Cover Story: Iron Hill Brews Up Quality & Community

​Just like many homebrewers and lovers of beer, the dream of ​opening a brewery was on the mind of Kevin Finn, Mark Edelson and Kevin Davies. The trio formed an idea of great beer with great food in the 90s and created what is now a growing and thriving business. That business isn’t in the same formula of many, where they opened in one spot and grew. Instead, they grew location by location. It started with one store though and intentionally grew by using the same formula.
There are no qualms about it, Iron Hill Brewpub is touted by the co-founders as a high-quality restaurant that looks to give superior service and a great customer experience. This brewpub also happen to be an award-winning brewery that makes beer on-site at all its locations.
Some of that formula has changed a bit, and the addition of CEO Kim Boerema​ in the spring of 2018 has helped streamline the focus and redirect energy toward the goal of continuing to grow at a comfortable pace.
“We’ve learned to manage a lot of restaurants through the Iron Hill world,” said Edelson, who was the first brewer and now leads the vast brewing network. “That’s all our experiences are, is from Iron Hill. As we look to take it to the next level and continue we realize it’s important to bring somebody in with experience outside of what we don’t know.
“We were reinventing a lot of wheels. What Kim brings to the table is that experience. Some of the changes have been so simple and obvious but we’ve had our blinders on to that. It’s to make us smarter a lot quicker and to bring that experience to make us much better operators.”
Boerema was with California Pizza Kitchen as its COO before joining the Iron Hill management team, replacing Finn as CEO. A veteran of the eatery industry, he was a vice president for Texas Roadhouse along with being a general manager of Bennigan’s.
“They really stayed true [to their goals],” Boerema said. “You see a lot of brands over time change their direction because of a lot of different things and these guys have been really true to their craft.”
Brewer spoke to the quartet at the newly opened Philadelphia Center City location. It’s a new take on the look and feel of the brewpub. Boerema said it was a ‘prototype model.’
“It really started in Greenville (South Carolina), then Rehoboth (Beach, Delaware), [Center City], and Hershey (Pennsylvania) is our latest,” he said. “It’s really just about improving the experience in a lot of different places within our brand that hopefully creates a great experience for people.”
Boerema thinks the potential for growth is going to be exciting as well.
“I love being with an organization that can grow and has the capacity to grow,” he said. “We’re able to do that with a lot of potential.”
He did note that the growth, much like the 22 years Iron Hill has been around, isn’t going to be explosive or too far of a reach. He pointed out that once a brewery starts to send its brand outside of a certain region it become more of a logistical company than a brewery.
“We’re going to stay on this side of the Mississippi from now,” he said. “I think one day we will be in a lot of different places because we are unique and special. We’ve made some improvements to really rightsize the menu and to really help our team be really great at executing the core menu.
“Our chefs really exercise their palates on the chef’s table along with the seasonal side. We’ve made some changes in our attire from a uniform perspective. We have a new plate line. We’ve changed some glassware and product lines and other things besides the bar’s look.
A forward thinking point in the changes was that not everybody wants to drink beer. That echoes a lot of what the industry is seeing with lo-cal beers, hard seltzers, kombuchas and even adding distilleries to a brewery’s brand portfolio.
“If they want something else, we are going to serve the best and highest quality,” Boerema said. “I think we’re really starting to put all the pieces together. And really the last piece is people. We have a lot of people who want to be in here.
“We have a very attractive brand to people because of what we do here and we’re able to grow and offer opportunities.”
In 1996, the trio of co-founders opened Newark, Delaware with its headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware. Right after opening in Newark, they started looking for a second location.
“To be frank with you, I thought that we’d open it and there wouldn’t be enough juice in it and I would go do something else and these guys would run it,” Finn recalls. “We budgeted for $2M our first year. We ended doing $3M. And boom we were off to the races.”
It meant being able to hire a full-time general manager. Davies quipped that they could eventually pay themselves and not have to eat at the restaurant each night after a while.
Within the first year, they started looking for another site and found a spot in West Chester, Pennsylvania and opened almost two years later.
“I remember pretty succinctly. We were doing strategic planning after we had opened the first one,” Finn said. “I think we are at our headquarters in Wilmington and we were up on the whiteboard putting down numbers so I asked KD [Davies] how many restaurants did he want to open: he said three. Mark, six.”
Finn said he wrote down the number 20.
“So once we hit 20 I can retire,” Finn said with a laugh while the other two exclaimed mockingly it was revisionist history. “But we all wanted to grow. We had dreams of growing it right from from the get-go.”
Finn said they had put together a pretty extensive business plan to do that.
“After we opened doors we kind of threw that thing out. You know it was good to lay out a path, but it changes constantly in any business,” he said. “Your business plan is only good probably that the day after you write it. It changes the very next day.”
It was a tough time to try to do what Iron Hill wanted to do. Many breweries that opened in the mid 90s went down in flames fairly quickly. Edelson said that those that endure in their region — like Dogfish Head, Flying Fish, Yards, Troegs and Sly Fox get together each year to brew and reminisce of those tough times.
“It made us stronger because we all got through it,” Edelson said. “The beauty of it is, when all the other companies went away there was a lot more thirsty beer drinkers for the rest of us. It actually continued to fuel us and make it a success.
Edelson points out that they have always said from the beginning that they are in the restaurant business.
“Our differentiator in the restaurant business is we have a great brewery and we do both sides very well,” he said. “That was unique back then because most brewpubs were beer and the food was an afterthought.
“We really wanted to be the opposite of that and that’s what we focused on. I mean 70% of our sales are food … we are a restaurant.”
Not that we would do this but Finn said if Iron Hill was to take the brewery out of the concept they would still have a very strong and successful restaurant concept just based on the quality of food and service.
“The breweries are what makes us unique and fun and that’s why we kind of got into the business,” Edelson said. “Certainly we love that part of it. We were so different back then since we were so much more upscale to what was going on in our [industry] in terms of the restaurant side. Kevin did a great job of carving that niche for us.”
Davies added that the product is what has really separated Iron Hill across the board and teammed it with the quality of our service.
“We are in the restaurant business and compete with other people that do similar things,” he said. “We just have to market it differently. But we do spend a lot of money to make great looking restaurants. It’s really a whole part of the brand that really has made us successful.”
The​ big strategic bend for ​Iron HIll now is that not​ many breweries or brewpubs are really doing what ​they are doing​ in terms of a high-end food scale​.
​“​A lot of the breweries that are opening up are doing food trucks. They aren’t even touching food​,” Finn said​. ​“​Most of them that are doing food, it’s very pub food. Not to say that we don’t do pub food and that they’re not doing a good job of what they do.
​“​But we’re very different in that aspect. We are really focusing on all aspects of being a great restaurant.​“​
The company is looking to grow, especially with making moves toward the South.
“Down in the Carolinas — where they don’t know us — at first, they think, ‘Well why would we want to bring in a brewery in our really upscale shopping center or retail site,” Finn explained. “Then they come and visit us and they’re like ‘Wow.’ They love us because we’re very unique in terms of what we can do and we attract a lot of traffic. It makes it very attractive. So it’s been it’s been an interesting thing to go outside of the Philadelphia market. When you talk to a potential landlord the first time there then they see us and realize that it’s is a concept that they really want to have.”
And that’s the future for the brewpub, expanding its brand past the Philadelphia area. Greenville was the first and more plan to follow the 16 facilities that are now open with plans to explore in Charlotte. Raleigh/Durham, Atlanta or Nashville. The Baltimore/DC or Florida could be down the road as well.
There’s a lot of different criteria that Iron Hill has had many locations under its belt.
“I want to say it’s sophisticated — it’s probably not — but it’s just a big checklist that we have,” Finn said. “We kind of rank them and use that checklist to determine whether it’s a viable site. What you think potential sales will be and so forth. But realistically we’re looking for communities who what to be a part of it.”
One of the reasons why Iron Hill didn’t come to Philly’s Center City for a long time is because the team felt that there wasn’t a community there.
“That has changed a lot,” Finn said. “There is now a lot of residential that’s come up in this market recently and people live right above us and right around the corner.
“We actually talked about never coming to Philly period and we ended up in Chester Hill in 2003. It’s a great community. “
Finn added that at first, the Chester Hill community didn’t know what to do with the brewpub because they didn’t want a “chain” going in there.
“But they have embraced us a lot because we are very unique to the market,” Finn said. “It’s similar in Center City. We didn’t want to come here because we just didn’t feel that we could have that community.”
Boerema​ bristled at the word chain. He doesn’t consider what they do chain-like because the founders are the owners and they have boots on the ground everywhere and don’t just open stores to open stores.
“Our partners understand we are part of a community,” he said. “We want to support the community in the best way possible. Hopefully we maintain that small town feel. Even though we may grow and go new places. It’s really about what we do inside.”
Hershey is the most recent restaurant that sets that example. Although it’s located downtown, it’s on the back end of Hershey Park, Edelson said: where the community lives.
“We are on the wrong side of town from a real estate perspective, because we’re not near the park’s front door,” he said. “But that’s where people live. And that’s why we’re successful because we’re where people live and we’re part of that community.”
The brew pubs are all different as well in many aspects. There is a core product lineup, Davies said, but chefs and brewers are given lots of freedom to engrain themselves locally with flavors and style.
“All the restaurants will run the same core menus but we do have a lot of creative freedom for the brewers and chefs with their features program and seasonal beer programs,” Davies said. “I think that makes sense. There’s a lot going on there. We’ve always stay committed to that. I think it’s one of the reasons people really love working for us. They’re able to have their own flair.
“I was in the food side for like 10 years [before Iron Hill], if I could never have written my own specials? That would’ve been boring to me. People really love that.”
About half of the beer sales come from the seasonals. On the food side, it’s not nearly as much.
Edelson noted that all the brewpubs have six core beers, which account for about half of the beer sales, along with four seasonals. The rest is up to each head brewer at each location.
“We slot styles so everyone right now has to have a New England IPA and things like that,” he said. “And everyone will have a Dry Irish Stout for St. Patrick’s Day. In the fall we’re all going to have Pumpkin and Oktoberfest beers. That’s what customers love and we have some different seasonal flagships that we sprinkle throughout.
“But the rest of the list is up for the brewer to fill in,” he said. “In some instances they create them on their own and in some instances they use tried and true company recipes that people love and they have to make decisions around it.”
Edelson said they do oversee it a little bit, but he wants those local brew teams to decide what their customers like.
“It’s different in different locations,” he said. “Customers like different things and we want to make sure that we’re not staying the same.”
He added that the other thing that Iron Hill does differently from most brewpubs is it has 15 beers on tap all the time.
“We started with the six-beer brewpub, which is what everybody did,” Edelson said. “And we’ve been pushed by the industry. The consumer said that’s not enough, we want more variety.
“It’s tough to compete with 50 on tap. It’s still the same 20 that gets sold and the rest just sit there to the side. We work hard to make sure we have a good variety of beers on tap for everybody and something for everybody. And give the Brewers some creativity with that as well.”
Each brewery is equipped with similar 10-hectoliter brew houses made by Specific Mechanical. Some were purchased new and others have been bought used, but having similar equipment at all 16 locations helps let brewers move from brewery to brewery should they want without having a learning curve. Edelson said 10-hectoliters (about 8.5 barrels) is about the perfect size for having enough beer for the consumer while not having too much beer to sell off before getting new beers on tap. That helps core stay fresh and rotationals move quickly.
“I’d like to say that was by design and planning, but we kind of fell into it somehow,” he said with a laugh.
​Some of the brew staff has been from internal hires while more recently Iron Hill has been able to establish itself as a reputable place that brewers want to work at as well because of winning numerous awards at the GABF and other competitions.​
“I think we’re fortunate every time we win,” he said. The brewpub has won 22 straight years, including a win in 2018.
“I wanted to get to 20. I was like, ‘if I get to 20 then, after that whatever,’ “ Edelson said. “And we’ve got 20. Look at the competition out there. I mean just on sheer numbers, it’s mind boggling. And the number of beers that are entered in these competitions? I always believe that it’s a testament to our crew and the quality of beer that they’re making.
“Particularly when we win awards for core beers. The Vienna Lager and stuff like that. First of all, brewpubs don’t brew Lagers, right? But 25 percent of the beers on tap right now are Lagers. And they are award-winning Lagers. And those are difficult tricks to do in a pub brewery environment. Again that’s testament to our crew and how we train them and the passion they have for it and for having the technicality to do it. It’s what we do every day.
“It’s very important to me as validation that we’re doing the right thing. Not just the awards but the comments on judging sheets and to see how many of our beers get to the final rounds and how many of our beers advance in the judging. Because I know they’re on the table now with a lot more beers. And the pool of great beers out there has gotten significantly bigger. For years I have judged and the last 50 are fabulous. They are are top notch. How do you distinguish? How do you get three out of that?”
E​delson did say​ as​ the​ beer​ market heats up, it’s going to get better for ​Iron Hill in terms of hiring​ because​,​ ​“​we’ll always be here.​“​
​“​We’ve been here for 22 years. We’re not going anywhere​,” he said​. ​“​People can see the writing on the wall coming the next four or five years that a lot of these places won’t be here. That’s an advantage for us.​”​

Photos by Marshall Clarke (From the May/June 2019 Issue of Brewer Magazine)

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