It’s not that the greater Philadelphia region doesn’t have its own home-grown destination breweries.
Victory Brewing, with its global distribution and three large locations, brings a Philly brand name worldwide. In Ardmore, Tired Hands Brewing’s top-rated IPAs and saisons draw beer geeks from across the planet. Yards Brewing, Evil Genius Beer, Mainstay Brewing, Wissahickon Brewing, Free Will Brewing, Broken Goblet Brewing and Levante Brewing all pull their share of tourists, and if one considers Central Delaware along with Adamstown and Hershey
But the news that suburban Boston’s beloved Night Shift Brewing – Massachussetts’ sixth largest, according to Boston Business Journal — has canceled its planned $12 million production facility in Philly’s fringe Roxborough section because of coronavirus’ deleterious effects on the national business climate really hurts.
“I would have loved to welcome to such a popular, prestigious and delicious brewery,” says Christina Dowd, executive director of Philly Loves Beer, the non-profit that produces Philly Beer Week and works full-time to promote the region’s breweries and beer bars.
The three founders of Night Shift, two of whom hail from the city’s suburbs, had planned to break ground on the 130,000 sq. ft., 100-barrel (1 bbl=31 gallons) back in April. This week, the independently owned family company announced it had reached an agreement with their would-be landlord that allowed them to pull out of the deal that was going to bring the prize-worthy liquid to the mid-Atlantic and bring co-founder Rob Burns and his wife and two daughters back home.
“Both my parents and my wife’s parents live in Bucks County so to go from house hunting over the holidays to not knowing where we’re going to live as our forever home is as personal as it is business,” he says.
While the team isn’t writing off a Philly facility forever, they do say the virus and its social distancing requirements have convinced them they need to focus on their core businesses and territories for the foreseeable future.
As co-founder Michael Oxton tells Brewbound, “I think it was a shift from, ‘How do we salvage Philly?’ to, ‘How do we salvage Night Shift?’ And then it’s just like, ‘OK, cut anything that’s putting Night Shift at risk,’ and unfortunately, this huge project was one of the biggest things that could potentially threaten our overall survival.”
“Our thinking evolved throughout the process,” Burns adds. “Initially we thought maybe this is a two- or three- week pause then we started to ask our landlord if we could postpone three, six or 12 months, saying, ‘We still think this is the right move but we don’t know if we can afford to pay rent.’ But as it became clear this wouldn’t be just a two-to-three week order we got really scared that there were too many unknowns we couldn’t control for.”
Or, as Oxton puts it in a phone interview Thursday, “This was far beyond what we could get our heads around.”
Currently, Night Shift distributes its beer, hard seltzer and line of coffees in Massachusetts through a self-owned wholesaler and sells a bit in Maine, New Hampshire and New York. Though the owners have temporarily closed their Boston taproom and run their Everett headquarters for take-out and delivery only, they’re shockingly still managing to not just make money but grow sales.
How? Their bar and restaurant business accounts for just 20% of sales, and direct-to-consumer taproom sales account for another 30%. By boosting sales of to-go packages by double digits, they’ve been able to make up for the loss of seated patrons. Despite tripling their brewing capacity in Everett last year and contract brewing in two additional spaces, without Philadelphia’s potential 200,000 annual barrels of new capacity, they still don’t have enough equipment to meet demand in their current markets.
That makes it likely that Pennsylvania, New Jersey and surrounding states probably won’t be able to buy Night Shift close to home for another few years. Founders hope that Philadelphia’s beer drinkers and business and tourism associations don’t lose the lovin’ feeling they’ve shown the brewery since they announced the project in August 2019. They say they’re particularly heartbroken to no longer be able to make a significant economic impact on and become an integral part of the Roxborough and Philadelphia communities.
“We’re no Amazon
Jeff Guarancino, president and CEO of the Visit Philly tourism bureau, says while he’s pleased so many people can still experience the local beer scene through take-out, “We’re saddened for businesses – including Night Shift – that identified Greater Philadelphia as a place to grow, and now have their dreams placed on hold. We look forward to the day that Michael, Rob, Mike and other entrepreneurs can resume their dreams in Philadelphia—and we’ll be the first to cheer them on.”
Dowd adds that though Night Shift would have added immensely to the self-proclaimed “America’s Best Beer-Drinking City,” she doesn’t view the retreat as an actual loss, especially because she says local breweries are pivoting so well to serve their hyper-local audiences during this season’s restrictions that she doesn’t know of any that plan to close down.
“I’ve been in awe of how these small breweries have reconnected,” she says. “We still are what we are and we’re still very strong in what we do.”
Night Shift’s owners, who’re forgoing salaries and keeping — though furloughing or cutting hours for — their entire staff until they can fully reopen, say they do still hope to join Philadelphia’s beer community one day.
“At least at this stage in time we’re not closing the chapter,” Burns says. “We’re just saying see you later and not goodbye.”