If social distancing has us longing to gather, there is light at the end of the tunnel. When the COVID-19 crisis subsides, a new gathering place awaits: Champion Ice House.
Historically used to store and sell ice throughout the year, ice houses have a long, but faded, tradition as central gathering places for communities in the South. This was particularly true of ice houses that expanded offerings beyond ice to convenience store items and, notably, beer. In some areas, ice houses even evolved into open-air restaurants or saloons.
Champion Brewing Company’s Hunter Smith and The Barbeque Exchange‘s Craig Hartman seek to revive that tradition in Gordonsville. Set to open this fall in Gordonsville’s old Memorial Hall building, Champion Ice House touts “Cold beer! Hot chicken! Good friends!”
In describing the project, Hartman can barely can contain his excitement, and cites two main reasons why. One is the people involved, who Hartman considers the very best in their fields: Champion’s Smith and Stony Point Development’s Chris Henry, who is overseeing the project’s design and construction.
The other is the deep love that Hartman and his wife Donna feel for Gordonsville, their home. Inspired by the ice houses of days gone by, Hartman, Smith, and Henry want to bring a similar experience to the people of Gordonsville — a relaxed, open-air place where community members can congregate and families and friends can gather for a meal. “I wanted to design a brewery that would complement the history of the town,” said Henry. “When Hunter introduced the Ice House concept to me, I couldn’t help but become enthusiastic.”
The beer will be brewed by Champion Brewing Company, the award-winning Charlottesville brewery Smith founded in 2012. In addition to Champion staples, Smith has several new styles planned just for the ice house. “I’m so excited for this place,” said Smith. “We’ve already got a light lager in development meant for porch pounding and pairing with buckets of Craig’s chicken.”
That’s right. This may be a case of lede-burying because, for area food-lovers, the big story here may be Hartman’s fried chicken. A special that sells out every year at BBQ Exchange’s annual Porkapalooza, Hartman’s lard-fried chicken has earned a following that makes cults look tame. Folks who wait in long festival lines for Hartman’s fried chicken will be thrilled to be able to enjoy it year round at Champion Ice House.
The dish also has a long history in Gordonsville, which hosts an annual Fried Chicken Festival, and even has been dubbed the Fried Chicken Capital of the World. Building on that tradition, Hartman envisions Champion Ice House becoming a place known nationwide for its fried chicken. For almost any other chef, this might seem unrealistic. But Hartman is among the most accomplished chefs our region has ever seen, and has a track record of achieving his goals, no matter how ambitious. In 2010, he left a career in fine dining to open The Barbeque Exchange, with the aim of making it a place known for its barbecue. Last year, the Food Network declared it home to the best bbq pork sandwich in America. Once Champion Ice House opens in Gordonsville, Hartman’s food will bookend the town, with barbecue on one side and fried chicken on the other.
In addition to fried chicken, Hartman plans other food that pairs well with beer, like wood-fire grilled sausages and chicken. Folks will be able to gather for a meal and wash it down with a cold beer, he says, or grab fried chicken by the bucketful for a family dinner or a picnic at the region’s burgeoning wineries and cideries.
Construction is underway on Gordonsville’s Main Street, with a target of opening this fall. By then, we all will be eager to gather.