Craft Beer Flows From Philly To The Suburbs

by Jack Curtin
(Mid-Atlantic Brewing News, April/May 2007)

"Craft beers literally changed the way we do business. No restaurant or bar ever made it in this location before. That we could make our concept successful is a testament to what craft beers are all about."
Those are the words of Jeff Miller, co-owner (with wife Terri Villante) of TJ's Everyday, a restaurant and "drinkery" in the rear corner of a small shopping plaza in Paoli, Penna., at the far end of Philadelphia's famed Main Line. More than just being the kind of thing craft brewers like to hear, I'd suggest that such an evaluation of Miller and Villante's four-year old enterprise, which shifted its focus to craft beers with a vengeance about a year back, represents a true "best case scenario" for craft brewing, one that seemed a long way down the road not too many years back.

These owners are not beer geeks on mission who set out to create a craft beer destination. Their commitment to craft beers is not the result of a bartender' pleading or a loyal customer or two advocated the cause. They are restaurant veterans who made a business decision based upon recognizing where the market was going and understanding that it was indeed a real market, not merely a passing fad. They sought out the breweries rather than the other way around, and that's as strong an indicator of craft brewing's success as any of the statistics the Brewers Association happily trumpets these days.

"We started getting customers who were asking for something other than the same old beers," Villante explained, "so we began making a list of everything that was being requested. Last spring we introduced a list of 69 craft beers and high end imports and as soon as the word got out, things really took off." That beer list jumped to 101 beers in September and now stands at 156. As of March 1, TJ's had 24 taps and a new beer engine at the bar and a lineup with a strong focus on local breweries. "We try to keep at least one Sly Fox, Victory and Dogfish Head beer on at all times," said Miller, "because they all do very well and people really like them. We usually have Troegs, Legacy and Weyerbacher on as well and we're just blowing through sixtels in a matter of a couple of days. Takeout sales are solid too. My Bud rep commented to me the other day that our Bud bottles sales were way down and I smiled and told him that might be true, but our overall bottles sales are way up."

As of March 1, the TJ's Everyday menu became Cuisine a la Biere, with 80% of the dishes prepared with beer as one of the ingredients, from soup through dessert, and a beer suggested to accompany each. They instituted a regular monthly Brewer's First Friday last December, with a local brewery's products featured and a brewery representative in the house to meet and greet between 6 and 8pm. And, hey, maybe they're becoming beer geeks after all: the featured guest on the March Friday was DFH's Randall the Enamel Animal.

Even if this were just an isolated incident, it would still be a Good Thing, but it's much more than that. Here are four reports from other venues in the Philadelphia region (all within roughly half an hour of TJ's) to prove it.

Ron's Schoolhouse Grille, about 11 miles west of TJ's Everyday in a strip mall along Rt. 113 in Lionville, made its first venture into the craft beer market in late 2005 under much the same circumstances. "A customer came in looking for Fantome," recalls general manager Tom Mastronardo, "so we started asking around and were eventually directed to Shanghy's: The Beer Authority in Emmaus. Ron [owner Ron Inverso] and I drove up there and met with Nima [Hadian, co-owner and vice president] and ended up bringing back a whole bunch of beer. It just flew out of here so quickly that we realized we'd hit on something. We quickly went from two shelves in the cold box to two complete doors of five shelves each." As of this writing, Ron's Schoolhouse is in the final stages of expanding its small six-tap bar area into a 17-tap mecca for beer enthusiasts, complete with cooler space for 200-300 craft and imported bottles.

Capone's Restaurant is back toward the city, twenty-five miles east and north on Germantown Pike in Norristown. The business was founded in 1973 and Matt Capone, son of the founder, was the driving force to get them into craft beers about three years ago. "We started with two bottles," he laughs, "one Chimay and one Ommegang." These days, eight of the restaurant's ten taps are devoted to crafts and imports and monthly draught beer events are a huge attraction for beer fanciers from all over the region. Matt prides himself on having beers no one else does, driving to Pittsburgh to bring back brews from Cleveland's Great Lakes (distributed only in the western part of the state) or small local micro, East End. He had Troegs Nectar on tap in the region two weeks before anyone else by picking it up directly at the Harrisburg brewery as soon as it was released. A particular attraction for beer geeks (Matt credits high ratings at the Beer Advocate and Rate Beer websites and adverting in Mid-Atlantic Brewing News and other brewspapers for Capone's current cachet) is the back room take-out area where as many as 400 different bottles are available at what are usually the lowest prices around.

Ortino's Northside, more of an upscale restaurant than TJ's or Capone's, is located in Zieglersville, up Rt. 29 and around the bend from downtown Schwenksville, home to Ortino's Pizzeria, where owner John Ortino began featuring craft beers and Belgian imports way back in 1999. Of course, he made beer a focus of his second location as well when the doors opened in November 2003. Selling great beer in a pizza house and, especially, opening a really good beer restaurant in a place where, to steal from Gertrude Stein (who never, ever figured to be mentioned in a beer rag), "there's no there there," may not be your standard business plan, but Ortino has made it work-to the point where he unveiled a major expansion of Northside's draught offerings at one of Northside's series of beer dinners, a Belgian feast on February 25. A new 19-tap system on the cold room wall replaced the previous 11 taps on the bar (an existing handpump remains). "We'd been kicking most of our draught beers in three or four days, tops," he explained. "Bottle sales are steady but a lot of that is for take-out, especially the big bottles and even more especially the limited edition beers. This is a move to grow our business and give our customers what they want."

Presumably everyone reading this is familiar with the Union Jack's pubs in Glenside, Manayunk and Boyertown and will hardly be surprised that the newest entry in the growing chain, Union Jack's Olde Congo Hotel, is located at the intersection of Congo and Hoffmansville roads in a place named Congo or Barto, depending on who you ask. Tom Stiegelmann and father Jeff seem determined to push the craft beer frontier farther and farther into the sticks with each new endeavor…and damned if they're not making it work just fine. The building was built in the late 1700s and has the charm you'd expect, with two smaller dining rooms off the bar area. The bar now has 19 taps and cold boxes behind it crammed with the sort of beers that make a geek's knees weak. Manger Brian Rudesyle, who moved over from Manayunk, agrees it's pretty overwhelming on first glance, noting that "when somebody comes in who's not familiar with craft beers and looks a little frightened, I assure them that it's just beer and offer them samples." Not that everybody walking in is a newbie, of course. "We get people in here every day who tell they've just been waiting for a place like this, good beer, a place to eat and have a night out."

They sound an awful lot like the same sort of people who changed the way a now thriving Paoli "drinkery" does business, don't they?

Copyright (c) 2007 Jack Curtin

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