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The Quarterly Canadian Restaurant Intelligence Report

Historic Harbour Grace Church gets a second life as a brewery


Craig Flynn and Brenda O’Reilly are the owners of YellowBelly Brewery and O’Reilly’s Irish Pub in St. John’s, Newfoundland. The veteran restaurateurs are embarking on their most ambitious hospitality journey yet. They’ve purchased a historical abandoned church in Harbour Grace—the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, a landmark in the rural Newfoundland town since 1892—and will be transforming the building into a brewery, Munich-style beer garden, restaurant, hotel and spa.

Years ago, they first considered the church property, but at the time it wasn’t meant to be—the sale of  the church building was bogged down in red tape and whether the church could be sold was not certain. The couple moved on, finding a historical canning plant on  the southern shore where they would locate the dream brewery they had in mind.

Mother Nature had other ideas. A violent windstorm damaged the canning plant property to the extent that its renovation became prohibitively expensive. So, Flynn and O’Reilly decided to revisit the church building to see if anything had changed. It had.

“The Lord works in mysterious ways,” says O’Reilly. “We really wanted to do something rural in Newfoundland,” she says. They had decided on searching for a new property within a one-hour radius of St. John’s and they wanted something on the water. O’Reilly’s mom worked at their pub full-time and after she retired (she really didn’t want to, at the age of 74) O’Reilly would spend every Wednesday with her. “We would drive and find properties,” says O’Reilly. And that’s how they first came upon the cathedral. They were going out to Conception Bay, driving down the main road—Water Street— and saw the cathedral. “Oh my gracious, look at that. Doesn’t look like it’s being used,” says O’Reilly, remembering her mother’s reaction to the site. Not knowing anything about it at the time, “Mom says, what are you buying, a church?”

O’Reilly reminisces fondly, her mother has since passed away but memories of her mother are forever intertwined in many elements of the project. “She was in the church with us,” says O’Reilly. “I know how much Mom would love it.”

Just about 3,000 people call Harbour Grace home. The community is located an hour from St. John’s; both the location and building were perfectly providential. “Harbour Grace is a beautiful town. It’s also one of the most historic towns in Newfoundland, but it has fallen on hard times,” says Flynn. He says he has “a real passion for old buildings.”

In Harbour Grace, there’s a clear need for jobs, and the project will bring about 100 jobs overall. The tourism and related financial boosts to the region will be a godsend.

“Restoration work is slated to begin in early 2019,” says Flynn. And the town is thrilled with its prospects. Flynn and O’Reilly went out to meet with the town council and says Flynn, it was “red carpet all the way.” The town is supportive and behind the project 100 per cent. The bishop for the Diocese hosted a commemorative service to hand over the building. They expected 60 people and 650 turned up! People were curious, supportive and positive. “When we gave our speech, everyone applauded,” says Flynn.

When asked if they’re nervous about such a grand undertaking, O’Reilly responds assuredly. “I feel my mom looking over me. This project is a little different; we’re older and wiser, we know our vision, [we’ve] been thinking about it for five years.”

Adds Flynn, “Frankly our first projects, we started with two nickels to rub together, our project at YellowBelly, I remember rolling change to make payroll.” They believed in that vision, they stuck with their vision, even when people tried to sway them in different directions. They make a remarkable team, which certainly helps. The two of them have dedicated their life’s work to developing tourism in Newfoundland. “We have the confidence not to be scared,” says Flynn.

They will break the project down into sections, as looking at a whole big project can be overwhelming. Their priority is to get the brewery up and running—this is imperative for them to grow the business as planned. And while that’s happening, they will get the infrastructure done in the building and get the hotel going. Flynn and O’Reilly know the business of hospitality inside and out, they’re experienced caterers and restaurateurs, after all. A garden party will be an annual event they will host for the town as a fundraising event for the town and parish; the inaugural event will be in Summer 2019.

As Newfoundlanders, O’Reilly and Flynn have loved seeing the tourism development around The Rock. Ventures like Fogo Island Inn, partnerships with local government, provincial and federal government, everyone works together in Newfoundland to bring these projects to fruition.

So, what will it be called? There’s “no name yet, haven’t firmed down,” says Flynn. But a definite element of the plan will be exporting the fruits of their brewery to the rest of Canada and beyond.

The town of Harbour Grace is discovering itself again, and just about everyone is excited about their prospects.

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The Quarterly Canadian Restaurant Intelligence Report