A landmark eatery in downtown Roanoke has closed, but the restaurant won’t be empty for long.
A Harrisonburg burger and beer restaurant, Jack Brown’s, is already busy getting the former Ernie’s space on Market Street ready for an early spring opening.
Jack Brown’s is known for its signature burgers, deep-fried Oreos and selection of 100 beers.
That’s what drew John Nielsen, a commercial real estate broker with Thalhimer, to the restaurant for lunch while in Harrisonburg for meetings last summer.
“As soon as I stepped inside, I got excited,” Nielsen said. “I thought it was a really cool concept and the complete opposite of a chain restaurant.”
As he ate, he talked with restaurant owner Aaron Ludwig and asked if he’d ever considered expanding to Roanoke.
“He put the bug in my ear, and I loved it because it was close by to my location up here,” Ludwig said.
Nielsen and Ludwig met several times in Roanoke to look at different sites, but they couldn’t find anything they liked. Before one of Ludwig’s last visits, Nielsen talked with Sean Luther, former president of Downtown Roanoke Inc., and Lisa Soltis, an economic development specialist for Roanoke. They told him that the owner of Ernie’s was looking to get out of the restaurant business.
Ernie’s owner Aimee Simmons said at the time of the closing that she had been trying to get out of the business for about two years because of rising food prices. She visited the Harrisonburg restaurant to make sure it would be a good fit for downtown Roanoke.
“Seeing the way they run their business, I just fell in love with the place,” Simmons said at the time of the closing. “I think it’s going to be a huge benefit to downtown.”
Ernie’s closed Jan. 23, the day before Ludwig bought Ernie’s equipment and took over the lease. He wouldn’t disclose how much he paid.
He said that he plans to take out the booths in favor of high-top tables, create a new bar area, upgrade the restaurant’s electrical system, install two sinks and replace the hood.
The menu includes unique burgers, such as the Elvis, with peanut butter, mayonnaise, smoked bacon and cheese; the Greg Brady, with homemade three-cheese macaroni and barbecue chips; and the Showalter, with bacon, eggs and cheese on a split, glazed doughnut.
The menu was developed by Ludwig’s childhood friend Mike Sabin, a corporate chef for Prime One Twelve in Miami.
The two met in sixth grade, played soccer together, and as teenagers amassed a collection of 1,000 beer cans.
Ludwig and Sabin remained friends as they went their separate ways, Ludwig to Radford University and Sabin to Miami.
Ludwig’s first business was Function 4 Sports, a sporting goods store in Harrisonburg that he ran for 14 years. When he grew tired of running that business, Sabin suggested they open a bar, something they had talked about doing since they were teens.
Ludwig sold the sporting goods business, and he and Sabin set off to New York City to sample burgers and get ideas for decor.
They settled on Wagyu beef, which Ludwig buys from a farm in Idaho. The meat is cooked on a flat-top griddle behind the bar, and burgers are served without lettuce and tomato.
The trip to New York also yielded ideas for decor, including a disco ball hanging from a wagon wheel.
One piece of decor holds sentimental value for Ludwig and Sabin: their beer can collection, proudly displayed at the Harrisonburg restaurant.
Also in the column, a new store will open at the Forum shopping center in Roanoke County in March, and a women’s clothing and jewelry store is opening at Botetourt Commons in Daleville.