219 Hood Street in Durham is a unique place.
A nearby construction site surrounds what seems to be a dilapidated residential building, and a complex just up the block belonging to Durham’s department of public health still smells like fresh asphalt and looks like state funding. A small auto shop sits streetside, with limited parking and intimidating “towing enforced” signs to match. But there are cars in those spaces, cars lining either side of the street. There are people here, the dull roar of a small crowd just barely audible over noise from the highway.
People come to this strange little lot in Durham, and they come for Ponysaurus.
“This is our second time to the tasting room, we’ll get [Ponysaurus] if it’s in a keg in Raleigh, or we’ll get the cans occasionally,” said Leah Greene, a teacher in Raleigh. “I’m from Minnesota, and all this seems like something you’d see near the Grain Belt Bridge in Minneapolis. That’s where all the hipsters hang out, and this definitely feels like something that would happen there. It feels like that’s where Durham is headed.”
Self-described as a “forward-thinking, backward-tasting brewery,” Ponysaurus has created a reputation for more than just craft beer. The taproom location in Durham is a unique space, offering interesting food and drink opportunities alongside healthy pours of seasonal brews and Ponysaurus standards.
“I love the grills they have going,” said Jake Greene, a culinary instructor at Sur La Table. “You can rent the grill, buy all the stuff and go out there to grill it. It’s a built-in picnic. You bring nothing, and they supply you with all the stuff you need. It’s definitely nice food product, they give you all the tools you need, you just show up.”
The food at Ponysaurus is definitely a feature, with frequent visits from local food trucks feeding crowds gathered on benches outside the taproom and a selection of house-made snack mixes available for just $1 a scoop. “The Big Cheese” and “Capital Crunch” are favorites, and other scoop-able snacks like Swedish Fish are also available to satisfy sweet toothed-customers.
Began in an attic just above The Cookery in Durham, Ponysaurus beers are still center stage at the taproom. Beers meant to be “savored, appreciated, studied, nuzzled and mindfully guzzled” stock kegerators and flow on draft. Named a “Next Level Brewery” by Food & Wine and also recognized as “the best pint in Durham and one of the 50 most underrated breweries in America,” Ponysaurus is certainly on the come-up, with beers showing up on tap in bars all around the Triangle.
“They have, like most breweries, a pretty set list of five or six things they make all the time,” said Jeff Greene. “The Bier de Garde is by far and away their best standard.”
Customers can tell the difference between the seasonal brews and the standards by the boards showing beer choices above the bar. They all look fairly similar, but close inspection reveals that some are written in chalk while others are painted.
“Pale ales are almost a requirement for every brewery, because that’s what Americans drink,” said Jeff Greene. “I like a rye pale ale because it adds a different type of taste, a different type of grain. Immediately, when I tasted this one, I tasted something reminiscent of a strawberry.”
Durham is starting to play host to all sorts of small businesses and pop-up shops, driven by a developing urban area that encourages more walkable areas and community engagement instead of simple urban sprawl.
“That little part of town, where Fullsteam is, where Motorco is, that part of Durham is like ‘whoa, what is going on here?’ The restaurant we went to today for lunch, Lucky’s, we went there because we wish there was stuff like that in Raleigh,” said Leah Greene. “To keep that open you need good foot traffic, good parking, or both. Unfortunately, here in the Southeast, people are so married to their cars that unless you have one of those two, you can’t stay open.”
As Durham continues to rise on lists of “the best cities to live in the United States,” more and more small-scale local establishments are expected to appear. Local businesses obviously benefit the area they serve in more than just goods and services, however. The money spent circulates in the local area, instead of being sent or spend elsewhere.
The East Durham Pie Company is one such local business. Begun as a one-person operation in 2016 by owner Ali Rudel, the EDPC has developed a reputation through exceptional quality and just enough exclusivity to capture a fervent fanbase. Using the “pop-up shop” model that’s proving to create additional demand by putting time pressure on potential customers, EDPC has been showing up in places (including every Thursday at Ponysaurus) enough to become an open secret in Durham and an elusive legend elsewhere.
“I don’t even know that much about it,” said Regina Troy, of Chapel Hill. “All that I had heard was that if I showed up [at Ponysaurus’ taproom] on Thursday, there would be a lady selling slices of pie that are supposed to be the best I’ve ever had.”
The East Durham Pie Company doesn’t have a storefront or a food truck. The business is run in-person, by slices and handpies sold in small batches to local businesses and through the EDPC website – where customers can order pies for delivery in the Durham area or for pickup at the weekly Ponysaurus pop-up. But it was the Kickstarter campaign that quickly raised just shy of $25,000 that has propelled EDPC into the limelight, with a neighborhood cafe scheduled to open in Durham sometime in 2017.
“For me, [the Kickstarter] was a measure of ‘is this gonna be a thing?’ I knew that if people gave to the Kickstarter I had the support, then they all gave and I was like ‘oh my god, now I have to do the thing.’” said EDPC owner Ali Rudel. “I just quit my full time job and decided to do this instead.”
Rudel used to work at the notable Four & Twenty Blackbirds bakery in New York, which also specializes in pies.
“The sisters [Melissa and Emily Elsen, the founders of Four & Twenty Blackbirds] specialize in pie. After working there and moving down here, at a certain point I wanted to make a career change,” said Rudel. “It was really a ‘let’s see if this thing works’’ thing. If it does we’ll do it, and if it doesn’t I’ll look for another job.”
EDPC consists of Rudel, one employee and “a husband, which is kind of like an employee.” The three have managed to not only build a stellar reputation in an extremely short amount of time, but also inspire the kind of interest and loyalty that brings in thousands of dollars in Kickstarter money and creates regulars that come back week after week for the now-famous pies.
“I like that it makes people happy, even if I’m really sick of doing it or burnt out,” said Rudel. “I get paid to make people happy. How many people get to say that?