Renovations at Penguin City’s New Home Begin with a Toast

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – It wasn’t a traditional groundbreaking, with beer foam hitting the ground instead of shovels of dirt, but it was still an appropriate way for Penguin City Brewing Co. to kick off its renovations of an old industrial warehouse downtown.

“I can’t quite believe it. I guess I won’t believe it until it’s happening,” said co-owner  and brewer Richard Bernacki at Wednesday’s toast to Penguin City and its future. “I’ve driven by this building a million times before and seeing this building, I never fathomed that it’d be my building with a brewery in it. It’s a great honor. Exciting and challenging, but we’re ready for it.”

Bernacki and his wife, fellow co-owner Aspasia Bernacki-Lyras, bought the building in December and plan to invest nearly $4 million into the former Republic warehouse. What drew the couple to the site was its industrial aesthetic – exposed steel beams, an overhead crane and frosted windows that let in natural light – that will allow for the space to be renovated without having to start from the beginning.

Penguin City co-owners Richard Bernacki and Aspasia Bernacki-Lyras, Dope Cider House & Winery owner Hannah Ferguson, and A. Nieder Architecture principal Annisa Neider inside the former warehouse that will be the brewery’s new home.

“It just needs a good cleaning and a few spots of concrete fixed up. On the brewery side we’ll need to build up some concrete for trench drains and that sort of stuff that we need for operations,” Bernacki said. “Because of the aesthetic, we’re lucky that we don’t really need that much in materials.”

Bernacki-Lyras said a muralist should be in this fall to paint the side of the building facing East Federal Street with the Penguin City logo, while they aim to have the taproom and brewery open by year’s end, with an event center added later. Murphy Contracting Co. will serve as the project’s general contractor.

Penguin City will keep much of the aesthetic of the former Republic warehouse, including the exposed steel beams.

“The end goal is a nice taproom, bar and restaurant in the lower level that’s about 10,000 square feet,” Bernacki explained. “The upper level will be the brewery, where we do all the production and canning. Part of that space will be an event center as well.”

Among the work that needs done, says Annisa Neider, principal of A. Neider Architecture, is new insulation, the addition of restrooms and new electrical and mechanical systems, plus “making it a space where people can enjoy themselves and feel like they are in Youngstown.

“This is as Youngstown as it gets. If it were a decor style, this is it. They wanted to be rustic but usable. We can utilize the structure as it is without losing integrity and while keeping it functional,” she continued.

The building sits across the street from the Youngstown Flea’s new site in the former Northeast Fabricators building. The Bernackis have known with Flea owner Derrick McDowell for several years and together are working on revitalizing the eastern end of downtown.

“When you look at other places around the nation and around the state, they have districts like this one that’s developing. It’s something that draws people in,” said Mayor Jamael Tito Brown during his toast, with a can of Penguin City held high. “We thank Richard and Aspasia for taking on this big and bold vision, for following their dreams and passions. I can’t wait to stop here or [at Youngstown Flea] to show people what’s happening in Youngstown.”

McDowell also introduced the Penguin City owners to Hannah Ferguson, owner of Dope Cider House & Winery, who will be leasing space in the former Republic warehouse for her business.

“I envision it as something that’s not just a winery or a bar, but a coffeehouse kind of feel. It’s going to be that cafe vibe with a happy hour feel,” said Ferguson, the state’s first Black brewer, according to Ohio Craft Brewers Association. “There’ll be a wraparound bar but also comfortable seating so that if people want to come in and read a book with a glass of cider or wine, that’s available too.”

Having her involved, said First Ward Councilman Julius OIiver – whose district includes the Penguin City site – brings an extra layer of significance to the project.

Friends, family and supporters gathered at the warehouse Wednesday morning to celebrate the start of renovations.

“To bring in Hannah, the first Black brewer in Ohio, it’s great to say, ‘This is in Youngstown.’ It’s amazing and we’re glad to be part of it,” he said, “To be able to collaborate in this part of downtown, that’s something no one else was thinking about.”

For years, development in downtown Youngstown has focused primarily around Federal Plaza and the western end toward Fifth Avenue. Brining more to the eastern edge brings more to an area that has been predominantly industrial for years. Neider says that while she’s done plenty of work in the central part of downtown, she’s never taken on a project on this part of the district. 

Adding to the magnitude, she says, is that it’s a project with family – Bernacki-Lyras is her cousin.

“I’ve worked on a lot of projects downtown over the years, but now I get to work with my family, which really tops off the whole thing,” she says. “I’ve followed their journey the whole time. Seeing them grow and prosper in downtown, I’m so proud of them.”

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.