The restaurant-brewery combo offers unique benefits, but this crossover isn’t without its challenges.
It sounds like the best of both worlds: a full-service restaurant and an on-site brewery. Combining these complementary businesses offers the chance to make everything in-house, experiment with pairings, and expand a customer base. Not to mention that during the coronavirus crisis, these hybrid operations have two distinct revenue streams for off-premises business with customers potentially ordering food as well as six-packs and growlers.
But for all the benefits of a dual business, operators face collateral challenges, ranging from space considerations to quality control to operations to the technicalities of both cooking and brewing.
“A lot of what I saw in my research was some people had really good beer and really bad food, and others had really good food and really bad beer; few people got it right,” says Robert Poitras, CEO and founder of Carolina Brewery, a North Carolina restaurant-brewery with locations in Chapel Hill and Pittsboro.
Part of the reason for opening this crossover concept, Poitras says, was not only to marry food and beer, but to also offer the highest quality of both. The other part was creating a unique sense of gathering. “Having a restaurant [attached to a brewery] gives you that gathering point, that community epicenter, that tangible, ‘Cheers’-like environment,” he says, referencing the 1980s sitcom that exemplifies the ideal neighborhood bar.
President and brewmaster Jared Rouben of Chicago’s Moody Tongue Brewing Company says it’s also about taking a culinary approach to beers to highlight flavors and aromatics. With Moody Tongue, Rouben wanted to connect brewing and cooking because of their similarities.
“Both are manipulating raw ingredients with time and temperature to create a product people consume, but as a brewer, you get to intoxicate people, and what chef wouldn’t want to do that?” he says.
The dual nature of these businesses also grants operators a rare level of freedom in creating food-and-beverage pairings. Last fall, San Diego’s Puesto opened a third location—its first with a brewery. Although the brand had long partnered with other breweries, it can now tailor the beer selection to complement its fare, including a monthly taco.
“That alone is a huge draw,” says cofounder Alex Adler. “Being able to create the perfect pairing … and say, ‘Here’s our taco of the month, and this is a beer that’s been designed to pair with it,’ there’s a huge added benefit to that.”
And as more restaurants and consumers embrace the plant-forward movement pairings include vegan and vegetarian options, too. Mollie Engelhart, founder and executive chef at Sage Vegan Bistro and Brewery in Los Angeles, wanted a beer garden with excellent vegan comfort food matched with chef-driven brews (think carob stout floats paired with vegan coconut ice cream and habanero pilsner served alongside Asian kelp noodle salad.
“You’re creating beer and creating food, and people who enjoy the culinary arts can appreciate knowing where their drink comes from just as much as knowing where their food comes from, all under the same roof,” says Rouben of Mood Tongue’s chef-forward approach to both sides of the business.
Another benefit is added revenue. Of course, the startup cost of opening a restaurant and a brewery is higher than picking one or the other. But—and this is especially true for restaurants—the return on investment can be more lucrative. “Beer is highly profitable,” Carolina Brewery’s Poitras says. “The most profitable thing we do is pour a pint of beer and hand it across the bar.”
Engelhart is of a similar opinion. She says that adding a brewery to the restaurant drew more guests and helped increase sales. Nevertheless, she recommends having enough seating to support an influx of new customers; she expanded Sage’s space to include an additional 60 seats.
Another brewery-specific consideration was the ceiling height, which needed to be higher to accommodate tanks. She also had to foot the upfront cost of the tanks and other brewing equipment long before the possibility of any return on the investment.
“We didn’t open until 2017 and it almost bankrupted us,” she says, adding that the brewery startup costs can be much higher than anticipated, even for experienced restaurateurs. When all was said and done, however, Sage did not close but ended up tripling its sales.
It’s difficult to say whether brewery-restaurant hybrids are the next big trend, but overall their numbers have increased over the past decade or so. Before owners dive into this crossover concept, Poitras offers some advice: What helps with success is creating a gathering spot where people in the community are welcome to hang out—and where they know they’ll find high-quality craft beer and food.
Consumers’ high standards raise the stakes, but they also open the door to greater innovation for chefs, brewmasters, and savvy entrepreneurs alike.
“At the end of the day, restaurants are about how you can be creative, how you can be trendy, how you can make all these things that your guests want to see and have never experienced, and how you can teleport them,” Adler says. “The brewery is a big element to that.”