Retail Beer Franchises Are Flourishing

Craft beer retail outlets expand with franchised locations.

Nathan Robinette began franchising The Casual Pint last year and has already added eight locations, with more expansion planned for the near future.
Nathan Robinette began franchising The Casual Pint last year and has already added eight locations, with more expansion planned for the near future.

Suzanne Schalow says she and her wife, Kate Baker, are longtime “beer geeks.” Several years ago, the two hospitality veterans sought to improve their beer education by shopping for special brews and became disillusioned with their retail options. “We were underwhelmed with the care that some stores gave to beer and wondered if we could do it better,” she recalls. In 2010, Schalow and Baker opened the Craft Beer Cellar in the Boston suburb of Belmont, Massachusetts. Five years later, the outlet has been expanded to include 19 franchised locations in about a dozen states, with at least 12 additional stores in the works.

When Craft Beer Cellar debuted, Schalow never envisioned that it would travel as far as California, Colorado and Montana. But the concept’s reputation for its commitment to beer, hospitality and education spread quickly, and franchisees began lining up. Stores typically span 1,200 to 1,300 square feet and stock 1,200 to 1,300 beers by the single bottle ($1.50 a 12-ounce bottle for a seasonal craft beer to $60 a 750-ml. bottle of Oud Beersel Bzart oude geuze from Belgium). Depending on local regulations, some of the stores sell draft beer for on- and off-premise consumption, as well as wine and spirits. All employees are required to become certified as beer servers through the Cicerone program, and operators are expected to sample all the beers they offer. In-store events, including tastings and classes, are held frequently.

As craft beer excitement continues to build, other beer-focused retail concepts are also looking to expand their franchises. The Beer Growler, which specializes in draft beer to go, currently has eight locations in Georgia and North Carolina, and the company is considering expansion into South Carolina and Florida. After the original unit debuted in 2010 in Athens, Georgia, “people would come in and ask if they could franchise,” says managing partner Denny Young. The first franchised location opened in 2012. Franchised stores must be between 1,200 and 1,600 square feet to accommodate 45 beer taps and a walk-in cooler. Draft pours start at $4.99 for Wild Heaven Emergency Drinking beer and reach up to $30 for a growler of Brouwerij Verhaeghe Vichte’s Duchesse de Bourgogne from Belgium. While The Beer Growler sells beer for off-site consumption only, some locations are permitted to offer free 1-ounce to 2-ounce samples to customers. “Beer School” events that pair beer with food ($23 to $30 a person, depending on the beer) are frequently held on Sunday evenings.

Growler Station Express, meanwhile, is a store-within-a-store concept that offers eight different brews on tap (priced from $9.99 to $29.99 a 64-ounce growler), with about 150 locations in 30 states. Executive vice president of business development John O’Connell prefers to call the company’s business partners “affiliates” rather than franchisees, as “we don’t promote a cookie-cutter approach and we don’t look under the hood at finances,” he says. Rather, affiliates—which include operators of grocery, convenience, spirits and tobacco shops—pay a set monthly fee. Growler Station Express locations typically comprise just 8 feet by 8 feet of space, and O’Connell notes that “convenience and grocery stores are finding that the growlers bring in new customers.” Other retail channels, such as pharmacies, big box stores and vape shops, are potential partners for the concept.

The Casual Pint, a hybrid on- and off-premise beer concept that launched in 2011, has quickly added eight locations since it began franchising last year. The company boasts nine stores in Tennessee and Ohio, with more in development, according to cofounder Nathan Robinette. The ideal size for a unit of The Casual Pint—which typically offers 22 brews on tap priced at $3 to $5 a pint and $11 to $13 a growler fill—is 2,000 to 2,400 square feet. Single bottles, which can be used to create mixed six-packs, are priced at $3 each. Robinette—who founded the concept with his father, Jon Robinette—notes that there are no mandated beers at The Casual Pint. “Owners have complete control, although we like to focus on local offerings,” he says. The chain is likely to enter North Carolina and Georgia, with potential for nationwide expansion.

Indeed, the entrepreneurs behind franchise beer stores see plenty of growth opportunity for the concepts. Schalow believes Craft Beer Cellar could even expand to Japan, but she’s not concerned about the competition in the United States. “We welcome it,” Schalow says. Nathan Robinette agrees, adding that there’s big demand for craft beer. “It’s a prime time for craft beer lovers to get involved in the retail business,” he says.