Heinz Jones enjoys the simple things in life, or so it would seem. Maybe it’s his red, foot-long beard. One gets the impression the former techie has found the keys to eternal contentment. And yet, as he discusses the genesis of Forager Tasting Room + Eatery, his eyes light up with a glint of ambition. He isn’t so content after all. Forager is on a mission to revolutionize the local culinary and sips scene.
Compared to other major metropolitan areas like Portland, Seattle and San Diego, San Jose and surrounding cities have relatively few options to find a locally brewed beer. Despite the fact that over a million people live here, San Jose is home to less than 10 of the 120 plus breweries in the Bay Area. And people are thirsty.
A handful of ale-loving entrepreneurs have started to take it upon themselves to quench the valley. Hapa’s Brewing Co. opened its doors in January in an industrial Midtown taproom, and Uproar Brewing made its long-anticipated debut last month across the street from Forager in downtown’s SoFA District. On Friday, July 21, Forager will kick off the fifth annual Silicon Valley Beer Week with 16 taps of locally crafted cold ones in constant rotation.
“I had been thinking about it and really wanted to do something big, something for the local brewers,” Jones says.
Highlighting local brews is just one way Forager is redefining downtown’s sips scene. The tap room, which officially opened five months ago, is equal parts beer, coffee, food and arts—the staples of urban culture.
Jones came to San Jose five years ago as a health care IT worker, and he began searching for restaurants and after-hours spots on par with the world-class offerings in San Francisco and Berkeley. “I wondered, where is that happening in San Jose, is that happening in San Jose?”
Along with friends and co-owners Dave Johnson and Brian Chen, Jones developed a blueprint for an enterprise that would eventually expand its vision. The initial idea called for a triad of handcrafted beers, hand-carved meats and handmade breads. But when the team came across the vast venue that formerly housed South First Billiards, the project’s ambitions expanded to match the building’s 14,400 square feet of untapped potential.
“When we first stepped in here,” Jones says, “it was kind of like a lightbulb realization of what we could do.”
In developing a project pitch for the seed accelerator Y Combinator, which helps incubate startups by giving them financial support and mentorship, Jones learned what it takes to turn an idea into a business. In the process, he discovered a new angle for his own budding business.
“When I walked into this space, I was like, ‘We should be incubating food, we should be an incubator for startup chefs,'” Jones says. “That’s really how it happened. This space was inspirational and definitely pivotal in coming to that conclusion.”
This “aha!” moment will encompass Forager’s final phase: becoming a launching pad for entrepreneurs in the food, beer and arts industry. The plan is to build out six kitchens and a microbrewery, which will be leased to local chefs and brewers as a testing grounds for proving new concepts and menus, with a long-term goal of assisting them to venture out into the wilderness and create brick-and-mortar establishments of their own.
“Our mission is really to create opportunity,” Jones explains. “It’s a lot about investing in the community and in the local neighborhood because, first of all, that’s where all the fun is, that’s where all the magic happens.”
Forager is currently in phase one. The brick walls and vaulted ceilings create an airy expanse that presently shelters a bar with speciality roasts from Devout Coffee, Bay Area beers and Napa wines, in addition to fusion cuisine served up by chef Lee Hernandez. The space also serves as a venue for monthly residencies, where musicians and artists perform and showcase their work.
True to its minimalistic, rustic interior, the name “Forager” is reminiscent of an older, simpler way of life—a time when people gathered around the fire each night to eat, drink, share stories and celebrate.
“That’s something that’s core to our nature as humans,” Jones says. “We wanted to play on that and create a space that is really all about bringing people together, sharing great food, sharing great drinks and experiencing local culture.”
A unique vision is brewing in the heart of SoFA. At Forager, anyone with an appetite—whether it be for art, food, beer or innovation—is welcome.