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Raising the bar at Hotel Emma

New rooftop food truck takes center stage by the pool

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A work crew helps lower a beer truck turned bar for a perfect landing next to the pool on Hotel Emma’s third-story deck. The project took 18 months. Courtesy photo

An imaginative project at Hotel Emma gave literal meaning to “raising the bar” when a converted 1967 Pearl Brewery delivery truck hoisted to the hotel’s third-story deck became a poolside libation station.

The beer-truck airlift was the culmination of a painstaking 18-month design and renovation plan in keeping with upgrades found throughout the Pearl complex, especially at the luxurious Hotel Emma.

“I never felt like our pool had quite the right vibe without an actual poolside bar,” said hotel Marketing and Public Relations Vice President Beth Ticku Smith.

“I met with our team here at Emma as well as our creative firm to come up with a pool bar design. We wanted it to be a continuation of our adaptive reuse of industrial equipment that you find throughout the hotel,” Smith said.

The 146-room hotel began life in 1894 as plant to make beer, built on the banks of the San Antonio River and called the City Brewery, which later became Pearl Brewery. According to historians, it was the tallest building in San Antonio at the time of its construction.

The hotel is named for Pearl President Otto Koehler’s wife, Emma. In 1914, after her husband died, she took over the company.

Hotel Emma officials of the 21st century think the beer-truck-turned-bar complements the overall aesthetic of the 19th-century structure.

“As we were brainstorming, this thought came up and we were like ‘Yes! That’s super cool!’” said Bill Petrella, the Emma’s CEO and general manager.

“We began at the warehouse where we store the physical history of the old brewery: equipment, ephemera and vehicles. There she was, all dusty and dented — a truck used by Pearl Brewery from the 1960s through the early ‘90s,” Smith said.

The retrofitting and project preparation took 18 months and several different companies to complete.

“We had Giles Design Bureau develop the new exterior design and assembled a team that brought the truck to life,” Smith said. “Jeff Fetzer, our protector of historic fabric, coordinated closely with the construction contractor, Troy Jessee Construction, to engineer the pool deck to support the truck securely. Rolltechs Specialty Vehicles did the interior work and On The Move Custom Food Trucks transformed the interior into an efficient bar and kitchen. “

Getting the truck to the pool deck of the historic building safely was a complicated process, Fetzer said. According to a Hotel Emma online post, his role is “to make sure that new construction (is) compatible with the soul and bones of the building.”

“Once the idea was approved, the real planning started — what was needed in the truck to serve guests, and what utilities were required to connect that equipment and meet city building codes and requirements, not to mention what structural modifications would be required to support the 8,000-pound vehicle on the pool deck,” Fetzer said.

“The city’s Development Services Department was very accommodating, including sending their inspectors out to Garden Ridge where the truck was being outfitted,” he added.

Finally, on Feb. 17, the transformed Pearl truck was brought to the Emma on a flatbed for the big lift, with excited hotel staff, guests and curious passersby looking on. At the last minute, all the painstaking planning paid off when a potential problem caused a dramatic interval.

“Just before the lift, during a final review of the whole setup, it was observed that several of the steel harness members needed additional welding to the truck frame,” Fetzer said. “The general contractor and steel subcontractor were well-prepared. They got on it immediately, the welding was done quickly, and the lift was not delayed.”

The truck, rechristened Poolside Provisions, rose up and then came down to a perfect four-point landing by the pool to applause and cheers.

It took another month to complete the installation, and just as the truck was about to make its new, glam debut, COVID-19 pandemic closures began. The Emma’s pool deck was shuttered.

COVID-19 is a respiratory disease denoting a novel strain of coronavirus that first appeared in Wuhan, China, in late 2019. The disease has since spread across the planet, leading the World Health Organization in March to declare a pandemic.

Shelter-in-place orders took effect across Bexar County at midnight March 24 and have been extended several times. The order closes nonessential businesses and limits sizes of gatherings. Area hotels saw a drop in guest registrations.

At press time, the state had ordered a gradual loosening of some restrictions, including curbside retail operations.

The pool deck will open again, Smith said, “in accordance with the presiding ordinance — and when we feel our guests will be safe.”   

When that happens, the menu will be varied and creative.

The original menu, which could change by the time the pool debuts, included an eclectic mix of snacks, sandwiches and salads ranging from freshwater perch ceviche with lime, amarillo and cucumber, to a ham-and-cheese panini, or minty smashed pea and ricotta on seeded toast. Classic and signature frozen drinks, “homemade canned cocktails” and “canned wine” are on the drink menu, along with several varieties of beer – including, naturally, Pearl.

Unfortunately for curious San Antonians, the Emma’s pool is reserved for hotel guests. But you can see a nifty video of the step-by-step transformation of the dented old Pearl truck online at www.thehotelemma.com/blog/raising-the-bar/.

In addition to the poolside bar, the hotel, 136 E. Grayson St., also has a library, a grocer, a restaurant, a club room and more.

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