Bear Republic Thrives Because of Family

​Richard G. Norgrove is proud that he is a fourth-generation Sonoma County California resident. The area, as the now CEO of Bear Republic Brewing said, has had pretty much everything but locusts thrown at it in the last decade. Although it’s hurt the tourist economy, the brewery sees a bright future for the family-owned and family-operated facility, even nearly a quarter of a century into the company.
Growth is slower now than it was in the first 20 years, but Norgrove (aka ‘Ricardo’), his family and its employees are all well-prepared and understand that challenges lie ahead. Previous planning has helped though. Living within their means and putting the brewery first was for starters.
“We just live like regular people. We just reinvest in our company,” Norgrove said. “An outsider looking in — or employees looking in — they know we’re constantly trying to reinvest in the company. Your company is your employees so you’ve got to invest in your employees.
“I’ve got to give my dad (Richard R. Norgrove) a lot of credit for this. One of the proudest days we had was when we reached a million dollars in our 401K. We celebrated that. We’re providing employees health benefits. I have some employees that get a month off a year now in vacation just based upon the longevity that they’ve been here. We celebrate two, three, 10 … 15 years. And there are other breweries who do it as well — the New Belgiums and Sierra Nevadas of the world. They provide great models for that. But we’re making a third or 20% of what those guys make volume wise.”
It’s that family aspect that has driven the Norgroves, which was founded by both father and son.
The elder Norgrove, now 73, retired from his CEO position recently. His son wears a lot of hats. Along with being “in charge,” Richard G. Norgrove manages the Healdsburg/Cloverdale facility’s sale and business unit along with the marketing unit. He’s also the art design department.
In 1994, when the Norgroves hatched a plan for Bear Republic, the idea was to be a production brewery. But lenders weren’t keen on that idea.
“If you go back to our original business plan we always had intended on being a production brewery first,” Norgrove said. “We were really forced to be restaurateurs/brewpub owners in the beginning.
“I believe we created one of these hybrid models within the first five years because we had always talked about how we were going to leverage the restaurant as a tasting room with the goal of trying to get production out there.”
At one point, the company was making 17,500 barrels a year on a 15-barrel brewhouse, selling the majority of it as draft.
“And we were doing that locally,” Norgrove said, indicating Sonoma County and the Greater Bay Area as the bulk of the territory.
The model that Bear Republic was trying to be — a production brewery that happened to have a taproom that made food — didn’t exist in the early 2000s, and Norgrove thinks a lot of people were able to look at that type of a model and see success in it.
“The brewpub model changed in the last ten years to where you can open up a warehouse and you put a taco truck out in front,” he said. “Really, your production brewery is a tasting room.
“We indirectly created that locally and now there’s a lot of people that just don’t do full-blown brewpubs much anymore.”
Family — and compromise — has built Bear Republic into what it is today, Norgrove noted.
“My dad helped me build the dream that we wanted — which was the larger production brewery,” he said. “Once that was done and it was operating, then me acting as the COO, needed to get to an operational level that it could function by itself.”
As the elder Norgrove reached his late 60s and early 70s (he is now 73), the brewery took a step back in time and created a second brewpub, bucking trends to just add a taproom to a new location and leaving a space for a food truck outside.
“He wanted to do the multiple brewpub model,” Norgrove said. “He said, ‘Son, let’s build one brewpub. Let’s do something from everything we’ve learned from our 20-plus years of Healdsburg. And then at that point I’ll be ready to retire.’”
So the junior Norgrove stepped away from his main brewing duties to create that new brewpub in Rohnert Park.
“Really, it is that culmination of my dad helping me build the dream that I wanted, and then me building what he wanted,” Norgrove said, who acted as project manager.
“I kind of stepped off the bridge of the Enterprise,” he said, making a Star Trek reference. “I let Peter (Kruger) run the brewery for almost a year while I managed the construction of Rohnert Park.
“Rohnert Park right now is an extremely good success for us. And that has been really positive.”
Norgrove said that with the new Bear Republic brewpub, and Russian River’s new facility in Windsor, California, it provides several anchors for consumers to visit Sonoma County as a beer destination.
It’s something of a renaissance after the floods and fires that have hurt the tourist economy in the area over the past five years.
“We’re constantly trying to actively work with all of the tourist organizations in the area,” he said. “Even in the Bay Area, we need to remind people to come visit us.
“I just don’t think people realize how much the recovery is really affecting the population here. It’s hard to find a stable labor force. Now we have a housing crisis because we lost so many homes [to fire] the costs of rent and the cost of living is extremely high.”
Norgrove wonders if his kids will ever be able to afford living in the area.
“That’s the hardest part so far for me,” he said. “I’m born-and-raised fourth-generation Sonoma County. We’re the one brewery family who can say that. We are the local boys, and it’s really hard.”
And that’s why the Norgroves have to invest in its employees.
“They have so many other options,” he said. “You’re living here in this area because of the lifestyle and what you love about the region and the area. You definitely could make more money somewhere else.”
Bear Republic prides itself for being the first and only restaurant in Healdsburg before the Affordable Care Act to offer restaurant employees full health benefits.
“It was just something that was unheard of before that,” Norgrove said. “You just try to be good stewards with the way that we operate our business, in the way we manage our wastewater to the way we manage all of the reclamation that we do.
“You just try to provide a good example for how you want your business to run, and so then people want to be a part of that type of a company.”
Norgrove’s wife Tami is the CFO and runs the restaurant portion of the business as well. Then, there is the “extended family” which makes up the bulk of the management team: Peter Kruger and Roger Herpst both own parts of the company as well.
Kruger has been with Norgrove for 15-plus years. He left for a period of time to try to open up his own brewpub, and Norgrove said he was very fortunate to convince Kruger to come back. He has now moved into the role as COO.
Back to a Star Trek analogy, Norgrove is the Captain, Kruger is ‘No. 1.’
“If the captain left the deck of the Enterprise, No. 1 took over,” Norgrove said. Adding homebrewer Roger Herpst years ago has paid off as well, and he now forms a portion of the foundation along with Tami Norgrove.
“Every brewery with any longevity has a culture,” Norgrove said. “We definitely have this family culture. Peter and I were the first two guys up here at Cloverdale (which opened in 2006), and we would celebrate on the weekends.”
Each Barbecue Friday is hosted by an individual team.
“One week it could be the maintenance department, the next week it could be packaging and the next week accounting, sales, the lab.
“These guys are just given a budget and it’s like a fun competition of what kind of lunch that someone is going to make.”
Those Fridays are for bonding and for work talk.
“We take that time to talk about what’s going on in the brewery and try to make everybody inclusive and know what’s going on in your business,” he said.
Norgrove admits that Bear Republic stuck the car in cruise control for a little while and fell behind the curve when it came to innovation. That has changed recently with both a sour program and the new “Challenge Series” which was created with a brewpub/tasting room vibe. It’s a way for the brew team to experiment with hops and other ingredients.
“We’re doing a lot like what those 3-5,000 barrel breweries are doing and we can do this at our brewpubs,” Norgrove said. “We’re releasing small-batch runs of different IPAs and different hoppy beers and Bruts … in an effort to try to understand what those hops are doing.
“At one point I used to be the main driver, and now I’m the team owner and I can drive the race car anytime I want but I’ve got a group of drivers right now that can actually go faster than me some days,” he said. “I might as well give them the opportunity to run the stick for a while. That’s what’s exciting — I think for me long term — is finding one or two of these cool new recipes and then eventually seeing where it rides.”
Through the Haze, a West Coast variation on the New England IPA — which Norgrove said he would never do — is really starting to get a bunch of traction for the brewery.
“But we did it our way,” he said. “I spent my whole career trying to make my beer clear. At one point in time Racer 5 and Red Rocket would have never been sold … people would reject it … if it looked like the hazy IPA of today.
“For an older brewer like me, it was a really big paradigm shift to see that’s where we went. So I fought it for a long time. When we finally did ‘Through the Haze,’ I think it was one of the better team ones that we’ve put out.”
Experimenting and innovating is only a small aspect of what the company does. Of its reported barrelage of nearly 67,000 bbls, more than 80 percent of that is the flagship IPA, Racer 5. Although a mainstay, making sure that Racer 5 has stayed with the times has been a slow growth over the nearly 25 years of its existence.
“We’re a premium IPA producer, and we are always trying to be innovative and creative at the same time but never losing sight of our quality,” Norgrove said. “I think that is probably going to be the mantra of my of my presidency — while I run the company — is to make sure that we’re focused on quality from all aspects.
“I’ve been using a lot of words lately like reinventing, reinvigorating, reestablishing and reconnecting with our distribution partners. Assessing how our relationship is so that we can make sure that we’re truly a regional brewery.”
That vision is different than what his father wanted to try.
“He always wanted to make us look bigger than we were, and I’m trying to get people to recognize what our real size is,” Norgrove admitted. “That helped early on, to get the reputation out there, but now we need to focus on quality.
“So if you find our beer on the East Coast, we are really working hard with our distribution partners to make sure that the quality is there. Hops over time degrade. You’ve got to make sure that spark is there in your beer.”
​Being a former member of the Army​​, Norgrove said ​​the brewery is, in some respects, winning more by attrition​.
“It’s going to be the last man standing at some point ​with what actually represents what​ is​ independent or ​what ​true craft actually means,” he said​. ​“​I struggle sometimes because the lines are so blurred these days as to what craft is and what that term means and what independent means.
​“​If you’re a consumer these days, it’s really hard to determine that. Do people even care? Are ​there allegiance​s​ to that? Sometimes it worries me because I want to tell the story; I want to get out there but I also need to be competitive with everybody … The industry has changed a lot.​“​
Norgrove said he feels confident that Bear Republic has leveraged some diversification with the way that the Norgroves have grown the brewery.
That organic way of growing has really pushed them to be symbiotic with their community for nearly 25 years.

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