Long before craft beer or the food industry was on his radar, Jess McMullen of Flyway Brewing had a thing for restaurants.
“When I was a kid I was fascinated with them. As soon as my family sat down when we went out to eat, I’d go exploring, and I’d be sure to check every corner of it.”
Whether examining the various wall trinkets of his local TGI Fridays or some Anywhere, USA diner on a road trip, he was hooked.
Born in Columbus, Ohio, McMullen moved to Charlotte, North Carolina when he was still pretty young. Family reunions in Ohio, however, always revolved around family and food – something that he continually turns back to as Co-Owner of Flyway Brewing.
“My background in food comes absolutely from my family,” he says. Quite literally, as he was surrounded by an immense amount of baked goods.
“The phrase I like to use is ‘family reunion, church social bakers and cooks,’” he laughs.
The delectables didn’t stop at dessert, however. “My dad and grandparents were also avid cooks – they were smoking meats before I really knew or saw anybody smoking meats.”
During his college years in Asheville, North Carolina, it’s not too much of a surprise that McMullen began working in the industry.
“It was there that I got into the craft beer scene,” he says, “I stayed there for nearly 20 years.”
He remembers his introduction to Highland Brewery – his first taste of craft beer beyond Sierra Nevada. “My wife and I hung out at a bar called Barley’s Taproom,” he says. “Highland started in the basement of Barley’s, and being around all that was really influential on me.”
McMullen kept trying new craft beer while working various jobs in the industry before he decided he needed a change.
“I was in the restaurant business a long time, but then I got out of it because I felt like I had to … but it was my love. Craft beer, specifically.”
He moved back to Charlotte with his family and became a stay at home dad for a time, something that he says, “Helped me and changed me a lot.”
It likely even prepared him for the rollercoaster of his next opportunity – Flyway Brewing. Longtime college friend and home brewer in his own right, Matthew Foster was making strides a few states over in Little Rock, Arkansas.
“When Matt and I first hatched the idea of opening a brewery – it was funny – we just grabbed onto it like we were always meant to do this,” says McMullen.
He dove in and began working on a business plan all the way from Charlotte, but knew if he wanted to make the idea a reality, he’d have to take a serious leap of faith.
McMullen took the plunge and made the move with his family. “We came here without jobs,” he remembers, “But as my wife Tina said, we didn’t want to ask ‘What if?’”
The stars have a way of aligning themselves, and shortly after moving, his wife was able to take a full-time nursing position with a sister company here in Little Rock.
At that point, McMullen focused on getting Flyway off the ground full-time. Working towards making his and Foster’s goal a reality, however, was full of peaks and valleys.
“Building a brewery from scratch involves a lot of waiting. Waiting for this permit or that piece of equipment, […] it took us over five years to realize our vision,” he says.
Thankfully that whole, ‘if you build, they will come’ mentality rings true. After opening to the public in December of 2015, McMullen has seen the brewery flourish in a myriad of ways.
His proudest moment with the whole project, however, centers on the people who make the company move – the entire staff – which he says is more like a family than anything.
“If I could hang my hat on one thing, that’s what I’d go to – the team. You’re only as good as the people you have working with you,” he says.
In the past two years, though, McMullen has also enjoyed watching the brewery evolve and make a name for itself from introducing regular seasonals to canning to a full-fledged food menu.
“I like that we have consistent beer and that we’ve been building seasonal offerings that people get excited about … I love seeing stuff come out that people like,” he says. And while he has a personal stake in the Cake Series, he’s a fan of everything that comes out of the brewery.
And while the goal of Flyway was never to operate as a restaurant, McMullen listened to his customers.“Our customers wanted food, so we did it – that is the truth. But here’s the deal, we were going to do it our way, and do something that we felt was quality and made sense for Flyway.”
Thus, the game-themed menu was the way to go, although if you catch the weekend special, you’re likely to get something completely different, like the recent Chicken Parm Sliders which included savory chicken on cheesy waffles.
“I do most of the specials,” he explains, “It’s a really good creative outlet for me, although my kitchen staff gets in on the fun as well.”
In terms of location, McMullen is glad that Flyway calls Argenta home.
“Argenta is awesome. The council has continued to bring events down here, there’s new construction with mixed-use, and the square is going in. Plus, my fellow restaurant bar owners are all great people.”
While he continues to advocate for people to #CrossTheRiver, he also wants folks to keep trying new things, which he believes in integral for the growth of the local craft scene.
“I think it’s super important for the local breweries to work together as a community. In fact, the other breweries in town are not Flyway’s competition. Our competition is big beer and what they can and are doing to the market right now. I want everyone to know that, and I want everyone to continue to try craft beer.”
When not working, McMullen spends time with his family – his wife and three kids. As it’s football season, you’re likely to catch him watching a game or two.
If you haven’t yet, head down to Flyway and have a chat with him. He’s often stationed behind the bar with a ready smile, a beer, and a good conversation or two.