As Gospel Bird soars, Eric Morris eyes opening of Concrete Jungle restaurant and distillery

Gospel Bird's team of Eric Morris, Matthew Farley and Ethan Ray will open Concrete Jungle, a restaurant and distillery in downtown New Albany in 2017. | Photo by Steve Coomes

Gospel Bird’s team of owner Eric Morris, bar manager Matthew Farley and executive chef Ethan Ray will open Concrete Jungle, a restaurant and distillery in downtown New Albany in 2017. | Photo by Steve Coomes

Great restaurant operators rarely leave well enough alone.

Or should that apply to young and energetic operators?

In the case of Eric Morris, probably both.

The owner of Gospel Bird in New Albany has stayed bone-weary busy since last December’s opening, yet now he’s busy putting the finishing touches on an outdoor area complete with a bar located inside an old yet gleaming aluminum Airstream camper.

The raised level nearest the bar is a wood deck, and one step down is a spacious aggregate patio bordered by fences bearing live grapevines. In addition to the restaurant’s 84 inside seats, the patio will account for 64 more, and all those customers can order off the menu generated in the already cramped kitchen.

“Yeah, the kitchen staff loves me for that,” says Eric Morris. “I don’t blame them. We can’t hardly find the space to put everything we need to feed our customers up front. We’ll have to get creative.”

The facility's left overhang will be glassed in to house a distillery. | Photo by Steve Coomes

The facility’s left overhang will be glassed in to house a distillery. | Photo by Steve Coomes

Gospel Bird recently opened for brunch, “which has been one of our best days of the week,” and for lunch, when it’s doing a modest trade. And as the future of New Albany’s downtown unfolds, Morris envisions even greater traffic. He says an unnamed developer from Nashville wants to erect a seven-story building (either a hotel or condo complex) across the street from his restaurant, and developer Steve Resch wants to build a restaurant and distillery a literal stone’s throw from Gospel Bird.

And he wants Morris to run it.

“I have no plan to open a bunch of restaurants, but Steve came to us with this idea and we wanted to do it,” Morris says. The building is located at 324 E. Main St. “We came back to him with our ideas, and he said he loved it.”

The business will be called Concrete Jungle, Morris says, adding it has literal and symbolic applications.

“Just look all around here,” he says, gesturing to nearby buildings. “Concrete is what you see. … Even the building it’ll go in is basically a big concrete slab without load-bearing walls.”

But more importantly, what he and Gospel Bird executive chef Ethan Ray want to serve is street food that matches the urban vibe. Ray’s and Morris’ ideas on the menu are, for now, a mélange of African, Asian and American street bites twisted their way. Expect unique foods like smoked corn dogs and a mash up of pad Thai and poutine they’ll call “pad fry.” At least half the menu will be vegetarian.

“Just expect it to be globally influenced and fun,” says Ray. Gospel Bird bar manager, Matthew Farley, is also involved in the project.

Morris says the abandoned building, which last served as an art gallery, will seat customers inside and out. Its flat, expansive roof will be fenced for customers eager to dine and drink al fresco and enjoy unobstructed sight lines to the Ohio River and Louisville’s Shawnee Park golf course.

“Last week, with Thunder, it would have been the perfect view,” he says. “I kind of see the place as a combination of the Monkey Wrench and Garage Bar, but done our own way.”

The building's rooftop will hold diners seeking an al fresco experience. | Photo by Steve Coomes

The building’s rooftop will hold diners seeking an al fresco experience. | Photo by Steve Coomes

Turning to a huge, open-air overhang, Morris says, “That’s what I’m most excited about. That’s going to be a glassed-in distillery with a copper still.”

He points out that New Albany has three microbreweries and nearby Jeffersonville has two, which means there’s no additional need for craft beer.

“So we started asking, ‘What niche isn’t filled here?’” he says. “I’m more of a spirits drinker anyway, so we thought, why not do a distillery?”

Doubtless someone in New Albany will ask the opposite question, something Morris says he and Resch are prepared for.

“Getting approval will be a process,” Morris allows.

The good news is the restaurant is at least 10 months from opening, and they believe current distilling laws are favorable for construction of a distillery. Their biggest hurdle, Morris says, will be finding the skilled labor to run it.

“We’ll be doing a lot of asking around about that,” Morris says.

And what’ll they distill if permitted?

“Whiskey, rye, gin, rum?” he asks. “We’re not sure yet, but we’ll figure it out.”