From chemist to beer enthusiast, Blind Pig owner enjoys C-U
October 19, 2015
Chris Knight’s world revolves around bars.MD
Specifically, the Blind Pig bars, as the owner of the bars located in downtown Champaign.
Soon, however, Knight will also be the owner of the Blind Pig beers. He is currently putting the finishing touches on his newest creation: bottled beer that will hopefully be sold in local stores this December.
Business is good, he said, but he has not always had this title.
In 1984, Knight made the venture from England to Champaign for a job in the University’s chemistry department.
Not knowing what to expect, Knight settled into town and began his life in the United States. However, he said he was thoroughly disappointed.
“When I came here, there was absolutely nothing,” he said. “Downtown had been slowly destroyed by city planners, always taking the cheap and easy route. This was a bustling little city in the 1940s, but when I came in 1984, there was absolutely nothing.”
After working for the University for six years, Knight channeled his frustrations and made a career change.
“I just felt that there were other things in life that I was simply better at,” Knight said. “I knew that I was very different from my colleagues. We were cut from a different cloth. They were often excited about the latest research and theoretical quantum mechanics, and I just wanted to have a drink at the bar.”
Knight opened his very first bar in 1990, calling it The Blind Pig. The bar was located in the space that is now Cowboy Monkey in downtown Champaign.
But Knight wanted to go beyond serving beers to his customers. He wanted to provide an experience similar to that in Europe; thus, he drew in a crowd and had live music five nights a week.
For a chemist and unexperienced bar owner, this proved to be challenging.
“It just a very difficult business to run,” Knight said. “You can’t make any money having live music so often … You still have to pay the band even if no one shows up. In fact, for the eight years that I owned The Blind Pig on Taylor Street, I was making less than I would’ve been if I was working at McDonalds. My average income was about $17,000 a year.”
But after learning from his errors and building a successful business strategy, Knight sold the space in 1998 after eight years. The Blind Pig moved into a new location — one that was bigger than the original. By cutting the live music and bringing in a consistent crowd, The Blind Pig boomed more than ever before — and Knight’s paycheck started to finally pay off, too.
Knight’s bars have also helped pave the way for craft beers in Champaign.
“Twenty-five years ago, there were no imported beers on tap at any bar in Champaign — just Budweiser, Bud Lite and Miller,” Knight said. “We were the first bar to serve a craft beer on tap; we were the first bar to start serving in pints.”
Today, The Blind Pig competes with many breweries in downtown Champaign; however, it has pleased Knight watching bars pop up over town.
“If you wanted an imported beer 25 years ago, you could get Heineken and that was pretty much it. There were two bars in downtown Champaign, and it seemed to me (that) there should be 20. People told me I was crazy,” Knight said. “But today, downtown has become a destination again, and there are actually around 20 bars.”
Along with its two locations, the Blind Pig also owns a nearby warehouse with a packaging line to bottle the beer, so it can be sold in stores soon.
Alex Hallerberg, senior in LAS, partakes in the atmosphere at The Blind Pig.
“I went there for Dad’s weekend and really enjoyed it. It’s kind of a medieval setting but dark and intimate with cozy lighting,” Hallerbeg said. “Much nicer than the bars we have on campus.”
As Knight’s right-hand-man, Andy Gravlon, Blind Pig manager, appreciates the freedom Knight grants him while running the bar.
“Working at The Blind Pig is different because I work so closely with Knight, and he lets me be really hands-on with a lot of things as the manager,” Gravlon said.
Knight hopes that people will come to his bars to have a drink and relax for the evening.
“It’s supposed to be a place where you come, and you want to stay,” Knight said.