An interview with Lee Duncan, owner & visionary behind Wharf Hill Brewing Company
If you haven’t met Lee Duncan yet, you’re in for a treat. Lee’s the heart and soul behind the historic renovation of a row of neglected buildings at the bottom of Main Street, and he and his charming wife, Deborah are the owners of Smithfield’s brand new brewpub, Wharf Hill Brewing Company. Lee is as passionate about staying true to the historic buildings he has so carefully restored as he is about the home brew he will be serving there soon. Stop by sometime, and he’ll gladly tell you all the building’s secrets…and pour you a tall one too.
Q: Tell us about Wharf Hill Brewing.
Lee: Wharf Hill Brew is a full-service brewpub offering in-house beer, wine and spirits, and the best food we can make. We will also have an event space for folks that like each other.
Q: When did you open?
Lee: We just opened on April Fool’s Day 2015!
Q: What made you think of opening a brewpub in Smithfield?
Lee: The building that housed the Elk’s Lodge (built in 1906) needed a purpose and Smithfield needed a brewpub. Also, Robert Cox said he’d manage the joint. He’s long in the tooth and the clock is ticking.
Q: What is your vision for the “joint?”
Lee: Beer. Wine. Mixology. Satisfying digestibles. Locally-sourced décor. Authenticity.
Q: What else does Wharf Hill Brew have to offer?
Lee: Tee shirts. Decals. Arm-wrestler miniskirts. Customer favorites are beer, food and Robert Cox.
Q: What type of folks frequent Wharf Hill Brew?
Lee: Young folks. Old folks. Locals. Curious people from points north, west, south, and somewhat east. Beer-o-philes. Contractors (plumbers, electricians, HVAC men, and people looking for the Smithfield Center or the James River Bridge). Mr. Turner’s tiny dogs that live down the hill. My mom.
Q: And what will they experience when they enter Wharf Hill Brew Pub?
Lee: Old wood. Exposed brick. Staff members skilled in service and grateful for the business. Culture and characters. Satisfying food and drink and comradery. Live music. Spacious bathrooms. Karaoke with Robert.
Q: Do you have a website where we can learn more?
Lee: WharfHillBrewing.com where you will be able to hear our story and see naked pygmy goat wrestling on alternate Tuesdays. We also have a Facebook page. (Wharf Hill Brewing Co.)
Q: The process of getting the building ready has been a long one. Has anyone been especially helpful during that process?
Lee: Doug VanHoorebeck. He brings his own music, beer, and occasionally food. He works at the power station…radiation control…must have been exposed because he helps me sans payment. Next: Trey Gwaltney. That guy loves a beer!
Q: What do you find most enjoyable about owning your business?
Lee: Demolition. Carpentry. Sawdust in my hair. Writing checks. Going to Lowes. Working, working, working. Seeing people’s faces when I tell about the petrified gum on the dining room floorboards. Watching it all come together…
Q: What do you want people to think of when they hear Wharf Hill Brew Pub?
Lee: “Where is it? Let’s go.”
Q: Tell us something about your employees.
Lee: So far I like them.
Q: Let’s get personal. Where you were born?
Lee: Frankfurt, Germany
Q: Where do you live now?
Lee: Out Mill Swamp way.
Q: Tell us about your family.
Lee: There’s Deb, my wife. She’s a British barmaid. Harrison, age 13, son. He eats breakfast cereal 15 times a day, swims, and wants to grow up to be just like his Dad. Jordan, age 12, son. He’s bright. Was Huckleberry Finn in a past life. Doesn’t mind having the TV off. Eats cereal 12 times a day. William, age 10, son. Determined to maintain his only defense against his older brothers: cuteness. Bright. Wants to become a professional roller-skating flutist when he turns 11. Eats only foods with high fructose corn syrup. Shortish.
Q: Any pets?
Lee: A street-dog named Gooey. We brought her back with us from the Philippines. Three cats. Two horses. A 400-pound pig named “Berta” (short for Alberta) who eats pub scraps and spent beer brewing grain. She’s also the oldest pig in Isle of Wight history (4 years).
Q: What do you do to relax?
Lee: Sleep. Wrap my hands in Band-Aids. Lay on the couch with my legs flung across my wife’s lap.
Q: Are you involved in any community or professional organizations that mean a lot to you?
Lee: Smithfield 2020. Isle of Wight Historical Society. Historic Smithfield. The Isle of Wight County Museum Foundation. I dig the Historic District and want to become Rick Bodson when I grow up.
Q: What’s your dream vacation?
Lee: 44 Months restoring a dilapidated building…
Q: Anything else you’d like to tell us about yourself or your business?
Lee: Wharf Hill Brew is a collaboration of all the smartest people that I could find in Isle of Wight County and a lady from Suffolk. Were it not for my Dad, I’d not have had the wherewithal to restore the Elk’s Building. Were it not for Robert Cox, the tourism office, and innumerable instigators, I’d not have stayed motivated these past four years. Beer is the answer and you’ll not meet a more passionate brew master than our own Greg Bullis. Wharf Hill Brew means to offer the best brewpub experience in the world through hard work, gratitude, and authentic Smithfield charm. Come and get local (and you can put that on the water tower).
Wharf Hill Brewing Company
25 Main Street in downtown Smithfield, Virginia
Sunday - Thursday: 11 a.m. - 11 p.m.
Friday: 11 a.m. - 1 a.m.
Saturday: 11 a.m. - Midnight