As reported at the beginning of July, the Belmont, MA-based retail franchise Craft Beer Cellar (CBC) is opening a storefront at 111 Commercial Street in Portland's Old Port, the former home of Port Bean Cafe. CBC is renowned in New England for its laser-like focus on craft beer, its high level of education for employees, and its general advocacy for the better beer movement. Founders Kate Baker and Suzanne Schalow are trying to take that show on the road, expanding the young company not only within New England, but to states like Florida and Missouri.
Since the original announcement, Craft Beer Cellar Portland has been facing a mixed response in the community, with supporters turning out on the franchise's Facebook page but plenty of locals insisting that no one should support a "chain" or a "franchise," especially one from away. (A franchise is generally understood as a version of a chain where each iteration is individually owned, as is the case here.) Whether or not the community in general voices support for other chains, it's worth noting that out-of-state burger chain Five Guys was so successful in the Old Port that two more burger chains have moved in nearby (b. Good, Elevation Burger). Similarly, Maine has its own chains that have expanded within and beyond the state's borders, including beloved OTTO Pizza.
Eater asked the owners of CBC Portland, Jorgen Persson and Pietro Di Luzio, to introduce themselves and to speak to the criticism they are facing.
So what's your beer background?
Pietro Di Luzio (PDL): Many, many years of drinking.
Jorgen Persson (JP): I fell in love with Sam Adams [Boston] Lager. Transitioned from that to Sierra Nevada. I spent 5 years in Barcelona, which doesn't have a good beer tradition, but one thing I could find was Sierra Nevada. Then we fell in love with different brands, and discovered the first Belmont store, which was awesome. We would tell friends, "They sell craft beer," and they're like, "So it's a liquor store!" and we're like, "Not really…." The Belmont store opened with the expertise, the staff, who love to talk about beer, being able to tell the customers how to match up with the right food, say, "If we're having this for dinner tonight, what do you recommend?" and they'll be able to do it *snaps fingers*.
What were you guys doing before this?
PDL: I was in IT for a big company. Before that customer service for the automotive business, so really never beer, but I always loved beer, drank beer. When I was in Switzerland, the big thing then was the American beer, Michelob, Budweiser, I'm talking about a lot of years. Then when I moved here, my big drink was generic beer, then slowly, as Jorgen said, it's better beer! I loved it.
JP: I spent the last 10 years in marketing, helping Vistaprint launch new country sites in Europe. I spent 5 years in Barcelona, growing the business there, just got back, my son was going into high school, had to move back and establish ourselves.
How did you choose to open a CBC?
PDL: We always were interested in getting something but didn't know exactly what it was. We looked at Subway, doing subs...
JP: We were doing some research for investment purposes, to see for retirement planning. This is a great combination of both.
PDL: And when this thing came up, we were like, "Wow, that makes sense. We love beer. Why not?" And the first store was the Belmont store, we went to visit about two years ago, right? And I don't know how, we looked up the site with the franchise info, and he's like "Hey, want to buy a franchise?" I'm like, "Why not?" We were interested, and we did! Signed the contract, moved forward.
What attracts you to craft beer in America?
JP: It's like Jack's Abby, one of my favorites. They won the world cup for their Framinghammer beer, awesome stuff. And they combined this German tradition with American innovation, and they're just cranking, it's great stuff.
Kate and Suzanne educate their staff well. How will you guys carry that tradition in your store?
JP: I think it's primarily about leading by example. Being expert yourself. Providing the right kind of motivation and passion for beer, and combined with just finding the right people. That's probably one of the most important things you can do, have a great staff.
Will CBC Belmont, Kate and Suzanne be involved in helping train your staff?
JP: Yes, and they have some standardization, best practices, stuff like that because they've done it ten times over, just in Massachusetts. They add accountability, so we have to be Cicerone certified within a year of starting the store, so...and Kate and Suzanne hold themselves responsible by being certified themselves, so it's not just telling someone to do it, it's actually living it yourself.
One of the biggest questions you've already begun to face is why people should support a chain or a franchise. There are a lot of misconceptions about what those words even mean, but why should people support this business that began outside of the state?
JP: That's a very good question. I think the biggest key for [CBC's] success, even though they're familiar with Belmont and so on, was to become part of the fabric of Belmont, so to become part of the fabric of Portland, part of the community. And I think that we listen to the tradition of people like you, who are from here, and we're gonna shape it accordingly, not the other way around. So it's a cookie cutter Subway store that sets up shop like, "We have our rules." I think the Craft Beer Cellar is much more flexible, and they realize they're a new franchise, too. They just started in 2010.
We have a lot to learn. I think the customers are the ones for the most part who drive our business practices, not the other way around. We have some good ideas, we learned a lot, so we're gonna leverage what they did in Belmont, what they did in Newton--they have an awesome store there, great layout and design, but they're perfecting it too, so we're gonna learn the differences here. And one other key, if you will, is that local beer is gonna dominate. So Maine beers are gonna dominate Portland, whereas in Belmont it's Massachusetts stuff. So we need to collaborate and work together with all the breweries around here.
There was definitely something of a backlash when the first story came out, with people essentially saying, "Double down on local business!" But what makes something "local enough"? Do you feel that Massachusetts should be considered local? Similarly, you've lived abroad. Do you feel like you're able to bring insight because you're not from right here?
JP: Yeah, I think maybe the hybrid between traditional Portland and a little bit of, I dunno, European flair. Plus there's other opportunities in the long run because Europe is actually catching on big time in terms of craft beers, so there's opportunities for the local Maine beers through us to potentially expand into Europe at some point too. So there's a financial opportunity as well as just having fun here. But that'll be enough anyway!
PDL: That's later on.
JP: We're super passionate, we wanna be here, we love this area, we just got an apartment.
PDL: And we are thinking about probably opening up a few more around here.
JP: And we're the employees for now. We certainly wanna hire local staff who are awesome and know everything about beer, but we wanna be involved as much as possible, at least the first six months, so we're in it so we can listen to all the customers.
It seems like CBC has always done a good job of educating customers as well as staff. How do you plan to educate customers with CBC Portland?
JP: It turns out to be a lot of fun, because at least two to three tastings a week for great beer around Maine, and the breweries will come themselves, be on site, offer free samples, talk about their beer…
As I understand it, in Maine you're only allowed to have three tastings a month.
JP: That's something that's actually news to me. It's not a good rule, but also that we have to serve it on location, the brewers can't do it, so there are certain rules there that are quite different from Massachusetts.
Perhaps you can help work on those rules?
JP: Yeah! Absolutely, we'll help petition for changes. Then again there may be an opportunity on the other side: If you're just doing two or three a month, you're doing it kickass two or three times a month, rather than kind of racing to get at least two or three a week, 'cause I know that the other stores are churning out taste testings and stuff. Maybe two or three becomes a little bit more...sometimes when it's more scarce, it looks awesome. "It only actually happens twice a month."
Still shooting for an August 1 opening?
JP: I would call that our internal target, whereas Suzanne and Kate are probably a little cautious, saying, "We're hoping for mid-August." We're shooting for it, no question, but if it's mid-August it may be because we targeted August 1. You know how that works.
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