When Nick Craig, owner of Brix Cheese Shop and Wine Bar in Iowa City’s Northside Neighborhood, was making plans for his girlfriend’s April 19 birthday, he knew the couple couldn’t celebrate the way they would under normal circumstances. He and Lacy Laughton would usually mark the occasion by going to a performance or eating at a local restaurant.
“Unfortunately, considering the times, neither of those things is going to happen right now,” Craig said in a video posted to Brix’s Facebook page on April 15, “but to make sure I can do that with her in the future, I can support the places that we like to do those things at, right now.”
He issued a challenge for his customers: For every $100 Brix gift card purchased before April 19, he would pay forward 100 percent, with 75 percent of the money going to various downtown venues, restaurants and retail, and 25 percent to the Englert Theatre.
“So if you buy $1,000 in gift cards, I’ll buy $1,000 in gift cards. If you buy $5,000, I’ll buy $5,000,” Craig explained. He joked that he might have to draw the line at $10,000 if the gift card purchases somehow got that high in just four days.
Brix’s customers held Craig to his word, and then some. By the end of the campaign, Craig had purchased $2,500 worth of gift cards to the Englert and $75 gift cards to 100 different downtown businesses. He also gave an extra $1,000 each to the Brian Cretzmeyer Trust for Young Musicians, Brian Johannesen of Dead Coast Presents [Ed. note: Johannesen is also on staff at LV] and Mission Creek Festival to support musicians that he and Laughton love watching live, for a total of $13,000.
Craig confessed he didn’t think he would reach that number when he initially threw out the pay-it-forward concept.
“It just started as this little fun idea and it gained a lot of traction and I was sort of shocked [at] how fast and how far it reached,” he said in an interview with Little Village. “Which is a testament to my patrons and just Iowa City in general and how we’re all kind of trying to look out for each other so that we can just keep the community strong.”
Brix—a wine bar and restaurant at 209 N Linn St, Iowa City — has remained partially open throughout Iowa’s COVID-19 pandemic, offering curbside pick-up for orders of wine, cheese and food bundles. They’ve also placed fold-out tables in front of their entrance, creating a walk-up window for patrons to make purchases on the spot at a safe distance.
Craig said his fellow downtown businesses have expressed thanks for his pay-it-forward gifts, including the Englert. The nonprofit theater was “an obvious first choice” to support, Craig said: He watched movies at the Englert growing up, and one of the first shows he and Laughton attended together was a Dawes concert at the venue. To show their gratitude, the Englert gifted Craig a signed poster from that show.
Craig launched phase two of the pay-it-forward campaign on May 13. Again, he made a local theater the focus of the fundraising, this time supporting Riverside Theatre. Each week for eight weeks, Brix is auctioning off a magnum bottle of Champagne Vollereaux. All the proceeds made in the auction over the bottle’s reserve price, $150, will go to Riverside. In addition, the highest bidder at the end of each week can select a local nonprofit to which a portion of Brix’s sales for the following week (5 percent of walk-up window sales and 10 percent of delivery) will be donated.
Craig kicked off the first week by purchasing the first bottle of champagne for $500 and choosing Riverside Theatre as his nonprofit.
“[Brix is] one of the places that makes the Northside so great,” said Adam Knight, Riverside’s producing artistic director. “A lot of our patrons go to Brix, before and after shows. And I certainly have spent a lot of time there with patrons and staff members and also just reading plays and planning my next season. So for him to approach us meant a great deal.”
Knight has a special relationship with Brix. It was the first restaurant Knight visited when he came to Iowa City from New York to interview for his job at Riverside, and he lives right next door.
“This ecosystem that we’re in is very dynamic and it works on a lot of levels,” Knight said. “Business owners like Nick understand that there’s a lot of symbiosis going on. Riverside patrons go to Northside restaurants. Nick’s patrons find out about events on the Northside by going there … We all are kind of contributing to making this neighborhood work.”
In addition to supporting local businesses and nonprofits through the pay-it-forward campaigns, Brix is once again raising money for the Emma Goldman Clinic. Last year, Brix hosted a “Rosé v. Wade” party, which raised $3,642 for the women’s health clinic.
Craig was planning to have another party on July 12, but in light of COVID-19, he isn’t sure what that event will look like. However, this year, Brix is selling its first private label wine with the same name, Rosé v. Wade, as well as Rosé v. Wade T-shirts. For every $15 bottle sold, $5 will go to the Emma Goldman Clinic.
Natalie Dunlap is a Little Village intern, award-winning high school journalist and recent graduate of Iowa City West High. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 282.