Daytonian of the Week: Steve Barnhart

Steve Barnhart chased the American dream in the corporate world for nearly 20 years. Now, he’s pursuing his passion.

Barnhart, founder and head brewer of Lock 27 Brewing Co. in Centerville, is taking that pursuit to a new level with his plans to building a second brewery and restaurant in downtown Dayton, in the shadow of the Dayton Dragons' Fifth Third Field. We caught up to this week's Daytonian of the Week to learn more about him — and his passion.

What’s your favorite spot in the Dayton area?

Carillon Park. There is so much history in Dayton that we forget about, and Carillon Park is a great teacher.

What’s your guilty pleasure?

Cigars. On special occasions.

What’s one word you think people would use to describe you?

Thoughtful. I give careful consideration, and rarely “shoot from the hip.”

Why did you decide to come to and settle in the Dayton area?

Actually, I didn’t find Dayton. Dayton found me. My family moved to the area in 1984 from Chicago, and I’ve been here ever since. Despite so many opportunities to leave Dayton in my life, I’ve never found a place that I’d rather live. I think too many people get caught up in what Dayton isn’t instead of what it is. Clearly, Dayton isn’t a big city like Chicago, NYC, or San Francisco – spend enough time there and they start to feel a bit cold, callous and impersonal. Dayton, on the other hand, has always been warm, friendly and welcoming. Hold a door open for someone in Dayton, and they thank you. Hold a door open for someone in a large city, and they look at you like you have a screw loose.

How did you get involved with owning and running a brewery?

Passion. It sounds cliché, but that’s why you leave a corporate career to start a small business. I’d been a home brewer since 1997 (thanks to a guy named Gary Foskuhl), but was working for NCR pursuing the American dream. Brewing was just something I did on weekends when I wasn’t still working. For a long time, I truly did love my job. Until the day I woke up and was pursuing just another deal, in another hotel room, in another city, after another red eye flight. I had lost the passion and knew it was time for a change. Brewing had always been a passion, and was a natural fit for me. The timing was right, so I threw caution to the wind and planted my flag to stake my claim.

What was the most challenging part of that?

It was a totally new industry with its own pace. After 20 years of keeping pace with that rapidly changing technology industry, nothing in my experience had prepared me for opening a brewery. Tech moves fast and frantic – startup company’s lives are measured in days and months. Brewing is slow and methodical – great breweries are measured in years and built over lifetimes. Changing my thinking to accept that things don’t happen “tomorrow” in the brewing industry was hard, but healthy. After all, I founded a brewery as the “second act” of my life’s work and not just to make a quick buck.

How did you push through the challenge?

I immersed myself in it. I had to fully leave a career to start another one, especially with the vision I had. Opening a brewery would have been hard enough as a full-time job, but my vision was to open a gastropub, too. That just made things double tough. When small business owners talk about working 90 hours a week, they’re not exaggerating. Few people will remember this three years later, but in the early days, I kept a lawn chair in the brew house that I would use to catch up on my sleep. I had to be there to learn and grow. I had to be there to talk to guests while I washed glasses behind the bar. I had to learn how to run a brewery, a kitchen, and a service staff all at the same time, all on my own. I couldn’t have done that from my home.

What inspires you about Dayton?

Everything. Having lived in the region over 30 years, I’ve been here for some rather bleak periods. Nothing could make me happier that seeing the region blossom and thrive. And none more so than the City of Dayton itself. There are some many great things happening in the city right now – the growth and change in the Water Street District, the changing face of the Oregon. The Arcade? What a great story. Being old enough to remember the Arcade when it was still open, having that great space spring to life was always just a dream. Seeing that dream become a reality inspires me.

If you could change or bring one thing to Dayton, what would it be?

Being part of the Water Street District is so exciting to me. Growing up in Chicago, I’ll always remember the energy and excitement in Wrigleyville. Wrigley Field wasn’t just a ballpark, but the whole neighborhood surrounding it. Now you have “arena districts” growing all over the country. Lock 27 expanding into the Water Street District and being a small part of that vision in Dayton is a huge focus for us right now. I’m so looking forward to immersing myself there in the near future.

What do you think Dayton will look like in 10-15 years?

One word: vibrant. I think the region will continue to merge with Cincinnati to the south, and residents of those areas will start to see Dayton and Cincy as true sister cities. Dayton will maintain and grow its own identity and draw, and bring more people “up” from the merged region. I have nothing but positive outlook for Dayton. But that’s why I’ve lived here. Why I raised my kids here. Why I founded the second act of my career here. I’ve always believed in both the city and the region, and they’ve never disappointed me.

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