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Brothers' venture taps family roots, film legacy of Colorado Springs

October 6, 2017 Updated: October 6, 2017 at 9:30 am
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photo - Tap Traders opened July 7 in a renovated, 1938 warehouse that once housed the services building of Alexander Film Co. Photo by Stephanie Earls
Tap Traders opened July 7 in a renovated, 1938 warehouse that once housed the services building of Alexander Film Co. Photo by Stephanie Earls 

A classic American tale - of family and industry, dreams achieved and denied - continues to unreel inside a converted 1930s warehouse off North Nevada Avenue in Colorado Springs.

In its heyday, the building's original occupant, Alexander Film Co., was the nation's largest and most successful studio of its kind, making movie theater advertising shorts for the likes of General Motors, Ford and Seven-Up.

The business - founded in 1919 in Spokane, Wash., by brothers J. Don and Don M. Alexander - moved first to Englewood and then, in 1928, to the Springs, where the headquarters grew to cover a 26-acre compound that had 32 full-size motion picture sets, an airplane manufacturing plant, an airstrip and a local workforce of more than 600.

In its heyday during the 1940s and 1950s, Alexander Film Co. was the nation's largest and most successful studio of its kind, with a Colorado Springs headquarters that spread over 26-acres and included 32 full-size motion picture sets, a manufacturing facility, airstrip, and local workforce of more than 600. Photo by Stephanie Earls 

By the time the vestigial remains of Alexander Film called it a wrap in 2012, the company had passed through a series of hands, and most of the original property had been sold.

In 1999, brothers Tim and Tom Black - sons of a military veteran dad and German immigrant mom - moved their decade-old Tile Traders into the studio's old services building at 3104 N. Nevada Ave.

"When we bought the building, this was just a big warehouse area. We had it all racked up; there were forklifts driving through," said Tim Black.

The long-neglected space needed structural and cosmetic work, but the bones were a showstopper: vast rooms and soaring ceilings, topped by banks of clerestory windows that bathed the space below in natural light.

"We always appreciated how cool and unique it is architecturally," said Black. "We reroofed and completely redid everything and put in solar panels. We thought, there's a future in this somehow..."

Tile Traders founders Tim and Tom Black opened Tap Traders, a craft beer taproom, restaurant and event space, in July. Photo by Stephanie Earls. 

Last year, the brothers decided what direction the Tile Traders sequel would take: the similarly alliterative Tap Traders, a "humble and friendly" watering hole featuring Colorado libations and authentic German food truck grub from an authentic German chef - the Blacks' cousin, Fabienne Schempp, who ran a mobile food business in Karlsruhe.

"She wanted to bring her food truck over here and be part of this. That's what started this weirdo quest," Tim said.

The cost and red tape of getting a food truck into the U.S. from Germany, however, proved insurmountable. A subsequent plan to locate Schempp's restaurant outside the taphouse in a converted shipping container was scuttled due to "cost-prohibitive" engineering and building requirements.

"Then Fabienne said, 'The space is so big, why don't we put the kitchen inside?'" said Tim. "So we did."

To support an on-site kitchen, the Blacks made major upgrades to the building's infrastructure. Schempp invested $150,000 to create her "dream" commercial cooking space, complete with a specialized kabob roaster for lean meats and veggies and a 15-foot vent hood. She sold her house and food truck in Karlsruhe and planned an international move with her two children.

Colorado-made beer and spirits are featured at Tap Traders, which opened July 7 in a renovated, 1938 warehouse that once housed the services building of Alexander Film Co. Photo by Stephanie Earls 

The plot twist that changed everything came in the fall of 2016, when Schempp applied for the green card she'd need to live and work in Colorado. The process was not the smooth one she'd been told to expect.

"Her immigration coach in Germany told her that when you invest this kind of money and you have family in the U.S., you never have a problem immigrating to the country," Tim Black said. "Something happened lately that makes immigrating to this country extremely hard."

But even before new travel and immigration restrictions were imposed by the Trump administration, those seeking to legally immigrate to the U.S. faced a series of challenging hurdles. Foreigners with close relatives who are citizens or permanent residents, and those with unique or specialized skills and an employer-sponsor, can apply for a green card. So, too, can foreign-born people who've invested heavily - $500,000 to $1 million, depending on the geographic area - in a new commercial venture that will create at least 10 full-time jobs for American citizens.

Even for those who meet the strict requirements for green card application, a green light is not guaranteed.

Schempp's second interview with immigration officials, in February, also resulted in denial.

"She had three shots at getting a green card. She just figured it was really fluky, like they just wanted to make sure she really wanted it before they gave it to her," Tim said.

Work on the kitchen was nearing completing in March, when Schempp called to break the news that their collective dream for a family business was kaput.

"Fabienne invested everything she had. She was so sure when she came out to visit that this was going to happen that she brought her dog and left it here with us. Now, she can't even visit for three years. She had to hire a company to fly her dog back to Germany," Black said. "My mom was German, and she immigrated to America. I never would have thought there was even the slightest bit of controversy about it, but there is. I don't know how in the heck anybody legally immigrates to this country these days."

Tim and his brother decided to forge ahead, and they bought out their cousin's stake in the business. They began casting calls for a new chef, and by the time Tap Traders celebrated its grand opening July 7, the kitchen had an interim boss and a menu that tipped an Alpine hat to Schempp's original vision.

On Friday, Tap Traders celebrates its inaugural Oktoberfest with German cuisine, American beer and live music. Proceeds from the event benefit the Colorado Springs Chorale.

Tim said he hopes the community will join him in raising a stein to the future of Tap Traders and scenes from its storied past - the parts that made it into the final feature, and those that wound up on the cutting-room floor.

"This place is kind of giving a nod to all our pasts - Alexander Film studio, our family, Germany and especially Colorado," Tim said.

As for Schempp, her time in the Centennial State wasn't a total loss.

"Fabienne fell in love with the coffee roasters here and is going to open up a shop that roasts and serves its own coffee in Karlsruhe," Tim said. "She'll probably knock 'em dead."

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