Artisans of Albion – united by James Rennell

“I choose to do this because I love giving to the community,” says James Rennell, co-owner and creator of Craft’d Grounds, Albion’s community artisan hub.

We sit down to talk in the corner of The Black Market bar space, the leafy courtyard outside on our right and the Milton Rum Distillery inside to our left. Collaborating with his wife Kirstie, James has built a refined warehouse precinct housing master artisans in brewing, distilling, baking and more. Serving the community with locally-sourced produce, Craft’d Grounds has quickly established itself as a hang-out for all.

From live music and food trucks on one end, to fine French-inspired cuisine on the other (with a deli, bakery, coffee roasters and rum distillery in between), it’s the epitome of a dawn-to-dusk destination.

“I love watching people discover it,” he tells me. “Friday night – it’s such a cool thing. You sit here and watch people slowly gather in; you see dogs, you see kids, and you see people you’ve never seen before. Our food truck community is a beautiful community of people as well as those that come and enjoy the space.”

Designed with laneways, lofts and a multi-level open-plan structure, it’s a playground for food and drink lovers and an architectural delight for aesthetes. From a quick walk around the space, you can see that all the businesses are cleverly integrated while remaining quite separate. Hervé’s Restaurant and Bar has a purely open kitchen; The Brewtide Brewery and Cocktail Bar is bordered by gallery windows looking into Seven Miles Coffee Roasters; aromas from the Doughcraft Bakery and Deli permeate the ground floor.

“I probably didn’t let my wife know completely what I had in mind – she probably wouldn’t have signed up for it,” laughs James. And while neither signed up for the challenges wrought by the pandemic to bring this place to life, a do-or-die mentality was necessary for its survival. “There was a big ‘oh fuck’ moment,” he says. “And I decided… Let’s just read a little bit about what happens post pandemics; what opportunities are there. I started to think beyond it, not in it. Which I think was a good thing to focus on. So then it was just a matter of seeing how we got to the end game.”

The existing business prior to expansion, Collingwood Black, was still serving takeaway coffee at the front. “We started a fruit and veg market here because we realised we could,” James says. However, of the proposed businesses coming into the fray, he goes on to say, “I came out of the pandemic with one tenant. I had to reinvent. I redesigned the space and got more net lettable space into it. Reinvention is not a bad thing.”

James is hands-on, even now. As if being the mastermind behind this project wasn’t enough, even in its completion, he has yet to hand over the reins completely. “There’s always something to do,” he says. “I like that, though. I’m sure some people just think I’m the handyman around the place. There are definitely times I’m sitting here, and no one knows who I am, and I feel like I’ve handed it over to others now, and they’re enjoying it. You see staff taking responsibility for what you’ve created, and you see them delivering their version of what it is to work within the space.”

“I’ve heard some musicians say that when they write a beautiful song, and it’s performed for the first time, it’s their song. Then within time, it becomes everyone else’s song. They’ve essentially lost it. And to a degree, I kinda feel like it’s getting to that point with me here.”

It’s an almost melancholic turn to the conversation but honest about the future of the precinct after James and Kirstie do move on from it. “It’s still a nice thing to see it doing what it should be doing, but you’re now distant from it, and it’s a sort of out-of-body experience,” James reflects. It’s a testament to its inevitable evolution and the fact that this space was built for the community.

With a new horticulturalist curating greenery across the whole space, a new mural brightening up the rear laneway, and the musical return of Sunday Laneway Sessions, Craft’d Grounds is reminding the world that it’s not only a survivor but that it’s literally blooming.

As the name suggests, an overwhelming sense of craft has gone into this place. This historic timber mill has undergone a transformation that pays respects to the rustic qualities of the industrial era. The illusion of borderless construction – open lanes, corridors and glass contours – provides a genuine marketplace feel to an otherwise very sophisticated space.

Hervé’s Restaurant and Bar, headed by husband and wife chef duo Chris and Alex Norman, serves French-inspired classics like confit duck leg, beef bourguignon and Crêpes Suzette. It hosts a coal-fired dining experience on one end of the loft and an alcove bar on the other end that overlooks Harvest Lane (home of mural art by Aurora Campbell).

Casual fair from K.I.S.S Burgers downstairs and even a Fightcross MMA and Fitness facility upstairs are representative of the diversity of craftspersons here.

Recently appointed “resident green thumb”, Simon Daley of HortiGro, represents the ever-growing nature of the community. By bringing the lushness of green life to this warehouse-style establishment, you get that sense of nature reclaiming its spot in the urban environment and that Craft’d Grounds is truly alive.

From the halting of construction at the arrival of the pandemic (and James saying he wasn’t even sure what he was building anymore) to the community pillar this hub has become, I believe James has made history in Brisbane. The success story of Craft’d Grounds is a testament to the dedication of him and Kirstie, as well as the support of the community itself.

He knows he’ll have to pass on the reins at some point, and speaking with such love and pride in the community, I am confident he will choose the right people. James tells me he doesn’t need a legacy, but I know this creation will form a big part of his.

“It’s not a song; it’s not lyrics,” he says. “It’s an artistic expression of who you are to be able to make a space like this. There’s a magic in it.”

Discover more about the magic of Craft’d Grounds and its evolving story here.

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