A Beer Between Friends

Some say you should never go into business with your best friend, but for owners of Jack Brown’s Beer & Burger Joint Mike Sabin and Aaron Ludwig, it’s been a key part of their success.

Mike Sabin and Aaron Ludwig

Photos by Fred + Elliott

Growing up in Alexandria, Aaron Ludwig and Mike Sabin were already laying the groundwork for Jack Brown’s Beer and Burger Joint, even if they didn’t know it. The childhood friends had connected at first over a shared passion for skateboarding—and for collecting beer cans. “It’s definitely not the norm for 10-year-old kids to have that in common,” says Sabin. But the pair were passionate about their hobby, scrounging through garbage bins and imploring their fathers to bring back exotic brands from business trips. Now, that original beer can collection is displayed on high shelves running around the bar of Jack Brown’s in Harrisonburg, which the pair opened in 2009. For nearly two decades, the collection was boxed up in their parents’ attics, gathering dust. 

During that time, Ludwig attended Radford University, then opened ski and snowboard retail shop Function 4 Sports in Harrisonburg. Meanwhile, Sabin moved to Miami, Florida, to begin a culinary career, starting as a dishwasher and working nearly every position in the kitchen all the way up to executive chef. He returned briefly to Virginia to work as a sous chef under Patrick O’Connell at the Inn at Little Washington.

Until one day, when Ludwig called his friend to vent about a bad day at work, and they started talking about their long-held dream of opening a bar together. The timing seemed right: Ludwig knew business and was already brewing his own beer, while Sabin was experienced in the restaurant world. Less than a year later, they would open the first Jack Brown’s location in Harrisonburg, followed soon by locations across Virginia (Roanoke, Elkton, Charlottesville and Richmond) and beyond (Nashville and Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Birmingham, Alabama).

“People say that you should never start a business with your best friend,” says Sabin, “but I’ve always felt confident because we complement each other so well. I’m Alfalfa, he’s Spanky.” 

“We’ve each got our limitations, and we know each other well enough to understand when to listen to the other person and when to push back,” says Ludwig. 

Each Jack Brown’s Beer and Burger Joint carries a selection of more than 100 craft beers.

Both 47, Sabin and Ludwig have infused a relaxed openness and a meticulous attention to detail into every Jack Brown’s location. “First off, we were always going to open a bar where we would like to hang out,” says Ludwig. They still design each new joint, hand-selecting all of the décor. “We wanted to create the feeling of a dive, but not a dump,” says Sabin. “The music might be a little too loud, but that’s the way we like it.”

Along with the beer can collection, a large bleached cattle skull keeps watch above the bar, and bills covered with handwritten messages are plastered like wallpaper (a sample message: “BEER ME” on a British £5 note). A disco ball festooned with bras and boas hangs from the ceiling next to a full-size skeleton dressed in Mardi Gras attire riding a bicycle. 

Perhaps the only thing more varied than the décor is the beer selection. Each joint carries more than 100 craft beers, sourced from around the world, including a rotating group of rare and seasonal beverages.

True to its name, the menu is centered on one thing: burgers. But these are not standard burgers. 

Sabin’s fine dining expertise inspired creations like the Greg Brady, topped with Martin’s potato chips and mac and cheese; the Danny Laruso, with cream cheese and jalapeño jelly; and the Showalter, in which a glazed donut replaces the bun. Jack Brown’s uses only wagyu beef (the American version of Japanese Kobe beef), sourced from a family-owned ranch in Idaho. 

While it’s relatively common now to see this kind of high-low mashup—an old-fashioned joint with ingredients worthy of the most up-market Michelin-starred establishment—when it opened, Jack Brown’s was on the leading edge of the trend. 

In fact, that early pioneering spirit seemed almost too daring to some customers. At first, no one was buying craft beer. Many were intimidated by the dizzying array of unfamiliar styles and breweries (not to mention slightly higher prices). 

To overcome this obstacle, Ludwig and Sabin invented the Notch Club. They invited “Notchers” to track every variety of beer they drank at Jack Brown’s, and awarded prizes for hitting milestones along the way: a monogrammed Dickie’s work shirt, an engraved plaque displayed on the walls, invitations to special Notchers-only parties and events. The club was an immediate success. 

The Chiflet cheeseburger is topped with applewood smoked bacon and egg.

Fueled by a devoted fan base, Sabin and Ludwig have expanded their business substantially. In 2011, they opened a sister restaurant down the street, Billy Jack’s Wing and Draft Shack, a larger space that allowed them to offer a broader menu and more traditional seating. From an initial staff of just four, they now employ about 250 people across 10 locations. They will open two new Jack Brown’s and two new Billy Jack’s in early 2018, for a total of 15 locations. 

Sabin and Ludwig have come a long way since they started collecting beer cans in middle school. “We thought we’d be lucky to get customers to try 100 different types of beer,” says Ludwig. “Now, we have 60 people who have tried more than 1,000 different varieties.” And there is more where that came from. 


This story originally appeared in our February 2018 issue.

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