ROCKFORD — Rockford Brewing Co. LLC has unveiled plans to renovate a nearby historic building and expand with the new Malph’s Pizza Pub concept.
The nearly 5,800-square-foot pizzeria, distillery and brewery will take shape in the former Vitale’s Pizza of Rockford, located at 42 E. Bridge St., just steps away from the existing brewery.
The partners behind Rockford Brewing Co. had been in talks for months with former Vitale’s owner Terry Prowoznik to buy the restaurant, and eventually signed a purchase agreement in May 2020, just as the first wave of the pandemic took hold.
Rockford Brewing co-founder Seth Rivard said the timing of the purchase worked well because the brewery was able to leverage its Paycheck Protection Program loan to bring on all of the Vitale’s employees, including Prowoznik, who continues to consult as he transitions to retirement.
Rivard said the company also used the time to implement new point of sale systems and integrate the operation under the Rockford Brewing entity.
“We were planning to buy it and as COVID hit, we were still negotiating,” Rivard said. “We decided it was now or never, and now was the best time to buy because we had the extra resources to start working on it.”
In the year since the acquisition, Rockford Brewing has continued to operate the restaurant as Vitale’s and recently started the process to rehab the 1866 building where the restaurant operated for the last 43 years. Plans call for a total renovation with “substantial” seating, two bars, an outdoor beer garden patio and an elevated deck with views of the Rockford Dam on the Rogue River.
While the Rockford Brewing entity acquired the business, the company put together a group of investors that includes staff members of the brewery to acquire the real estate. The group, under the Pizza Me LLC entity, acquired the property last May for $385,000, according to property records.
“It’s a good way to instill ownership and a sense of pride in the community,” Rivard said of bringing employees into the process.
To that end, the company also wants to engage the community to support the renovation process, and has launched a Kickstarter campaign with a goal of raising $15,000. Rewards range from hot sauce and home pizza kits to free pizzas and a pizza party once the restaurant opens, which is targeted for spring of 2023.
“It’s a fun opportunity to get the community involved and become a part of it,” Rivard said. “The story of this old building is phenomenal, and we’re passionate about restoring it. It’s part of the vibe, part of the history of the town. We want to get people excited and involved.”
To date, the company has been working with LeBlanc Custom Homes Inc. on the design process, and is in negotiation with another firm for construction management of the project.
Plans for Malph’s Pizza Pub include a 3-barrel production system and a still that will allow the company to expand into distilling for the first time.
“We will make beer there, but I suspect we will use the system mostly to make spirits that we will sell at both locations,” Rivard said, adding that co-owner and brewer Jeff Sheehan has prior experience with distilling, which should allow the company to transition seamlessly into making the new products. He expects the company will start making vodkas and gins and gradually add barrel-aged spirits to its roster.
The company also will need to hire additional personnel for production, Rivard added.
The new pub’s name is a brand extension of Rockford Brewing’s Malph’s Premium Beer, an easy-drinking nod to post-war lagers, as well as Rivard’s childhood nickname.
As part of the transformation to Malph’s Pizza Pub, the company will continue to make local favorites from the Vitale’s days as well as add new items, including a new line of popular Sicilian pizzas developed over the last few months in a ghost kitchen at Rockford Brewing.
Rivard said the company decided to offer new products and invest in Rockford rather than try to duplicate the Rockford Brewing model in other cities. While the brewery focuses on farm-to-table fare, the partners felt like they were missing out on the demographic that preferred the traditional beer and pizza combination.
In some ways, bringing the Vitale’s business into the fold marked a return to the roots of Rockford Brewing, which opened in 2012 and only added a kitchen in 2016. In the initial four years of the business, the brewery partnered with Vitale’s to bring guests takeout pizzas.
“We had a different demographic back then,” Rivard said. “When we added the kitchen, we became too foodie for some and we lost some of that demographic that just liked a simple pizza and a beer.”