Charles Brewer ’14A loves the nightlife. Born in Liberia, West Africa, the now-successful Lincoln restaurateur moved with his parents to the United States at age seven where they settled in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where he grew up.
“Dallas is a nightlife central,” Brewer says. “The nightlife and bars, restaurants, there’s a variety of things to do. It’s a moving and shaking type of city.”
Charles had a long road from Dallas to southeast Nebraska, but it culminated in him having a dream of opening up a club, a lounge for adults, in Lincoln. “A great place to lounge, a place to just socialize and hang out for a few hours,” he says. It became his dream, but he knew it wouldn’t come true overnight.
Before we get to that, let’s back up. Who is Charles Brewer? For starters, he’s a 2014 graduate of Doane’s Master of Arts in Management program in Lincoln. Earning his master’s degree is something he knew he wanted to accomplish before setting out to achieve his dream of opening a cocktail lounge. He knew he needed extra education before he could take on the role of running his own business. But how did he get to that point?
After graduating from Concordia in 2003 with a degree in business administration (something he jokes he doesn’t tell Doane alumni often), Brewer worked in technical support service at Time Warner, in administration for Nelnet, and for several years as a financial aid counselor at Southeast Community College, but he always had bigger dreams for himself.
“My original goal when I graduated college was to be CEO of a corporation,” Brewer says. “High end, overseeing the world. That was my dream. I think I kind of got that right now. Granted, it’s on a smaller scale – really small – but I think that’s what makes it fun.”
Charles today runs his own restaurant and yes, it’s a lounge, too. It’s called Stur 22 Lounge, Caribbean & African Kitchen, or just Stur 22 for short. He still likes to promote its aspects as a cocktail lounge and gathering place, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, his focus is all on the Caribbean and African cuisine, which he does better than anywhere else in the city (food critics agree).
“My food is pretty strong,” Brewer says. “It’s good quality. It’s new, also, and people really want to try it in Lincoln. It’s just a breath of fresh air.”
Brewer didn’t just wake up and open a successful restaurant on his own, though. A trip home to Dallas in 2010 with his sister is what first got him thinking seriously about opening his own lounge. He and his wife and some friends sampled the nightlife down there and loved every minute of it, convincing him of Lincoln’s need for something similar.
“Lincoln had that, but in 2010 it was more college-focused,” Brewer says. “The Railyard wasn’t there yet, the Haymarket was just getting there. I said ‘Oh yeah, we need something like this.’”
Brewer already knew people who were part of the Doane community, and they had a big hand in bringing him to Doane’s Lincoln campus where he excelled.
“The MAM program at Doane was perfect because it really focuses on yourself, your characteristics, your listening skills, your traits, a variety of different things,” Brewer says. “Going through that program gave me a great sign that I needed to further on with my restaurant. It reinforced my confidence.”
After graduating from Doane in 2014, Brewer spent three years tending bar, a year and a half working in a kitchen, another year managing a kitchen, all while working full-time office jobs and supporting his family (Charles and his wife have four children). He estimates he was working 20-25 hours on top of his full-time employment, gaining experience and putting away all of the extra earnings so he would have extra capital when it came time to open up a place of his own. He worked with Palmer and Associates in Omaha, business consultants, to craft a business plan and fine-tune his revenue projections. It was his consultant that told him to focus on cuisine along with his goal of a lounge.
"Everybody raved about how Doane has a good program. They work with your schedule, and are very flexibe. It was just a great setting for adults."-Charles Brewer '14A
“So I reach out to my mom and say ‘Mom, guess what we’re doing. We’re cooking African food in my cocktail lounge,” Brewer says. “I worked with her on how to fine tune where-I’m-from type of food. We wanted to make it (African food) more modern, more Americanized, as opposed to the traditional way.” For Brewer this means a lot of the same spices and flavors, with subtle tweaks to the presentation of the meats and adaptation to ingredients available in the Midwest. “The flavor is still there,” he assures.
Charles had befriended a bar owner who had kitchen space. They planned a pop-up event at the establishment, the first one in October 2016. Brewer spread the event through word of mouth.
“I didn’t cook a lot, just enough to figure it’s going to be a few of my friends and whatnot,” Brewer says. “There was a line out the door.” The owner of the bar made good money from the increased attendance, and encouraged Brewer to do a pop-up event again, twice, selling out each time.
Brewer saw the potential in his cooking, now he just needed a place to cook it full time. Luckily the bar owner he was already working with was ready to call it a career. He retired and asked Brewer to buy him out. Charles did, and Stur 22 Lounge, Caribbean & African Kitchen was born on Aug. 4, 2017, at 2110 Winthrop Road in Lincoln.
Despite the excitement of owning his own restaurant, the struggles began immediately.
“It was crazy, it was chaos,” Brewer says. “It’s funny, I was expecting a rush of people, from the pop-up. Maybe I didn’t market it very well, or maybe once you open things, it changes. It was a decent crowd but it wasn’t that long line I was expecting. I was disappointed.”
It took time, but Brewer focused more on his restaurant’s marketing, especially social media. He says it took 6-7 months after opening for him to build up a solid clientele of regular customers. It helps with customer retention that his food is delicious. Stur 22’s food has won top awards in the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce’s First Bite competition, and has also placed highly in regional chicken wing competitions.
“More people kept talking about us,” Brewer says. “Social media was pounding hard, it just opened up the doors a lot.”
Business was going good for Brewer as 2020 began. He expected this year to be his strongest yet, and produce a huge return. Then the pandemic hit.
“The first two weeks I was a little frightened,” Brewer says. “It kind of screwed things up for me a little bit. It sucked the life out of the restaurant a lot. I was like, by the end of this month I’m going to be done. There’s no way I can make it. Then the community really came around.”
Brewer credits the Lincoln community, particularly social media entities like the Lincoln Emergency Take Out and Delivery group, for helping him and other local restaurants through the pandemic. The public responded in a big way, dramatically increasing Stur 22’s already popular take-out and delivery business to unprecedented heights.
“They were big on supporting local,” Brewer says. “Once April hit, I started getting rushes of people from this app, from word of mouth, from everything. They really want to support their small local businesses, because I think we got hit the hardest.”
Brewer says at times during the pandemic, he’s made more sales from take out and delivery than he would have during normal circumstances. Business is going so well that Brewer is already working on opening a second location. He’s building “a more fast-casual experience” focusing on rice bowls and toppings in downtown Lincoln at 1320 O Street. Something for the college crowd. He hopes it will open sometime in August.
A big part of Brewer’s business success is his attitude and the way he approaches his work. Doane’s Director of Adult Enrollment Emily Heathcock ’09L, ’13A used to work with Brewer 15 years ago when both were at Nelnet, and she remembers what an asset he was to the company.
“He was one of my favorite coworkers because he made me laugh and always had a big smile on his face,” she says. “I have so much respect for him for making this decision to follow his dreams while considering and caring for his family. I’m honored to call him a friend and to share our ties to Doane University.”
Brewer’s strength is his ability to adapt and work through change. His journey started a decade ago with a dream of opening a cocktail lounge. Today, it’s his African and Caribbean food that propel his success, and he still does all he can to keep his dream of unique, fresh experiences for Lincoln’s grown-ups alive.
Stur 22 Lounge
Caribbean & African Kitchen
2110 Winthrop Road
Menu and online ordering available for delivery and take-out at stur22lounge.com, or call (402) 805-4579.
Tues-Sat 4-10 p.m.
Sunday 4-8 p.m.