Several years ago, I was in Sacramento, California, for the inaugural California Craft Brewers Conference and accompanying festival. At some point, a group of us decided to break free of the convention center and head to a local brewery. There was a new brewery that had garnered some buzz and was within walking distance. It was lunchtime, and we figured we’d grab a bite along with some pints. As we started our walk over, someone checked the brewery’s website and saw the food truck of the day was serving only gelato.
It was pushing 90°F that day, and the frozen treat would have been delightful, but we wanted protein, a meal. So we rerouted to another brewery, this one with a taco truck.
In the beginning of the craft-beer renaissance in America, many of the breweries that opened followed the brewpub model. Local beer was a novelty, and owners needed something else—food—to get customers in the door and then hopefully drinking the beer.
As the industry moved into more of a production-brewery-and-taproom model—with no food or, at best, snacks being offered—breweries would invite food trucks on a rotating basis to set up in the parking lot or would put out menus from local restaurants that would deliver.
However, this roulette situation, with customers not knowing what they might get foodwise or opting to go to another brewery because they weren’t in the mood for whatever a random food truck was offering, has led some brewers to bring regular food in-house, just not theirs.
There’s a trend of permanent food trucks and kitchens within a brewery that are independently owned and operated by a separate company, not the brewery. “You’re sort of like roommates in college,” says David Arnce, the founder of The Shop Beer Co. in Tempe, Arizona. “You’re trusting another person to run their side of things. When things are evenly yoked, they serve to benefit each other, but if you have one [side] that’s more committed than the other, you get dragged down by a bad review that’s not yours.”
The Shop Beer Co. opened two years ago, and as they were planning the property layout that included a tasting room inside of a 1950s-era house, a large production brewery, beer garden, and ample parking, they reserved two horizontal parking spaces against their patio specifically for food trucks. From almost the first day, the Fire & Foraged truck parked, served food, and basically never left.
There’s a “handshake” agreement between the brewery and the truck, and on the brewery’s website, the food link redirects visitors to the Fire & Foraged site. Still, given its permanence, visitors can be forgiven for thinking that the two are one and the same.
“I’ve gotten Yelp reviews on the brewery page about the food, both good and bad, and it’s not even our business,” says Arnce.
A Growing Number of Examples
There is enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that, like The Shop Beer Co., more breweries are making the switch to have a reliable food option to serve alongside their beer. For example, in Bondurant, Iowa, at Reclaimed Rails Brewing Company, the brewery shares the space with two separate businesses. In the morning and early afternoon, customers can stop by for a cup of coffee from 1884 Coffee Company, getting a caffeine fix before sliding into an after-work beer.
There’s also Boxcar BBQ that serves food in-house. Its own team of dedicated servers walk the tasting room (alongside brewery servers) taking orders. It’s definitely a food option that complements the beer. Just don’t forget to pay both checks before you leave.
It’s a similar situation in San Diego, where North Park Beer Co. has partnered with Mastiff Sausage Company to offer a full menu (vegetarian and vegan options available) and now asks patrons to refrain from bringing in food from the outside.
Deciding to Switch
Coppertail Brewing Co. in Tampa, Florida, added a kitchen to its existing brewery in 2017. When they constructed the building several years earlier, they reserved space for a kitchen, thinking that one day, if the money came along, they would add one themselves, says Kent Bailey, the founder and president of Coppertail.
“We realized that we needed more reliable food options. We’d had some food trucks cancel at the last minute. We had one truck that did cheeseburgers here one night. They had a big line, and like an hour into it, they just rolled up the doors and rolled out saying they ran out of buns or something. We actually started to see our customer satisfaction go down because of the food trucks, even though we didn’t have control over them, and they were in a separate area.”
The brewery started looking around for options. Knowing that running a restaurant or kitchen wasn’t in their wheelhouse, they wanted to find a partner. Word got out, and The Stein & Vine, a local restaurant, reached out with the proposal to run a kitchen inside the brewery.
“We talked with a few other places, but The Stein & Vine was the right fit for us. We have known them for years; we’re comfortable with their vision and work ethic and the feeling that we know they won’t let this fail,” says Bailey. The space is called The S&V Kitchen.
Bailey says the biggest thing was finding a way to integrate the concept into the existing tasting room without changing the brewery’s identity. He’s quick to point out that the brewery isn’t a restaurant. There’s no formal seating, food is ordered at the bar through Coppertail bartenders and then delivered by food runners employed by The S&V Kitchen. This helps the kitchen keep tabs on food, any complaints, and service in general. Money goes through Coppertail’s system, and The S&V Kitchen gets paid each week by the brewery.
The menu is one that you might find at an upscale bar. Coppertail wanted to insert its own influence on the offerings in order to complement the beer, so Bailey says that in the lease agreement with The S&V Kitchen, there were certain things written in, such as that they had to serve a warm pretzel and a charcuterie plate. There are clauses on the number of salads and sandwiches that should be served for variety, as well as seafood offerings.
“Spelling out our wants early on helped keep us from arguing about the menu later,” he says.
While the venture is working out so far, there are still complaints to contend with. Coppertail has seen a rise in the number of food complaints: too cold, too slow, and the like. Bailey says you can’t expect the customer to tell the difference, especially when they are ordering from the bar and everything is on one check. Both sides continue to work out the kinks.
“At the same time, we’re seeing increased beer sales and happier customers in general, so that’s a great thing,” Bailey says.
Local Helping Local
A week before Memorial Day of this year, Definitive Brewing Company opened in Portland, Maine. It’s the latest brewery on a block that knows a thing or two about beer. Industrial Way is also home to Austin Street Brewery, Foundation Brewing Company, Battery Steele Brewery, and, oh yeah, Allagash Brewing Company. The new brewery is helmed by industry veterans, and early reviews of the beer have been positive. But what sets the brewery apart from its other neighbors is a dedicated food truck.
Ryan Carey, the owner of a local catering company and food-truck business, had been looking for ways to expand his business. When Definitive was getting ready to open in a building that has not only a lot of seating but ample parking, he saw an opportunity.
Currently, he has a dedicated vintage wood-fired pizza truck parked at the brewery. When the colder months come around, he’ll switch that out for a fully enclosed truck that can handle the elements.
“From a marketing perspective, this is great,” he says, noting that many of the visitors to the brewery are from out of town. By introducing his food and concept to tourists, he believes that he’ll be able to grow his catering business, which is already working with out-of-towners holding weddings and other events in the area. Having a reliable home has also helped him hire new employees. Where he was once able to just offer weekend employment for caterings gigs, now he needs to staff the truck on the days the brewery is open, allowing him to offer more hours to employees and hopefully attract better and more dedicated workers.
The relationship has also helped his culinary perspective, as Carey notes that the owners of Definitive gave their input on the menu to make sure it was in sync with the beer offerings. Now the two companies are working together to make sure that there are special items available during special events and releases.
Carey says that it’s not just Definitive customers he’s serving. Anyone hanging out at any of the other nearby areas can order food from his truck via an app and then come pick it up or have it walked over for a fee.
For those who have embraced the concept of allowing someone else to serve food at their brewery, overall they say that the learning curve can be steep, but that it’s ultimately worth it.
“It’s a cool setup because it allows us to focus on what we want to be doing, and that’s making beer,” says The Shop Beer Co.’s Arnce.