by Katherine Barnett Jones
Summer showers held off as the Mighty Souls Brass Band wove their sound through a long line of patrons in Memphis Park, united through a simple bond — cold beer on a hot summer night.
The first Fourth Bluff Friday in a series that began in September and will continue on the second Friday of October brings together local beer, music, food, and families for a night on the Mississippi. It is the culmination of hours of meetings and phone calls with city officials and insurance companies, a partnership with the Downtown Memphis Commission, and one small business fueled by local brews and a few Memphis millennials with a passion project for their city.
When a friend with family in the restaurant industry drove a mobile refrigerator box with some home-installed beer taps to a backyard party, at first the idea was just a fun alternative to a keg, but local attorney McCauley Williams and a few of his friends had a vision for the device. A few months and a lot of research later, the mobile beer garden they named The TapBox was born. With Curb Market manager Justin Brooks and Birmingham-transplant bond salesman J.R. Kingsley, the three formed a partnership that led them down roads even their varied careers had never crossed, from insurance to liquor laws to technical maintenance of a refrigeration system.
Less like a food truck than a portable refrigerator, the idea isn’t to stand inside The TapBox (a common misconception). At a constant 36 degrees, the “box” itself serves solely as the vehicle to keep beer cold. When The TapBox travels to different locations, a makeshift bar is set up outside for licensed bartenders to provide service.
As local brews become more and more appealing to Memphians and brewery taprooms fill to capacity, the entrepreneurs behind The TapBox see this endeavor as an opportunity to bring beer-on-tap to places people couldn’t previously have it — concert venues, backyard parties, outdoor events.
“The people who have the most beer to sell aren’t in the market of traveling to sell it on a weekly basis,” says Brooks. “We’re bringing brewery-level tap equipment anywhere we want outside.”
Achieving this level of quality meant no shortcuts for these self-described rookies. Down to the smallest metal bearings, each element of construction was thoughtfully considered and finalized in order to preserve the integrity of the beer. After a fresh coat of black paint and a modern logo, The TapBox launched in May 2016. Since then, they have become the vendor for concerts at the Levitt Shell and a presence at many public and private outdoor venues around the city, working to prove that their device is such a well-oiled machine, they can sell more beer faster and colder than anyone else and increase revenue for the locations they visit.
As the goals for their initial rental business model were quickly exceeded, The TapBox founders’ vision began to evolve.
“It started out from the development of the device for a rental model, then we realized we could actually go out and vend with this thing at the Shell and concert venues,” says Williams. “Now we’re thinking, ‘How can we harness the power to do something bigger, not only to go into already established venues but starting to create our own?’”
Memphis got a peek at a similar concept with Untapped, the popular revitalization of the old Tennessee Brewery into a temporary hotspot in 2014. Untapped has been followed by similar venues around the city, but the entrepreneurs behind The TapBox envision something even bigger.
More than a thousand miles away, a series of pop-up beer gardens developed over the last few years have become a full-fledged movement in Philadelphia. Some permanent and some seasonal, these social oases are creating community from vacant lots, industrial spaces, and parks. The new abundance of outdoor drinking spaces, often combined with live music, games, and local food trucks, provides a thriving environment for millennials, families, locals, and visitors of all backgrounds. As a city with similar demographics to Memphis, seeing the success of this concept in Philadelphia has made The TapBox founders look at abandoned spaces in their own city with fresh eyes.
“I kept reading stories about neighborhoods in Philadelphia where they started these pop-up beer gardens and all of a sudden the whole neighborhood became transformed,” Brooks says. “It brings people into different parts of the city that they would never normally travel, but then they’re enjoying this beautiful place they never knew about and never had seen in their own city.”
Beyond just utilizing parts of town that are already well-known, The TapBox founders see their business as a way to bring life to spaces that are either underutilized or totally vacant, strengthening the city’s urban core while drawing attention to the potential that already exists — like the unbeatable sunset view of the Mississippi from the Fourth Bluff.
“Part of the mission is to show that, hey, this is a beautiful park,” Williams says. “We hope that not only will people think that it’s cool for pop-up beer and food trucks and music, but that if you’re hosting your office event you’ll consider your parks and outdoor spaces as a viable option and not just traditional venue halls.”
As the business evolves, the vision for The TapBox is an ambitious one that goes beyond one truck. Fourth Bluff Fridays are just the beginning of many more plans in the works for The TapBox as support is gathered from local officials, businesses, and organizations to make their long-term vision a reality.
“You could move to any big city and have a great job and succeed in your goals, but you may not actually be able to do something for the city that would make it a better place as a whole,” Brooks says. “I think Memphis is unique that you’ll be able to do some small things and it could have a city-wide impact.
To everyone taking in the sounds of Mighty Souls and the Mississippi sunset on a Friday night at the Fourth Bluff, it’s a beer truck painted black, a piece of a memory filled with food, family, and music. But to the entrepreneurs behind The TapBox, it’s the answer to getting millennials out and involved in their city, a vehicle for change, and a tangible expression of the possibilities Memphis can provide for anyone with the desire to make a change for the better.
With a vision like this, the passion is contagious. As a hot delta summer gives into the perfect outdoor weather, the time may be just right for Memphians to come together like never before over that simple bond of a cold beer — and The TapBox will be right there waiting.
For more on The TapBox, visit facebook.com/thetapbox.
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