The Aviator Empire

“We are very aggressive with expansion. We get really bored not doing anything,” says Aviator founder Mark Doble.

Mark Doble hates business plans.

The founder of Aviator Brewing Company finds them tedious and, in many cases, unnecessary. He prefers the mix of hands-on ingenuity, aggressive growth and good fortune he’s employed over the last 11 years developing one of the most well-known brands in Wake County.

How then, did a home brewer in an airplane hangar create a regional brewery producing 18,000 barrels of beer annually and three prominent downtown restaurants? Doble may eschew a business plan, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t constantly planning.

Three downtown locations form the impressive foundation laid by Aviator Brewing Company founder, Mark Doble, right, with brewer Dave Gentry.

Aviator, Who?

For the uninitiated, let’s review. There’s the Aviator Brewing Company headquarters on Technology Park Lane, which houses the brewing facilities, canning operation, administrative offices, tap room and bar.

A short drive into downtown Varina lands you in the apex of Aviator territory, starting with the Aviator Tap House occupying the old Varina train depot on East Broad Street.

Across the street sits Aviator SmokeHouse, open since 2011, serving their signature smoked wings and a variety of other hickory-smoked meat-centric “sandwiches and stuff.”

Next door is the newest Aviator enterprise, the Aviator Pizzeria & BeerShop, an upgrade to the original bottle shop, serving thin crust, made-to-order pizzas. The pizzeria’s rooftop bar may be the pinnacle of the Aviator kingdom, giving patrons an insta-worthy, sunset-over-the-railroad-tracks view from two-stories up.

“I think we do a good job of making things a little bit different,” said Doble. “I put things in the restaurants I would like, and we really try to cater to families. Having different venues makes it fun to go out.”

Aviator’s foundations were forged early in Doble’s life, as a teenager living in Europe. His father served in the Army, and their family lived in Belgium and Holland during his adolescence.

“In Europe, drinking beer isn’t a big deal. Everyone starts drinking beer around 12 or 13 over there,” he said.

Doble discovered home brewing through a Flemish neighbor and grew up enjoying the casual fellowship of enjoying afternoon drinks with friends.

“We lived on the border near Cologne. We would drive into Germany on motorcycles, go hang out around the Cologne cathedral and drink beer all day instead of going to high school,” Doble said with a grin. “It’s a big part of life. That’s where my love of beer came from.”

“I came back to the states when I was 20, and I had no idea there was even a drinking age.”

Doble’s beer-drinking inclinations didn’t stop him from earning a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Georgia Tech, landing a job with HP and eventually settling in Holly Springs.

Meanwhile, Doble revived his love of home brewing in an airplane hangar at the Triple W airport in Fuquay-Varina, a building he already owned to store his self-made airplane.

“I built a small brewery in the hangar; started making beer, built a bar, started selling beer. The whole thing just kinda went crazy,” he said.

“If you didn’t know it was there, you wouldn’t have found it,” said Kim Poling, an original customer of the hangar and still an Aviator regular. “A friend of mine knew someone who was brewing beer in an airplane hangar. That’s how I found it.”

“I travelled around the country loading used equipment on an 18-wheeler — old dairy tanks from Montana, a used brewing system from the Bay area,” Doble said.

Growth came swiftly, forcing Doble to rebuild and expand the brewery several times, ultimately landing Aviator on Technology Park Lane.

“Sourcing equipment directly and being smart about the way we spend money, that’s how we grew,” he said.

“One of our big advantages is we do everything. We don’t hire out anything. When we designed and built a canning line, we put the whole thing together ourselves and wired it. That saves us a ton of money.”

Brewer Kenneth Agnor funnels beer into Jack Daniels barrels.

Brewer Dave Gentry has worked alongside Doble for five years developing recipes, improving brewing techniques and staying current with flavor trends.

“Mark is knowledgeable and hands-on. I’ve learned a lot from him,” Gentry said.

Drawing inspiration from culinary combinations, Aviator works to “think of weird ingredients that no one is using,” Gentry said, such as those in the Cocoa en Fuego chocolate chili porter or the Creamsicle Push Pop Ale.

Most mornings, you can find Doble, drill in hand, fixing, troubleshooting and training at the brewery, bars and restaurants, or renovating the Aviator apartments above the SmokeHouse.

“Everybody thought it was crazy,” said Doble of the six apartments he rents through AirBnB. “We just finished our first full year and are in the top one percent for rental and occupancy.” (Add landlord to the list of hats Doble currently wears.)

Afternoons are reserved for new beer recipes and business development ideas.

“We are very aggressive with expansion. We get really bored not doing anything,” Doble said. “And I think that’s where the money is long term. It’s like playing Monopoly — at the end of the game, the guy with all the houses and hotels, he wins. That’s where I got my business education.”

Pizzas are made right before your eyes at the Aviator Pizzeria’s open kitchen.

Thank You, Next

If downtown Varina is Aviator’s Monopoly, then their first “hotel” may be mere months away, coming to a five-acre site on North Street (behind and down from the pizzeria). Once permitting is approved, construction on a whole new Aviator brewery destination will begin. Plans include multiple bars and restaurants, a coffee shop, outdoor concert venue and the Aviator distillery.

“When we move, the brewery production capability will quadruple, but it’s all automated,” Doble said. “The same guys can produce that beer. We worked with the company that makes the brew houses for Heineken to design a new brewing system.

“The town has been very supportive of our growth. … It’s very different to have something like (the new brewery) in the middle of a town. It takes some people with vision to see that.”

Looking further into the future, Doble wants to expand into Holly Springs, then eventually establish restaurant locations across North Carolina and the Southeast.

Critics may claim that Aviator grew too big too fast, doing so without regard for the larger Fuquay-area small business community. But Doble maintains that growth — everyone’s growth — is beneficial for all.

“The area is really starting to grow, and we love all the other bars and restaurants in the area,” he said. “We go on social media, and see people saying, ‘You are trying to put someone out of business.’ But we don’t want to put anyone out of business! We want everyone there. It creates a downtown, a place people want to be.”

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