Mike Rangel had just filed the application to serve liquor at his new brewpub when he discovered his wife was pregnant. The news changed his life—and his business model.
“Instead of become a full hipster bar, we decided to go family friendly and not bring in liquor,” Rangel says.
Some elements already were in place: Rangel’s three-year old pizza business. A new building previously occupied by Two Moons Brew-N-View, a combination restaurant, brewery and movie theater. Brewer Doug Riley, a Two Moons holdover.
The building’s facade acts as a draw itself: Two old-school satellite dishes, welded together, form a UFO that’s embedded in the front of the building, against a purple background and painted cityscape. The crashed spaceship replaced a sculpted 30-foot gorilla that previously guarded the restaurant. Rangel also added a game room with foosball, pool, ping-pong, and vintage pinball and arcade game. “Slowly but surely, between that and offering the room for free for birthday parties, it started to catch on,” he says.
Nearly 17 years later, the Asheville Brewing Co. attracts a steady flow of beer-loving parents with children, and its family-friendly approach helps to distinguish it in a North Carolina city now awash in breweries.
The child-friendly business model is catching on nationally, for good reason: Children drive buying decisions. That’s why fast-food restaurants snag licensing rights to the latest kids’ movies and groceries put candy bars on low shelves in the checkout line.
The link between beer and families isn’t as odd at it seems. European pubs and beer gardens traditionally serve as community centers. Busch Gardens amusement parks had their origins in 1906 when Anheuser-Busch opened a garden and invited families to participate in picnics and egg hunts while sampling beer in hospitality houses.
That image isn’t too different from what breweries are increasingly offering today. Many incorporate family-friendly elements like kids’ menus, ginger or root beer, games such as cornhole or bocce ball, and wide-open lawns for children to run around.
When children walk in the door at Hopworks Urban Brewery in Portland, OR, they’re given a ball of the restaurant’s organic base pizza dough—think an edible version of Play-Doh. The restaurant features three different play areas with train tables, chalk boards, magnets, books and toys.
The result: Hopworks has become known as a family-friendly destination, attracting children of all ages.
“We get kids just a few weeks old all the way through teens,” says Hopworks brewmaster and owner Christian Ettinger. “A lot of those kids grow up here.”
Ettinger says the seeds for Hopworks were planted during his time experiencing the European model in Cologne, Germany, home to Kölsch beer. Still, he wasn’t fully convinced when he went to work with Mike De Kalb to open Laurelwood Public House & Brewery in 2001. Ettinger remembers wincing when De Kalb asked him to design a play area.
“I thought my boss was nuts,” he says. “We would lose 12 seats. Now I have kids and I get it.”
De Kalb, who had a 3-year-old and 11-year-old at the time, credits his wife for the idea.
“We liked to go out and enjoy beer, and there was not a place to go where we felt good taking our kids,” De Kalb says. “We were looking for a place that marketed to people like us—somewhere that had good beer, good food, good service and that was family-friendly.”
That meant play areas and small touches that can make a big difference, like having servers offer to get the kids’ food orders started right away, when they’re first taking drink orders. Today, Laurelwood and Hopworks, which Ettinger opened in 2008 after setting out on his own, have become destinations for parents.
“Young families have got to get a sitter to have a real meal and conversation,” Ettinger says. “We offer the ability to not have the sitter, for your kids to have a good time, for you to have a nice conversation with your spouse.”
That option builds loyalty and a steady flow of returns: De Kalb estimates that families with children comprise a solid 60 percent of Laurelwood’s customers during the supper hours between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m.
That’s not to say it’s always easy to maintain a family-friendly brewery. Parents can get caught up in conversation and forget to watch their kids, leading to occasional situations where children walk into a kitchen or other area where they perhaps shouldn’t be.
Non-parents can be an issue too. “One stumbly guy can affect the dynamic in a whole dining room of people,” Rangel says. For that reason, Asheville Brewing Co. limits its patrons to four beers per day. But for families with young children, a well-run family-friendly brewery can become a lifeline and regular destination.
Says Rangel, “No one deserves a good beer more than a frazzled parent.”
Mason Adams writes from the mountains of southwest Virginia. Follow him on Twitter @MasonAdamsVA.