December 29, 2013

Craft Beer Cellar plans nationwide growth

The Massachusetts beer store aims to expand into new territory with its focus on quality.

By Gary Dzen
The Boston Globe

(Continued from page 1)

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Craft Beer Cellar founders Kate Baker, left, and Suzanne Schalow, right, pose with Craft Beer Cellar store owner Brian Shaw in Newton, Mass. Beers there are organized by region, from Worcester to the West Coast, with an emphasis on local brews.

click image to enlarge

Craft Beer Cellar founders Kate Baker, left, and Suzanne Schalow pose in Newton, Mass.

Dina Rudick/The Boston Globe

Carrying 350 beer brands is not without challenges. “Beer is the least marked up drinkable thing,” Baker says. “There’s a reason why no one has done this before.”

A big reason is that light beer, in particular, remains hugely popular.

“We celebrate the beer renaissance currently taking place, and we are proud to offer beer drinkers a portfolio of great beers for every drinking occasion,” Karina Diehl, a spokeswoman for MillerCoors, said in a statement. “Light beer is the largest segment in the American beer industry for a reason.”

John Libonati and Chris Schutte own Social Wines in South Boston, which carries only premium beer, but also wine and spirits. They acknowledge the higher markups on wine make it easier to not carry the big-name beers.

“The growth of the craft beer market right now isn’t being fueled by people who only want beer,” says Jeff Wharton, co-founder of DrinkCraftbeer.com. “I think the world is ready for more liquor stores with a craft beer ethos.”

Craft beer, by definition, means small, independently owned, and brewed to traditional standards; it accounted for 6.5 percent of the volume of all beer sold in 2012, according to the Brewers Association. Schalow knows craft beer is not yet on everyone’s radar.

“We’re the crazy hippies with the headbands, screaming and shouting and carrying the torches,” she says.

To better reach the masses, the store has tried to engage potential customers through social media. Lee Movic, who runs Craft Beer Cellar’s social media accounts, positions himself as an advocate for craft beer, not just the store. Movic attends events, even for competing stores, pushing craft. He tweets about those events, new beer arrivals, and generally positive messages like, “Good morning, beer geeks. We hope you have a great day today.”

He is luring new customers the only way he knows how. “Everyone loves great customer service,” he says, “so we start with that.”

Franchising was not always the plan, says Baker. The pair spent “close to 50 hours” scouting store locations in St. Louis before hiring a real estate developer to help. They admittedly don’t know the Brandon, Fla., market as they know Belmont. Selecting new franchise sites and owners has taken them away from their base.

“The first couple months were humbly painful,” says Schalow. She says the store’s regular customers weren’t used to seeing them less.

Movic says the store’s brand is intrinsically linked to Baker and Schalow. “But it is already becoming much more than that,” he adds.

Despite early challenges, the owners – with a staff of about 30 people and growing – remain devoted to spreading their motto of “Don’t drink crap beer.” Schalow talks in great detail about educating her staff and the public (“If you can’t buy good beer from me, just buy good beer,” she says), and several staffers eagerly share their “a-ha” moments of talking dazed and confused customers “down from that scary place” and converting them into regulars.

Shaw, the Newton Centre store owner, says business has been brisk since the opening Oct. 30. Kay Lorenz, one of the owners of the Braintree Craft Beer Cellar, says she has “been welcomed with open arms” by neighboring retailers. On a day in late November, a new 20-something employee introduced himself to Schalow on his first day.

“This is so much fun,” he says, his voice rising in pitch with excitement. “I just love working here!”

Schalow smiles. “You’ll fit right in.”

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