Nov. 23 2016 11:54 AM

Sleepwalker Spirits and Ale / Tony Sacco's Coal Oven Pizza

Jeremy Sprague (right) and Ryan Wert have partnered up to transform two REO Town buildings into commercial space, creating a permanent home for Sprague’s business, Sleepwalker Spirits and Ale.
Allan I. Ross/City Pulse

REO Town continues its progression from a bleak stretch of vacant buildings into one of Lansing’s liveliest cultural and commercial districts. Last week, Jeremy Sprague, owner/ head brewer of Sleepwalker Spirits and Ale, announced on the company’s Facebook page that he’d secured a permanent, full-time home for his 2-year-old business on the historic neighborhood’s northern edge.

“It’s a great location and a really cool building,” Sprague said. “Allen Market Place was a super place to learn how to be a better brewer and to wade into the business aspect of launching a brewery, but I’m really excited for what’s to come.”

The building, 1101 S. Washington Ave., was previously home to Spartan Dental Laboratories but has sat vacant for two years. Ryan Wert, executive director of the REO Town Commercial Association, is currently in the process of closing on a $260,000 property deal that includes the building next door, 1103 S. Washington Ave., as well as two houses. He will then lease the space to Sprague.

“I’d been (circling) the buildings for a couple years, but I couldn’t get anyone to commit to moving in with a business,” Wert said. “It makes it simpler when you go to a bank (for a loan) and you can say, ‘Hey, I have a brewery who wants to move in.’ Suddenly they’re more interested.”

After Wert and his investment team closes with the lender, the parcels must be separated before construction can begin. One of the houses will be torn down, and the 1103 property — which will become an art space for sculpture artist Dan Nuñez — has a hole in its roof that needs to be repaired before the upper level is converted into office space.

“It’s dilapidated, but structurally, it’s still good,” Wert said. “I know Jeremy is ready to move in, so we’re working as fast as we can to get it ready.”

Sprague, 45, launched Sleepwalker Spirits and Ales at Allen Market Place in 2014 with his business partner, Matt Jason, but Jason stepped down in June. Sprague said the split was “like a divorce,” and he’s spent the last six months embroiled in paperwork and fulfilling beer orders — as well as looking for a new home. He also has been working with the Michigan Small Business Development Center to get some training on running a successful commercial venture.

“I already have a lot of the equipment, but I’ve got some big purchases to make still, and I want to be very careful,” Sprague said. “Some of these (items) are big, and I want to make 100 percent sure I don’t make any mistakes.”

That equipment includes kitchen equipment for Sleepwalker’s expansion into food service. Sprague said it will be a simple menu, with a deli counter serving pizza, sandwiches and charcuterie meats and cheeses. He’s no stranger to the back of the house, having spent 30 years in kitchens around the Midwest and in Boston to supplement his income as a professional musician.

“This is my first time owning a restaurant, but (the service industry) is a huge part of the fabric of who I am,” Sprague said. “I’ve seen a lot of people do great and a lot of people screw it up. I’m going to put all my experience to work for me in REO Town.”

The brew pub will have 14 taps featuring Sleepwalker’s signature brews, including the Coffee Weissen, which uses coffee beans from local roasters Craft & Mason, and the top-selling Imperial Coffee Stout, which uses the beans of Bloom Coffee Roasters in Old Town. The space will seat about 50 people, with an opening date estimated for late spring 2017. Wert said there are also plans for a food truck court to open in the parking lot of the Riverview Church, 1115 S. Washington Ave., right around that same time.

“I moved here 12 years ago because (REO Town) was the cheapest neighborhood to live in. No one would come here,” Wert said. “Now there are all these businesses (clamoring) to move here. It’s coming together nicely.”

Pizza history

Four years after it became the Heights at Eastwood’s first official tenant, Tony Sacco’s Coal Oven Pizza closed last week with nary a warning — even to the employees who showed up for work that day.

“(The management) just walked in and let everyone go,” said Steve Hayward, executive director of Lansing Charter Township Downtown Development Authority, which developed the Heights. “I came in later that day, and it was like everyone just disappeared. Food was still in the stove. It was strange, but I hear it happens all the time in the restaurant industry.”

Hayward said that this particular Tony Sacco’s was the last “corporate store.” The other six restaurants, spread across the Midwest and Florida, are individually owned and operated. He said the Heights store was put on the market three months ago and quickly purchased by a new restaurant group, which decided to ditch the fast-casual Italian concept and switch to another franchise.

“They’re not ready to announce it yet, but it’s going to be a great addition to the local dining scene,” Hayward said. “We’ve very enthusiastic about the change, even if it’s bittersweet.”

Renovation work is already underway, with a February 2017 reopening planned. Hayward said the Heights’ other restaurants, Capital Prime and Capital Vine, are both doing “gangbuster” business, while confectionaries Mimi’s Sweet Shoppe and Chapelure have been “solid additions” in the mixed-use parking deck nearby. A proposed Mexican cantina, announced last year, has yet to materialize, and Hayward wouldn’t confirm if that was the new mystery tenant — but at least one group of local diners already knows what’s moving in.

“Some (professionals) who were walking out of Capital Prime last week saw that Tony Sacco’s had closed, and they offered a suggestion on what should go there,” Hayward said. “And they actually guessed right. I think that’s a good sign.”