Why Brawley’s Inferno Could Light the Way

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It was announced at the beginning of the year via Facebook that Brawley’s Inferno was to be handed off to new management. The restaurant specializes in brick oven pizzas and craft beers, but its other menu options and distinctive atmosphere has given Inferno a reputation comparable to more upscale urban eateries. The previous owners, Ray Babb and Greg Gelman, brought a small but high quality menu selection of specialty burgers, salads, tacos, and wings together with slick decor featuring signature brick walls with the occasional scorch mark. The location has also been a prominent venue for musicians both local and, surprisingly, international, including the infamous Snoop Dogg.

The infamous day in March of 2016 when Inferno lived up to its name, thanks to a rogue smoker.

Yet the growing pains of the restaurant may indicate that new owners Frank Suarez, Florentino Olivas, and Mike Nisperos have money on their minds a little more than they would like right now. While Inferno has found a viable niche that nicely complements the more bread-and-butter food options in Brawley, there have been a few signals that the gastropub was still angling for a financial sweet spot.

The restaurant was closed altogether for the tail end of summer in 2016 (likely due to the heat and corresponding exodus of people to cooler locales), and upon reopening in the fall, modified its hours to push back opening time to 5:00 p.m. The last few weeks, however, have seen a return to the previous hours, including being open for lunch.

While places to eat quality food is not a problem in Brawley, especially for authentic Mexican cuisine, Inferno is arguably the first that has brought a new and holistic approach to the dining experience. Its diverse and high quality food and drink menu, tasteful decor, family-friendly environment, and dedicated venue space have all contributed to Inferno’s upward reputation.

In addition, its location adjacent to the city plaza in the heart of Brawley has allowed it to take part (if only by proximity) in events held in the area, including Brawley’s monthly First Fridays and Mariachi Night during Cattle Call, as well as host mixers and the like. The short distance from these events allows residents to comfortably walk in for refreshments and additional entertainment, providing a stable and enjoyable gathering point for residents before or after such events.

This combination of factors could have Inferno pave the way for restaurants and businesses with similar ambitions to take up shop in the city. Possibly the biggest gap between Inferno and other successful “specialty” businesses is this: Inferno lacks a creed.

Mega-companies often have a corporate motto, like Apple’s “Think Different” or Google’s “Do No Evil.” Such slogans are not merely for advertisement; they shape the very culture and aspirations of the business. Smaller companies have also adopted statements that shape their vision.

One example is Quills Coffee, which now has four locations and wholesales its beans across the nation. They display its motto above one of the counters: “Coffee creates community. Community creates coffee.” The coffee shop has had national recognition as “America’s Best Coffeehouse” in 2015, among other awards, but the specialty coffee is only the centerpiece of an employee and customer culture that thrives in the intersection of refreshments, local art, politics, and community (Quills’ owner started the business with a few younger guys who he often met with in coffee shops for mentoring, where the conversation would often veer toward “What makes a great cup of coffee?”). The website summarizes the bigger-than-profit aim of the company:

Despite its small size, Quill’s Coffee R&D department ensures that its specialty coffees aren’t just good, but top-notch.

“[Quills] can be a very good cup of coffee, or the catalyst for innovative ideas. The magic of a coffee shop is that once that environment is created, it becomes not just what the staff makes it, but what the customers make it. A true community happens. Quills creates this with three simple staples: great coffee, great service and great spaces.”

Inferno, and other businesses which strive to provide what major chains often can’t — community-inspired products and services — will need to embrace a creed that’s bigger than wings, beer, and live events. It needs a vision of flourishing that extends beyond its own property and into the wider community.

Quill’s Coffee embraces the trifecta of great products, great service, and great spaces.

Although Brawley is seeing continued development with store openings near Wildcat Drive and Walmart, Inferno is poised to contribute to the revitalization of Brawley’s downtown scene, which in some respects is just as crucial to Brawley’s overall commercial growth. 

While Walmart and other brand stores offer a wide selection of products at low prices, many consumers at a national level are shifting toward a “neighborhood identity” where the local economy is seen as more and more critical to the community’s well being. Seeing a corporate blandness and loss of distinctiveness that a chain store often brings to a neighborhood, a counter-movement has emerged that celebrates locally made products and a short distance between one’s home and one’s favorite shopping and dining locations.

The most striking example of this movement can be seen in the slogan, “Keep Portland Weird,” a mantra which Austin, Texas and Louisville, Kentucky have also largely adopted. The characteristics of this trend include having one’s residence, workplace, and leisure spots all within walking distance (or short bike ride).

The “different is good” attitude is loud and clear: Buy local. Start neighborhood associations. Have meetings about community issues. Address neighborhood eyesores -even if you don’t own the property. Have local businesses collaborate, not merely compete.

One neighborhood in Louisville, called Nulu, just beyond the downtown area, is a recent example. The industrial-heavy district was originally dominated by mechanic shops, warehouses, and various old factories which are now long out of business. Now various restaurants, art galleries, and coffee shops have begun to move in, not demolishing the buildings to make way for more modern designs, but leaving them structurally intact while providing substantial yet unobtrusive remodeling.

The neighborhood boasts a rock-climbing gym, a coffee shop that lets customers choose the music from its small and extremely vintage vinyl record collection, and a range of apartments specifically designed to appeal to both students in medical school and those living on welfare (in the hope that the mixing of demographics would help alleviate the massive number of poor in the neighborhood). There’s also the Garage Bar: a gas-station-turned-Italian-eatery which features artisan pizzas and allows guests to eat right where Louisvillians of yesteryear would top off their automobiles. Go down a few more blocks toward the Butchertown district and you’ll find an industrial pork processing plant, employing hundreds who keep the plant operating day and night. The street is regularly closed off from vehicle traffic once a month or more for street festivals and farmer’s markets.

The Garage is a Louisville local favorite for its pizza and outdoor seating.

At the heart of New Urbanism —intertwining the residential, the commercial, and the industrial within a single neighborhood— is the idea that such mixed-land use leads to a economy that is “human-sized” and therefore encourages greater community involvement: members of the neighborhood know each other, have regular dealings with one another, and see their interests as tied up with the interests of the larger community. While many smaller towns are tempted to suburbanize and create homogeneous areas of retail, residential, and business offices, the approach cities often embraced half a century ago, many larger cities today are moving toward a small-town mindset, at least in terms of being able to avoid long commutes between home, work, and play, and valuing long-term residence in their neighborhoods.

Political theorist Mark Mitchell notes that this “small town” mentality is not limited to cities with smaller populations:

“Ultimately, healthy communities will only be realized when individuals commit to a particular place and to particular neighbors in the long-term work of making a place, of recognizing and enjoying the responsibilities and pleasures of membership in a local community. These good things are not the unique provenance of agrarian or rural settings. They can and have been achieved in urban and town settings.”

While the arrival of bigger companies like Walmart have likely benefited Brawley’s growth overall, the long-term health of the city will be decided by the commitment of residents to the important work of community building and investment. Businesses like Inferno could be both a glue and a grease, holding neighborhood involvement together and also reducing the friction of new and ambitious economic and social endeavors — the characteristic work of trendsetters. 

In a substantial way, Inferno’s ostensible aim to “do everything well” in a section of Brawley that has historically struggled could be an encouragement for other businesses and organizations to follow suit, and thereby encourage more of the community to come out and eat good food, hear from important organizations, enjoy local artists, and take the first steps into a web of thick, long-term, local personal relationships.

While Inferno’s unique situation and contribution to the Brawley food scene doesn’t make it financially invulnerable (far from it – although it certainly doesn’t need more superstar concerts to stay afloat), Inferno’s establishment as a Brawley mainstay could be the first act of a larger movement that helps the city grow in its economy and population. Inferno could also work to make the city “shrink” socially, helping us to see that those who were once strangers have been our neighbors all along.

Correction: The article previously named Ray and Julie Babb as Inferno’s former owners. Ray Babb and Greg Gelman were the previous owners.