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Ponysaurus Owner Talks Aesthetics, Wilmington Culture

By Audrey Elsberry, posted Jan 24, 2024
Ponysaurus quietly opened its Wilmington location on Jan. 6. The brewery first opened the original location in Durham in 2013. (Photo by Audrey Elsberry)
Creating the eccentric atmosphere in Wilmington’s Ponysaurus Brewing was a terrifying process, said owner Nick Hawthorne-Johnson.

He and his wife, Rochelle Johnson, hoped Wilmington patrons would understand their vision for the inflatable dinosaurs and carousel horses.  

“You pull all this weird stuff into this space — like it's either going to be really amazing or really awful,” Hawthorne-Johnson said. “I’m of the belief that in order for something to truly have the potential to be really amazing, there has to also be the potential for it to be really awful.”

Ponysaurus quietly opened its Wilmington location on Jan. 6. The brewery first opened the original location in Durham in 2013. It’s one of five food-and-drink ventures owned by the Johnson’s Cast Iron Group.

The brewery’s Wilmington taproom is unassuming from outside its Market Street location. But inside contains the aforementioned inflatable dinosaurs riding atop carousel horses suspended from the ceiling, among other quirky décor.

“It was very interesting to watch some of the subcontractors … watching us start to hang carousel horses from the ceiling, kind of scratching their heads and being like, ‘what are these people doing?’” Hawthorne-Johnson said.

A blue and white checkerboard floor runs the length of the first-floor bar and seating area, which could be interpreted as an homage to old-school Italian pizzerias, but really took inspiration from Oktoberfest, Hawthorne-Johnson said.

The checkerboard floor extends outside into the backyard biergarten that is expected to open this week, Hawthorne-Johnson said. He imagines plenty of Oktoberfest flags strung across the tiered outdoor space once the beer festival kicks off in the fall. The outdoor space also features a pavilion with a fireplace and overhead heaters, an extension of the bar for outdoor service and plenty of seating.

Ponysaurus’s aesthetic pulls from “traditional themes wrapped in whimsy,” both for the design of the space and the beer itself, Hawthorne-Johnson said. The beer itself tends to follow traditional flavors, but it's the cans where the creative team can play around with cheeky names and playful font, he said.

The process of curating each of the taproom’s accessories was time-consuming. Rochelle Johnson, who spearheaded the taproom’s design, was always on the lookout for architectural salvaged pieces that inspired her.

Each Ponysaurus location is unique, said Sarah Voran, the Cast Iron Group’s director of marketing and a native Wilmingtonian.

“Growing up in Wilmington, I’ve seen many iterations of what this town is and what it can be,” Voran said. “The community has just taken on and uplifted the hospitality community. So, it's exciting that a place like this exists in this town.”

The Wilmington location has many coastal references such as weathered wooden furniture pieces and lighting that could resemble a ship’s cabin. Mirrored portholes decorate each booth, reflecting a fish-eye depiction of the long, narrow taproom.

When the Cast Iron team was looking to expand the brewery to a second location, they considered the entire state. Hawthorne-Johnson fell in love with Wilmington during the search, he said. The university, plethora of building stock, close-knit hospitality scene and, of course, the beach, enticed the restaurateur, he said.

The taproom’s service team consists of 40 kitchen staff, food runners, bartenders and other employees. Creating a supportive and friendly culture was important to the Ponysaurus brand, Hawthorne-Johnson said.

There is no way to ensure a team will collaborate well until they’re put to the test. Luck and intentionality when hiring contributed to the staff’s good chemistry, Hawthorne-Johnson said. Executive Chef Beth LittleJohn said the staff culture is huge when starting a restaurant and can determine the business’s success.

A part of LittleJohn’s job is to create a kitchen environment that people want to come to. It is a hard job, she said, but she tries to make the food preparation process as collaborative as possible so team members feel they have a say in the outcome.

“There's a million ways to fry an egg, so let's talk about it,” she said.

The management team has been pleasantly surprised about the staff’s positivity and the speed at which they’ve gelled with one another in the few weeks the taproom has been open. However, LittleJohn said the stress of the job will further bond the team members through trial and error, especially in these early weeks of service.

The brand’s silliness helps in staff bonding as well, LittleJohn added.

“It's so much fun that we got to run around in dinosaur costumes to promote,” she said. “And I did own a dinosaur costume prior to working for Ponysaurus, I’m proud to say.”

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