Down the drain: A brewpub fails in just 4 months

On the morning after the last night at Guild Hall, a crew of volunteers mopped floors while the owners held back the tears.

Four months. Just four lousy, four splendid, four heartbreaking months – that’s all the beautiful downtown Jenkintown brewpub lasted before Jennifer McGuire and her husband, Owen Hutchins, decided to close its doors.

With breweries opening at a rate of more than one per day, it’s rare to hear of one closing. In 2014, there were all of 23 failures nationwide, according to the Colorado-based Brewers Association which represents small breweries.

So, when I stopped by the brewpub on Sunday morning, it was partly to commiserate (for no one wants to see a business fail and employees lose their jobs) and partly to find out how a brewpub could go belly-up in the midst of the great craft-beer boom.

Money was the biggest problem, no surprise there. McGuire said they budgeted $1.9 million for the purchase and rehab of the large former antiques warehouse on Old York Road. It wasn’t enough, and the shortfall was worsened by construction delays that pushed the opening from early 2015 into the slow summer season.

“We were just too badly underfunded by the time we hit opening day, and by that point it was really too late to say, ‘Stop.’ ” Hutchins said.

“If we could’ve opened in, say, February, we would have had several months to establish ourselves, had more depth of capital, establish our reputation . . . “

It only got worse. The first brews they tapped were just not very good.

According to Hutchins, who had previous experience as the brewer at the old General Lafayette Inn, on Germantown Pike, the problem stemmed from the incorrect calibration of the brewery’s fermentation tanks. A scale alongside the tank’s sight-glass (which shows the level of liquid inside) had been improperly placed and was off by five-eighths of a barrel. Hutchins adjusted by adding more liquid to his recipes, but that only diluted the gravity and weakened the flavor.

The beers were roundly criticized at online review sites.

“You’ve got people who read [Yelp! reviews] who never gave us another chance,” Hutchins said. “Maybe if we had decided to dump those first few subpar beers rather than recoup some of our money . . . “

He paused and then remembered, “Well, we did dump a blond and we dumped a bitter,” at a cost of about $1,000 in materials and time for each batch.

They made it to Labor Day. Hutchins had begun fine-tuning his recipes, and the flavor improved greatly. An Oktoberfestbier generated decent reviews and sold quickly. The end of the summer brought a small uptick in business.

They hoped for the best.

The original business plan projected sales of between $25,000 and $30,000 a week. McGuire and Hutchens watched the weekly numbers climb slowly, to about $18,000.

And then they dipped.

By mid-October they were seriously worried, yet Hutchins was still brewing as late as Oct. 20.

“My feeling was, we keep working,” Hutchins said, “and if things work out, we have the beer. But if things worked out and I don’t have beer, then we’re screwed.”

A few days later, they ran the numbers again.

“We realized we just weren’t going to make it,” Hutchins said. “We would be unable to pay vendors and we wouldn’t be able to pay our staff, and that’s just a line I was unwilling to cross. These people have worked entirely too hard for us to be treated like that.”

They closed Halloween night.

For now, they hope to sell off remaining kegs, perhaps to an area restaurant. They might reopen briefly to sell growlers to go.

“In the best of all worlds,” McGuire said, “we’d find somebody to come in as a partner, not just with money, because that’s not the real issue. But to find a restaurateur, a partner with an established reputation, who knows the business, who could come in as a partner and just reboot the restaurant and run it the way it’s supposed to be.”

“Right,” Hutchins said. “Tell us: Where did we not get it?”

Said McGuire: “We know some of it was our own inexperience . . . “

On Sunday morning, with more smiles than tears, the two opted for optimism.

“Ten years from now,” Hutchins said, “it’ll be better for us to look back and say at least we tried, instead of looking back and wondering, ‘What if?’ “

“We gave it our best shot. I don’t regret it,” McGuire said. “What we had for the four months that we were open was really special.”

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Comments

  1. Joe M.  November 5, 2015

    I was a fan of the old General Lafayette, and sorry that I will not have the opportunity to become a fan of the Guild Hall as well. Perhaps the stars will align with a restaurateur/partner so that they can give it another go. In any case, much respect to them both and best of luck for the future.

  2. larry bennett  November 5, 2015

    That was a sad story. I have friends who opened a brewpub nearby, in Oneonta; “Roots.” The only brewpub in a college town. They did the work of converting the building itself. Took them almost 2 years. The brewer part of team used to work for us as beer development brewer, he knows his stuff. But even after they were equipped and doing test brews I think it it took a while for his use of that equipment to settle out. His beers improved with every brew he did. And he trys lots of things. He’s not turning out the usual middle-of-the-road brewpub stuff. He’s rock solid now. They do light food, beer on premise and growlers, community events, are kid friendly. Also sell wine and hard cider and have one or two guest taps. They have art shows and poetry readings. They’ve been open about 2 years. It seems clear to me even with all this, they are not yet killing it. But they have reserves and spouses working in other jobs. They’ll make it, but my guess is a couple of more years before they are even paying themselves much and retiring any debt. But I expect they don’t have much debt. A tough way to make a living. I admire them greatly, but I could never roll the dice like they did. It’s damn good there are people like that who will take the chances. Good luck to the folks in Philly.

  3. Jeff Urraro  November 6, 2015

    I have been self employed as an entrepreneur for 40 years,My life has been rich with failures and victories,I applaud the individual who has the verve of heart to create a unique path!

  4. BeerDenizen  November 22, 2015

    And now, a fully built out brewpub is for sale for anyone with the funds and experience to jump in and do it right.