A year ago, Alan Lapoint offered to help the owners of D.L. Geary Brewing if they ever needed anything. Last fall he got the call: The brewery was days from filing for bankruptcy and needed cash to remain open.
Now Lapoint and his wife, Robin, are on their way to becoming the new owners of Maine’s original craft brewery and testing new recipes to help revive the 34-year-old company. But the process has inadvertently provoked some backlash in the Portland beer community.
“The last 12 hours have been an education in social marketing,” Lapoint said Friday.
The Lapoints took over management of Geary’s on Thursday and laid off two longtime employees, a brewer with 23 years there and a warehouse manager who worked there for 14 years. The layoffs did not include severance packages.
That upset the owner of Bull Feeney’s, Doug Fuss, who is a friend of one of the laid-off employees. In response, he decided he’s done carrying Geary’s taps, after 16 years. Bull Feeney’s is selling pints of Geary’s for $1 until the kegs are drained; other Portland bar owners say in Facebook posts that they will follow suit and not carry Geary’s. Fuss understands the need for layoffs, but said the employees who were let go should have been offered severance.
“It’s such a shame because this is a once-great name brand and the founder of the craft brewing industry in Maine and it’s just really sad to see them treat someone with such little respect,” Fuss said.
A Bull Feeney’s employee, Jeff Grundy, announced the Geary’s sale in a Facebook post, which has attracted well over 100 reactions and 41 comments. Some of the comments are from other restaurant owners saying they won’t do business with Geary’s in the future.
Alan Lapoint doesn’t use Facebook, but he’s well aware of the outrage. He’s getting emails from friends with screenshots of what people are saying. He’s disappointed that Bull Feeney’s is dropping Geary’s, but he understands.
“I think whenever you lose a long-term partner, that was really an advocate for the product and the brand, it’s obviously disappointing,” Lapoint said. “We respect and understand his position. If we get a chance to share our story and where we’re coming from, I would love it. But if not, I understand. As an organization, we’ve got to move forward, find new beers and nurture relationships that have supported us.”
The layoffs were necessary because Geary’s hasn’t been making as much beer as it used to, Lapoint said. The brewery’s production fell 34.5 percent from 2011 to 2015, according to data provided by the state’s Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations. One of the state’s biggest brewers, Geary’s produced 253,956 gallons of beer in 2015, according to data provided by the state.
Lapoint said he had to cut two jobs to protect the remaining 15 full- and part-time workers at Geary’s. The decision about severance packages was left to managers who worked with the employees, he said, because they understood the financials and operations.
“There are a lot of difficult decisions with family members and with employees who are family,” said Lapoint, who took over The Strainrite Cos. in Lewiston from his father. “Coming from a family business, I feel like nobody will take better care of them than I will. … But unfortunately, when you have a situation like they were in, you have to right-size the production in order to get the whole thing going again.”
Strainrite makes filtration products, including those used by breweries, which is how Lapoint became familiar with Geary’s. He met D.L. Geary’s daughter, Kelly Lucas, last March and she laid out some of the company’s problems. A serial entrepreneur, Lapoint offered to provide consulting advice or support. Instead, he got a call from Lucas in October: Geary’s was in danger of going out of business. Could he help?
Lapoint says he and his wife decided Geary’s had employees committed to the work and a great product. They wanted to buy the company and turn it around.
“Once we felt the foundation was there, we felt like we can help,” Lapoint said. “When we talked to D.L. and Kelly, they just didn’t have the energy after 30 years in this business. And I respect that. He should be able to enjoy his golden years. He’s an icon.”
ECONOMICS AT PLAY
Geary’s is not in a unique position, said Bart Watson, chief economist at the National Brewers Association. Established brewers across the country are losing market share as consumers gravitate to new breweries.
“They’re facing a lot more competition, with over 5,000 breweries now in the United States, but also those regional breweries are being pursued by the large brewers and being bought out. It’s a very competitive market now,” Watson said.
Maine now has 93 breweries, and more are on the way. Even with all the options, five people sitting in the bar area at Bull Feeney’s on Friday were drinking Geary’s Hampshire Special Ale. After all, it was $1 a pint.
But Josh Child said it was more than a deal that brought him to Bull Feeney’s. A good friend was one of the people laid off at Geary’s and this was the last beer his friend made. He’ll enjoy the Hampshire Special Ale until it’s gone, but then he’ll probably be done with Geary’s.
“A friend of mine was told his position was safe one day, and the next day he was let go, escorted off the premises and given no severance. I don’t think that’s right,” Child said.
Two customers sitting behind Child also were drinking the HSA. They offered a different point of view.
“Without more information in hand, it’s hard to judge if the new owner was a jerk or if he’s sincerely acting in the best interest of the company,” Dennis Jud said.
His friend, Dave Gove, interjected: “But it’s not like giving two employees severance is going to make or break the company. If that’s the margin, the company’s got bigger problems.”
Just around the corner from Bull Feeney’s, Allison Stevens, the owner of The Thirsty Pig, said she had seen the online brouhaha. Stevens said she could understand why there were a couple of layoffs and thinks the online drama overlooked the point of Thursday’s sale.
“Yesterday, history was made in this town,” Stevens said, noting that Maine’s first brewery is entering a new phase.
Consumers won’t notice any immediate changes. And Lapoint says the resurrection of Geary’s doesn’t depend on him alone. He would prefer that pictures not be taken of him alone because he insists that fixing Geary’s will be a team effort and “this isn’t about me.”
Lapoint doesn’t plan to change the company’s recipes for its classic beers. The company’s core beers – Geary’s Pale Ale, Hampshire Special Ale, London Porter and Ixnay – will still be available.
“We are going to preserve the core because we are committed to those mature drinkers who have supported this company for 31 years. But we’re going to be stimulating our future with IPAs that are more of a traditional IPA, not using ringwood yeast,” he said, referring to a type of yeast that combines two strains that produce a sharp, yet buttery flavor.
Lapoint was already touting new varieties of Geary’s beer in the company’s taproom Friday. There was a lager made with a different yeast strain and an India pale ale with a different filtration process.
The plan is to see which beers do well in the taproom, get feedback from customers and then scale up production for larger distribution. The company already has a small brewing system to test out recipes; two more systems were ordered by Lapoint his first day on the job.
He’s also clear about returns on his investment: Geary’s is going to lose money this year. It could be in the black in 2018. Lapoint says this isn’t about getting rich, it’s about protecting Maine’s iconic first craft brewery.
“I have yet to see the structure that makes this thing a windfall,” said Lapoint, who declined to disclose the purchase price. “But that doesn’t mean it can’t be a great community supporter that people love to visit and it’s a destination point.
“It’s a long climb, and it’s a lot of work, but this business is a lot of fun,” Lapoint said.
James Patrick can be contacted at 791-6382 or at: