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Monday, August 20, 2012

How Restaurants and Breweries Differ

My Mom visited over the weekend, and as is typical, Sally and I began bookmarking a few restaurants in advance of her arrival.  High on the list was Luce, four blocks from our house, which we'd heretofore (and inexcusably) failed to check out.  Then over the weekend Bon Appétit did this to us:

We persevered and visited on Saturday anyway, finding the madhouse we expected.  There's more to that tale, but this isn't actually a post about Luce* (you might read this if you're hungering for more).  Rather, the whole experience got me thinking about the ways breweries are and are not like restaurants.  At least, not at the high end.  There, restaurants are anchored by a chef and his/her personality, and they ride waves of novelty and trends.  A chef like Luce's John Taboada has a certain vision which manifests itself in a place like Navarre, his first award-winning restaurant.  After awhile, he gets an idea for another kind of culinary expression and creates a place like Luce.

Restaurants have a limited shelf life.  Eventually, the creative vein taps out and the chef tries something new.  Cuisine is more like fashion in how trend-sensitive it is, and over the course of a decade, the type of restaurants that open will shift three or four times.  (Of course, there are always exceptions.  Greg Higgins has created a beachhead on Broadway that has been running for nearly two decades.)

Breweries, on the other hand, are anchored by brands and attempt to establish continuity.  After toiling for years to build up a loyal following, they can't very well dump their line and start from scratch.  Brewers may be mobile, but breweries don't wink in and out of existence at their whim.  I guess it's both the lead-time--it takes years to reach full capacity--and sunk costs (breweries are expensive).  But there's also something essential about beer brands that differs from restaurant menus.

While I was sitting in Luce, I wondered briefly why we don't see more brewpubs adopting the restaurant model.  Beer has superficial similarities: beer styles are many and fluid, brewpubs are eateries, with all the attendant virtues of ambiance and vibe--not to mention food--that restaurants have.  Maybe it's even possible.  But it is unorthodox, and it would be a leap from one cultural model to another.  If such a thing could work anywhere, it would be Portland--but I'm not sure it could work anywhere.

Perhaps one day we'll see someone try the experiment.

*I'm not qualified to comment on the food because of twin layers of ignorance--food in general is beyond my ken, and Italian food in particular.  I started with a fantastic fresh-greens salad enlivened by mint and large sea-salt crystals, and followed it up by mussels in broth, the way the Belgians make them.  Because we visited the day the Oregonian reported the news that it was Bon Appetit's fourth best new American restaurant, they had nowhere near enough food on hand.  By the time we were seated, most of the pasta dishes were gone, and we could hear the haughty harumphs of neighboring foodies who clearly found this outrageous.  The staff--including owners John Taboada and Giovanna Parolari who waited on us--handled everything with enormous aplomb and grace.  We concluded with an insane desert called Luce cake--sponge cake filled with cream and pistachios.   


  1. Kevin Scaldeferri11:25 AM, August 20, 2012

    "at the high end... restaurants are anchored by a chef and his/her personality, and they ride waves of novelty and trends"

    I don't know Jeff, that sounds awfully similar to the high end of the craft beer world to me. Brewers / breweries that come immediately to mind include: The Bruery, Three Floyds, Hill Farmstead, Anchorage, and of course all the "gypsies". Locally, surely you'd admit that Logsdon and Crux follow this model. Even Oakshire had a moment in this sun, when everyone expected Matt van Wyk to reproduce Wooden Hell in Hellshire I.

  2. I for one would love to see more brewpubs start putting into their menu the same amount of thought and diligence that they put into their beer.

  3. "...restaurants are anchored by a chef and his/her personality, and they ride waves of novelty and trends..."

    Beaten to the punch! My point exactly. The only difference is the greater number of competitors and the experience level of buyers that filters out vacuously swanky (vacu-swank?) restaurants quickly. Not having popularly followed objective beer and brewing reporting, the good beer market is far less able to assess these matters.

  4. What do you think the barriers are to making it work for breweries? As Kevin notes, there are a few notable one who seem to be anchored by a brewer and his/her personality.

    It's certainly true that the typical brewery model has long been to build up a loyal following by creating a stable of brands. But do they end up serving as anchors to change rather than anchoring the loyal following? I wonder if that's more a cultural barrier, than anything else.

    Size of the brewery probably provides an inverse correlation with the ability to adopt more of the restaurant format. One would think the smaller - more locally focused - brewery would be more able to create a following of people who come to expect something new and exciting on a regular basis.

    The newest brewery in my area came right out of the box with five flagship beers and room for only one seasonal - a typical stable of brands technique presumably when there's strong pressure to generate income. For me, it means one thing: boring.

  5. As someone has said above, there are a few brewers whose model is basically "put a new beer out every two weeks or so."

    As for brewpubs, well I don't know what it is like over there, but here there are many brewpubs who have a steady line-up that is complemented by monthly special. So, there you have it.

  6. Kevin, it's true that a similar class of high-profile brewers has emerged, but we see nothing like the activity of restaurants, where there's so much churn. I can't think of a single high-profile brewery that's not still with us.

    I wouldn't compare production breweries with restaurants--the differences are too great. But brewpubs make a decent analogue. And even there, I don't think the "anchoring" is conceptual. Every brewer I've talked to has a story of customer loyalty to their product--usually intense and proprietary. People begin to think of their favorite beer as something in the public domain after awhile.

    My guess is that this is true with brewpubs, as well. Imagine if Hopworks changed its IPA or dumped Lager. That would not be popular.

  7. I do think we're seeing something of a hybrid model forming, though. Take a look at the way Widmer has been trying out different things and then letting them fade (or moving them to permanent status). It's kind of a more hectic version of the traditional seasonal beer. Upright and others do similar things (see also Grain and Gristle)...

    But as you said, the models are just too different...