When YesterYears Brewery & Taproom Almost Closed, Its Dedicated Regulars in Carrboro Gave It the Boost It Needed to Survive as Vecino Brewing Co. | Food Feature | Indy Week
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When YesterYears Brewery & Taproom Almost Closed, Its Dedicated Regulars in Carrboro Gave It the Boost It Needed to Survive as Vecino Brewing Co. 

YesterYears has been reborn as Vecino Brewing Co.

Photo by Rachel Spaniel

YesterYears has been reborn as Vecino Brewing Co.

All these people have been there for us. I want this to be really nice for them," says Cynthia Burkins, sitting outside the newly remodeled and renamed Vecino Brewing Co., the Carrboro brewery and taproom she and the local community helped save after it nearly closed last year.

Burkins, a hospitality veteran, has managed the taproom since the brewery originally opened in 2015, then called YesterYears Brewery & Taproom. It ran relatively smoothly until owner David Larsen's son died in the fall of 2016.

"David was gone for five months, and [he] was my owner-brewer," Burkins says. "The bar was the last place he saw his son alive. It was too painful."

The brewery fell behind financially and planned to close, but the community rallied behind it. Katie Stember, a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill and one of many regulars who thought of YesterYears as a second home, started a crowdfunding campaign that raised more than $14,000 from individuals and local businesses.

"I know in business that's not very much, but that was enough to keep us alive," Burkins says. "We literally closed for one day. The landlords said, 'No, we would like to keep you here. We'll give you some more time.' Some of our customers gave us more than they've ever donated to anything else. And most people who come here, these aren't rich people. They're just regular working people or graduate students."

The donations bought Larsen enough time to find two investors, Don Griggs and Ken Manning, who helped create a new, more ambitious plan for Vecino, which will celebrate its grand reopening May 4–6, with $4 pints on Friday, half-price appetizers and small plates on Saturday, and $5 sandwiches on Sunday.

The reconstruction included knocking out walls, building a new bar that's twice the length of the original, and adding a wide garage door in the front, opening onto a patio that has been extended to accommodate several tables. Burkins placed a fourteen-foot community table where she hopes people will meet one another and bar stools with backs to encourage customers to settle in.

"It's always a bunch of regulars chatting with newcomers, like four conversations going on at the bar," Burkins says. "I think I found my home, and that's why I've stayed."

Perhaps most important, the taproom now has a kitchen, in which chef Leah Plumlee turns out comfort-food-inspired pub grub such as a macaroni-and-cheese pot-roast sandwich, nachos, and soft pretzels, baked in-house daily. Still, much of the work has been a self-driven community effort.

"We have [professionals] who are doing the plumbing and the electric and stuff like that," Burkins says. "But all the extra stuff? That's me, David, and his wife. I'm doing all the woodworking, and then our graduate students show up and work for free, helping us paint and finish things."

For those who were fans of YesterYears' neighborhood-bar feel, the new name will make sense—Vecino is Spanish for "neighbor." The brewery plans to give back to the community through a program called Brewing Neighbors, donating 10 percent of the sales of a different beer each month to a local charity. In May, the featured beer will be the Venable Black Lager, supporting the Scott B. Scholarship, which was created last year in memory of the cofounder of Townsend Bertram & Company, a local outdoors shop.

In the forty-five minutes I sat talking with Burkins, several people stopped by to check on the brewery's progress and to ask how she's doing, even though the bar was closed. Burkins seemed to know about everything going on in their lives; she offered an orange to one woman who walked over from her home in Carrboro, and chastised another, one of her regulars, for giving too much of herself to her boyfriend. This is part of Burkins's warm, personal bartending style.

"I learn what my customers like," she says. "I try and bring in things to supplement our beers. I don't know everything, but as far as caring and knowing your clients, I'll stand up to anybody. Customers can tell when someone cares. I pay attention."

Buoyed by the neighborhood support, Burkins and Larsen have created a taproom built by and for its perpetual occupants, and they can't wait to welcome them home.

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