By Jenny Arnold
Spartanburg Herald Journal
If RJ Rockers’ longest tenured employee had a to-do list for his typical work day, it might read something like this.
Ride to work with Dad, Mark Johnsen.
Complete morning rounds at Dad’s brewery in downtown Spartanburg.
Beg for pretzels.
Greet visitors with a bark and a tail wag.
Beg coworkers for a bite of their lunches.
Work the crowd at Thursday night’s weekly Tour and Taste event.
Attend a banquet at the Marriott and pick up a tourism award from the Spartanburg Area Chamber of Commerce.
Since he was 7 weeks old, Stout, a nearly 100-pound black Labrador retriever, has been accompanying Johnsen to RJ Rockers. Johnsen says jokingly that there was a tough interview process to find a cost-effective employee for the brewery in August 2005, and that Stout came out on top among seven other finalists.
Now a little gray around the muzzle, the 9-year-old lab is a fixture at Spartanburg’s craft brewery and an undisputed favorite “employee” of the business.
Stout, the namesake of the brewery’s dark Good Boy Stout beer, insists on greeting everyone who comes into the brewery, which means he’s on his feet and wagging his tail for most of his work day.
“He runs to the door when he hears the jingle of his leash in the mornings,” Johnsen said. “He’s exhausted when he gets home every day, and he’s quite forlorn on the few days he doesn’t get to come to work.”
RJ Rockers, founded in 1997, is a draw for downtown Spartanburg, said Chris Jennings, executive director of the Spartanburg Convention and Visitors Bureau. So it was only natural that Stout should win the Spartanburg chamber’s Love Where You Live tourism award, in partnership with Hub-Bub’s Love Where You Live campaign.
“Stout really represents the brewery and what it’s done for us,” Jennings said.
As a joke, Johnsen nominated Stout last year for the award, and the lovable lab was a runner up. This year, Johnsen wrote the nomination from Stout’s point of view.
“Last year approximately 9,500 people came to see us (at RJ Rockers),” the nomination reads. “Visitation is up by 90 percent in the last 12 months, and people come from Germany, Belgium, Hawaii, California, Colorado and who knows how many other states? However, I’ve been told I bark too much and people were concerned about an award like tourism ambassador being given to a dog.”
In the nomination, Stout insists that he only barks to let his coworkers know someone has come into the business, part of his job as welcoming committee and security, and that he should be eligible for an award.
“I feel human, and everyone talks to me like I am human,” the nomination continues. “And do opposable thumbs make you feel that superior?”
The nomination won over Jennings, who then brought it to chamber president Allen Smith.
“I told him, ‘It’s quirky,’” Jennings said.
But Smith went for the idea of presenting an award to a furry, four-legged recipient. With the partnership with the Love Where You Live campaign, Hub-Bub artist-in-residence Robin Schwartzman created a special trophy just for Stout – a glittering gold treat dispenser that now has a special place at the brewery. Stout was invited to receive his award in person (in dog?) at the chamber’s banquet last Tuesday.
“I absolutely love it,” said Jordan Clayton, director of the Love Where You Live campaign, of Stout’s win. “It’s fun. He represents RJ Rockers, and RJ Rockers is a dynamic part of our community. He deserved it for sure.”
While some were concerned that Spartanburg’s newest tourism ambassador may relieve himself on the Marriott floor, Johnsen said he was more nervous that Stout, never one to turn down a snack, might try to sneak some food off the banquet tables. But Stout, always a good boy, accepted his blinged-up golden trophy with decorum, much to the delight of the cheering crowd.
“If there’s a popularity vote, a dog is going to win,” Johnsen said. “He’s just humbled and nominated to be for the award. I think he’s somewhat overwhelmed by the attention he’s gotten the past few days, from the reception he got when he walked into the Marriott to receive the award and the requests for interviews from television and print. Hopefully he can ride this crest of success and see if it results in some kind of raise or something.”
Jokes aside, Johnsen believes Stout’s win is indicative of the brewery’s impact on downtown, especially in the grain district, which is gaining momentum with a new hotel project in the works.
“Hopefully, this synergy will encourage more entrepreneurs, and we keep that momentum going,” Johnsen said.