Beer church pic

An artist’s depiction shows the Beer Church in New Buffalo, with its planned expansion.

NEW BUFFALO — Beer Church Brewing Co. is about to begin its third expansion project since its inception.

Co-owner John Lustina recently hired a construction company to build a two-story upper deck this summer, which would add about 120 outdoor seats to the New Buffalo brewery.

As the restaurant industry prepares for tourism season, Lustina said he didn’t want customers waiting a couple hours to be seated. Even with a 50 percent seating capacity, he said the expansion will hopefully make people feel safer at the brewery.

“One of the things that we’re seeing – even during a pandemic – is how popularity builds upon itself, year over year,” said Lustina, who owns the brewery alongside Jane Simon. “The outdoor portion of this is the safest bet. People will feel safer outside. And the more people you can sit, the more money you can make.”

However, even if Beer Church were to open at a 100 percent seating capacity, Lustina said they wouldn’t be able to serve enough people.

Construction is expected to begin in mid-April on the upper deck, which will be based on the west side of the brewery. It will be adjacent to the beer garden, another expansion project the brewery finished in 2018.

The two-story deck will have about 60 seats on each level, with the top portion featuring a bar and a small roof.

Once the project is finished and pandemic restrictions are lifted, the brewery will have capacity for 120 people inside and another 180 outdoors.

“When we get back to normal, that’s 300 people,” Lustina said, when taking into account the beer garden seating.

He said the upper deck won’t affect the beer garden, but will take up some space in the connected parking lot.

“It will have an old school ballpark feel to it. I think it’s going to enhance what we have,” Lustina said. “The city has been great with this. They know it is not a good time for restaurants and are trying to be helpful. It’s coming at a time when people are so stir crazy.”

The brewery is also adding two 20-barrel exterior tanks outside of the main building, which will be adorned with the Beer Church logo.

Lustina said they are installing a second wood-fired stove, which is being flown in from Italy. It was made by the same family that the brewery bought its original from. It is expected to help handle the added pizza orders that comes with more seating.

“We won’t have to fit it inside of the building this time,” he said. “It needs to sit down on the lower portion of the deck. The only thing we’ll have to do is put some reinforced anchors in the concrete.”

The expansion project will mean the brewery loses two parking spots. However, Lustina said they pay the city to allow people to park for free across the street in the large lot.

With more seating and guests, Lustina said they plan to hire more staff. Beer Church has nearly doubled its hours of operations, from noon to 10 p.m., to help the new staff get trained and accustomed to the hours.

Lustina said they hired the same construction company that built the skybox inside the brewery. The box is an elevated loft that was once the choir loft.

Workers are expected to break ground next week. Lustina said they hope to have at least one level of the upper deck completed by the Fourth of July.

“We want the entire thing to be done, but it’s not as likely since we’re also adding the wood-fired stove and tanks,” he said. “The other 60 (seats) will come afterward, but it will be some time in the fall.”

Lustina said once construction begins, they don’t plan to shut everything down, even if that might complete the project sooner. He said the construction company is willing to work unique hours to not affect regular dining.

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