Bo Mac's brings old building back to life

Extensive renovations led to opening of new restaurant


CEDAR RAPIDS — Brett McCormick has been working toward opening his new restaurant, Bo Mac’s, for a long time.

He bought the dilapidated building at 219 16th Ave. SE in the NewBo neighborhood in 2012 and starting working on it in August, 2014. The next nine months were dedicated to demolition, as he gutted the inside.

He worked at the University of Iowa’s Department of Psychiatry as a research coordinator during the day, then worked on the building at night.

The building didn’t have electricity hooked up when he started, so he hooked up solar panels and would work each night until the lights lost power.


He was working on his Ph.D. in epidemiology after completing a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling from the UI College of Education, before he was furloughed from the UI after a grant funding his position expired in 2016. He decided it was time for something new.

“I realized after a period of time that academia wasn’t for me,” he said.

He grew up in his family’s restaurants, and decided to try his hand at that, once he got his stint as his own general contractor out of the way.

“It’s good to meet people,” he said. “Usually after people eat good food, they’re pretty happy, so it’s a good time to interact with them.”

McCormick worked with local historian Mark Stoffer Hunter to learn the building’s background.

“The building is really cool — it’s one of the few ones left of this architectural style — Victorian Italianate,” McCormick said.


Built in 1898, the building has a long history in the neighborhood and started as a hardware store, but since Prohibition had almost always housed a bar, McCormick said. It had been vacant since 2004 and like the rest of the neighborhood had taken on significant amounts of water during the Flood of 2008.

In 2016, when the Cedar River rose again, the building was on the “wet side” of HESCO barriers the city put up along 16th St. SE to protect the majority of the neighborhood.

“That was a hiccup,” McCormick said, the meant having to redo some electrical work on the building, as well as a lot of clean up. “We hoisted trash cans of mud out of the basement.”

During the extensive renovation, which included updating the electric work, evicting animals that found their way into the building through a hole in one brick wall and releveling the first floor ceiling to prevent the second floor from collapsing into the dining room, he uncovered interesting historic elements. In what is now the kitchen but used to be an exterior wall, a mural of a man advertising cigars dominates one wall. It was covered with plaster, which is how McCormick thinks it survived the 2008 floodwaters.

He built the restaurants tables and the bar, along with wooden wall hangings, from the building’s original subflooring and elsewhere in the building, and other touches of the site’s history are sprinkled throughout the space.

“You don’t find buildings like this anymore. They don’t build them like this,” he said.

The work isn’t done — he still is renovating the upstairs apartment space, where he plans to live. An outdoor patio is also still under construction. And Bo Mac’s is only part of McCormick’s overall vision — he also is renovating a building behind the restaurant which will be Bo Town Live, an indoor live music venue. Behind it will be an outdoor amphitheater for more live music, with the entire area dubbed Bo Town Entertainment Park.

The restaurant held its grand opening Oct. 19 after a soft opening in late September. Along with food, they are hosting live music in the space — Bo Mac’s motto is “Dine, drink, dance.”


Chef and general manager Antonio Rivera crafted a menu with comfort food like fried green tomatoes, and sweet potato fries along with soups, salads, burgers, pizza and steaks. Desserts and a kids menu will be added soon.

“In the beginning, we didn’t know what we wanted to do,” Rivera said of the menu concept. “But I walked through the doors and looked at the place — to me, it looks like a warm cabin — all this wood, built by hand.”

He decided to emphasize classic dishes made with fresh ingredients. Originally from Guatemala, he moved to California when he was 16 and later to Iowa — he has worked in the Cedar Rapids restaurant scene for years, including opening White Star Alehouse.

“My grandmother inspired me to be a chef — I loved to watch her cook,” he said.

To get him out of the kitchen, his grandfather sent him to military school, he said, but, “I ended up back in kitchen, cooking for the officers.”

He said he likes the open concept kitchen of BoMac’s, with patrons able to interact with the chefs.

“People can actually talk to you, and they can see how you prepare your food,” he said. “I think we just make good food.”


If you go

• What: Bo Mac’s

• Where: 219 16th Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids

• Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday. Hours subject to change.

• Details: (319) 826-3154,

l Comments: (319) 398-8339;