Iron Hill Brewery's Restaurant Success Story
When three friends gathered around their shared love of food and beer, a booming and quality-driven chain was born.
You know it’s a good thing when the owners of a restaurant relish the food. And evidently that’s the case at Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant. Surrounded by businesspeople, ladies who lunch and moms with children, the three partners seem as excited about the menu as I am.
Despite the plethora of sandwiches, soups, salads, pizzas, entrées and appetizers that make the menu a page-turner, Mark Edelson knows what he wants. The Thai popcorn chicken is “outstanding,” he says, putting down his menu. “That dish is great. It is so good, I’m singing the praises of it.”
Kevin Davies opts for tuna tataki. Four of us, including third partner Kevin Finn, decide to share the two appetizers. I quickly learn to keep up, snagging a zesty chicken nugget before the bean sprout salad is the only thing left on the plate.
We all tuck into spicy conch chowder with sweet potatoes, scraping our spoons in our bowls to garner the last bit. But we aren’t finished yet. Finn opts for a black bean burger. I sink my teeth into a turkey burger with avocado. Edelson sticks to the Asian theme with teriyaki chicken lettuce wraps, and Davies proves that real men do eat big salads. Between the food and the beer, the meal is soon punctuated by discreet belches.
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There’s something satisfying about seeing the owners enjoy their establishment’s cuisine with such gusto. But as the hour unfolds, it’s equally impressive to see how well the partners get along after 15 years in business.
I interviewed the trio back in 1997, after they’d opened the flagship Newark, Del., location, and again, shortly before the one on the Wilmington riverfront debuted in 2002. The partners still trade witticisms in an easy repartee, and they still listen instead of stepping on each other’s words. When one offers an opinion, there’s no eye-rolling, no barbs, no contradictions.
Are they for real? “I’ve had a lot of beers with each of them, and I’ve never heard them say a bad word about each other,” says Don Russell, who writes the Joe Sixpack column for the Philadelphia Daily News.
Iron Hill’s achievements are the sum of its parts. As Sam Calagione, founder of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, puts it: “They’re three really good, smart, complementary, talented people who attract hundreds of good, smart hospitality coworkers to help them build a great success story.”
Iron Hill is indeed a success story. There are nine locations in Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey. The Chestnut Hill site, which opened on Jan. 4, is Iron Hill’s first foray into craft-beer-centric Philadelphia, where the competition is as fierce as drinkers’ discerning palates.
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“Now, with a location in the city, we have a better opportunity to participate in Beer Week,” says Edelson, a founding member of the board of Philly Beer Week, scheduled this year for the first 10 days in June. (Click here for more information.)
Admittedly, Chestnut Hill is outside Center City’s action. “Our objective is to get participation from as many Germantown Avenue establishments as possible and create a synergy that would bring more Philly Beer Week participants to the northern parts of the city,” Edelson says.
Those who know them would say they’re up to the task. “They do a lot of things right, in my opinion,” Russell says.
Among them is playing up the partners’ strengths. The genial Finn—who, in the ’80s, worked for his dad’s company, United Outdoor Advertising—takes the administrative lead. He and soccer buddy Edelson’s home-brewing efforts prompted the idea for the business. Initially, Finn thought he’d be more involved with the brewing. “A week after opening,” Edelson jokes, “that desire quickly evaporated.”
“I enjoy the business part,” says Finn, a former ski bum who has undergraduate and graduate business degrees. He also enjoys scouting locations—and that keeps Edelson busy supervising new construction. A former production manager with Zeneca Pharmaceuticals, Edelson also handles the brewing side of the business. Both duties keep him on a constant rotation between the locations.
Although brewers report to Edelson, they’re free to experiment. The creations often lead to seasonal additions. Among the specials and the five house beers, there are 12 offerings on any given day.
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Of the core beers, only the Pig Iron Porter—which consistently brings home medals from the Great American Beer Festival—has the same recipe. Others have been tweaked over the years. Not all the brews have been well received. Consider Wassail, a holiday beer spiced with cinnamon and cloves. “No one understood it,” Edelson recalls. “No one liked it. They didn’t like the name of it—they didn’t like anything. I think we had it for Christmas in July.”
“I hated that beer,” Davies chimes in.
“If the staff doesn’t like it, it doesn’t sell,” Edelson says.
Only Sam Calagione, Edelson laughs, could sell it. “He could’ve put it in a bottle and said it came from a Himalayan recipe. Everyone would’ve gone wild.”
The partners and Calagione (widely considered the poster child for esoteric brews) have a good relationship. “We’re friends, and our companies are very different,” Calagione says.
But in the mid-1990s, they were all in a race to open Delaware’s first brewpub. Dogfish bellied up to the bar first with its Rehoboth Beach restaurant. Iron Hill’s frustrated partners couldn’t find the right location. They shifted their sights from Wilmington to Newark, home to the University of Delaware.
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From 1995 to 1997, 600 brewpubs and 300 microbreweries debuted nationwide, and production of craft beer soared 50 percent each year. In 1997, however, industry growth skidded to four percent. “We opened just as it started to go down,” Edelson says of the market.
But Iron Hill was on a roll, opening a West Chester location in 1998 in an old Woolworth’s building and a Media site in 2000 in an old A&P market. Wilmington, North Wales, Phoenixville, Lancaster and Maple Shade, N.J., followed.
It’s no cookie-cutter outfit, partly because Iron Hill restaurants must adapt to suit the space. The Chestnut Hill site is located in an old Express clothing store in a small retail center. The bar area is especially unique. “We have very high ceilings and our first-ever fireplace,” Finn says, adding that the windows that face the street can be opened on nice days.
Business at Chestnut Hill has been good. Finn would even go so far as to predict that the site will become a top income-producer in the chain. “We’re providing a place that’s different than most of the other restaurants in Chestnut Hill,” he says, crediting the site’s generous size and family-friendly attitude.
Iron Hill’s continued success demonstrates that it’s not enough for a brewpub to make beer. It should be good beer. And it’s not enough for a brewpub to serve food. The menu should stand out.
That’s where Davies comes in. Already a restaurant veteran in the ’90s, he’d been considering his own brewpub business. A mutual friend suggested he join Finn and Edelson.
“They weren’t restaurant guys, and I didn’t know anything about beer,” says Davies, a self-professed “wine guy” who’s learned to love a good brew.
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Like the beer, Iron Hill’s menu has experienced fine-tuning. A revamp that took the menu from 50 to almost 100 selections necessitated kitchen remodeling. Now the list is a more manageable 80 items. Offerings include the expected (nachos, wings, burgers, fish and chips, pizzas) and the unexpected (a salmon BLT burger, Mediterranean lamb meatballs, a pecan-chicken salad sandwich). You’ll find plenty of Asian, Cajun and Southwestern influences—cuisines that pair well with beer, Davies explains.
All locations share the same menu. Lancaster, however, gets hot rolls. (“They don’t understand the concept of cold rolls,” Edelson confides.) Each locale chooses daily specials from an approved list. Longtime chefs like David Anderson in Media and Dan Bethard in West Chester have earned the right to devise their own specials sans approval.
Davies spends much of this time at the West Chester site, where the chefs test new recipes. There are menu changes in fall and spring, but you can’t mess with some dishes, including the best-selling turkey burger, a fat patty topped with guacamole, bacon, tomato and pepper jack cheese served on a springy roll slathered with ancho-honey mayo.
But where, I ask, are the salmon spring rolls I remembered so fondly? The trio breaks out into guffaws. “You set that up!” Edelson says to Finn. “I know you did.”
Like me, West Chester customer Nina Malone also missed the signature dish. When she found out it was off the menu, she tweeted about the loss, pestering Finn on Twitter and Facebook with what she calls “subtle” reminders like “What the !@#$%^&* am I going to eat now?”
Iron Hill caved to the pressure. Malone actually wrote on the restaurant’s official blog about her campaign.
Iron Hill’s core customer is a college graduate between the ages of 25 and 54 in the upper income bracket. As for sites, “we’re very Main Street-based,” Finn says. “We like to be in small urban towns with a good upscale population and foot and car traffic.”
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Iron Hill restaurants are currently within a 100-mile radius of Wilmington, home to the headquarters of their company, C&D Brewing Co. Lancaster is the farthest away.
The partners are considering a lease for another New Jersey location. But what about the Main Line? “We hope to find a spot for our 11th restaurant, opening in 2013,” Finn says. “I’d say we’ve visited about a half-dozen sites so far, but nothing really to report at this time.”
With such a rapid expansion, employees are hired with an eye on management. “Who’s going to run the next kitchen? Who’s going to run the next restaurant? The next brewery? What we do is complicated; you need to be good at business, good at marketing, good in the restaurant business,” Finn says.
Those questions have become more important lately. During lunch, the partners frequently talk about “getting out of the way.” They learned the need for that early on in Newark, when a manager took Edelson aside and told him the partners didn’t need to be on site so much; the managers wanted to do their jobs. “Our interest now is building the company,” says Edelson.
And since they aren’t the face of the brand, they’re in an ideal position to step back from daily operations and focus on the future, Russell adds.
Franchising, however, is not part of that future. And neither—for now—is a second concept. “We still feel there are plenty of opportunities for Iron Hill,” Finn says.
And that’s something beer fanatics in our region can drink to.
For more, visit ironhillbrewery.com.
Click here to read about Iron Hill's 2012 Philly Beer Week debut.
10 Days of Suds
Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant has been a big supporter of Philly Beer Week since its start in 2008. In fact, Iron Hill co-owner Mark Edelson is on PBW’s board of directors. With the opening of Iron Hill’s Chestnut Hill location, the restaurant can finally take a resident’s approach to the 10-day event, running June 1-10.
Yet PBW seems to know no geographic boundaries. Pub-crawls, festivals, dinners, tastings and meet-the-brewer nights take place throughout the region, including the Main Line area. Teresa’s Café will play a big part in the Main Line Jazz and Food Festival on June 2 along North Wayne Avenue. Troegs is a featured beer, and Teresa’s will have taps outside.
Uno Chicago Grill, a PBW member since 2009, will hold a variety of events at its nine area locations. Uno’s Newtown Square site has 24 taps, most devoted to craft beer.
The week kicks off on June 1 with Opening Tap, held at the Independence Visitor Center at 7:30 p.m. Sip samples from top breweries and enjoy the live music. After winding its way through the streets of Philadelphia, the Hammer of Glory will fall to Mayor Michael Nutter, who will use it to smash open a keg of Brotherly Suds 3. Tickets are $40. (A VIP tasting session at 6:30 p.m. is $75 and includes regular admission.) The 7 p.m. opening ceremony is free.
For more on these and other Beer Week events, visit phillybeerweek.org.