that creates fans and return business. He takes particular pride in showing off the brewery’s facilities — he and Trine are both especially giddy as they open up the brewery’s walk-in to reveal a total of nine eight-barrel serving tanks that the brewpub will use instead of kegs — something that anyone who has ever had go with their second choice due to a busy bar being unable to change an empty keg should be able to appreciate.
In addition to Damgoode’s signature beers and Moody’s own label, Trine expresses interest in using his 22 taps to help promote Arkansas beer. Calling the growth of the Arkansas beer scene in the last few years “crazy,” Trine takes a pragmatic approach to Damgoode’s place as the new kid on the brewing block. “Rather than trying to compete, why not bring everyone with us? We’re creating a tourist attraction here instead of creating competition.” To this end, he hopes that other area brewers will join with Moody and Quattlebaum for some collaborative brews, and even expresses interest in supporting the homebrew crowd by reserving one tap for amateur brewers. It’s clear that Damgoode is interested in more than personal success — they want to give back to the community.
As for the new menu, Trine says that while pizza will remain the cornerstone of the new Damgoode location, he wants to expand into other bar-friendly food — if he can ever find time away from the administrative side of things long enough to get into the kitchen. He’s considering hiring an executive chef for the first time in Damgoode history, something he says would allow him to focus not only on the ongoing construction at the River Market location but also on upcoming renovation projects at both the Cantrell and Kavanaugh locations. He wants to bring the things that made Damgoode successful forward into this new phase, but he isn’t scared to make changes — even if that means admitting something isn’t working. It’s this philosophy that led to Damgoode’s switch to higher-end ingredients like Petit Jean meats as well as tweaking the prices on his menu so that pizzas will get cheaper while the pasta dishes will cost a little more. If there’s one thing that Trine has learned in his years as a restaurateur it’s that change is sometimes the best survival mechanism possible. “You don’t have to stick with anything,” he says with a laugh. “If it doesn’t work, you just scratch it.” Sage advice.