As popularity of local craft beers grows, so does the demand for places to drink them. To capture that market, beer pubs take on a new identity.
Something big is brewing along the Gulf Coast of Florida, and new players in the beer-forward restaurant industry seek to hoist a tall one and toast their success.
Sensing a growing thirst for a variety of craft beers among an expanding regional population, purveyors of wide-ranging beer options have begun capitalizing on a largely untapped market, albeit with a twist — an emphasis on food that goes beyond the stereotypical sports bar that also appeals to families.
Examples of restaurateurs raising the profile of craft beer-focused restaurants in the region are flowing, with a list that includes:
• Irvine, Calif.-based national chain Yard House, which last fall opened its 78th location — and first on the Florida Gulf Coast, in North Naples — bringing its signature 130-tap beer tower and wrap-around bar that caters to families by day and early evening, then the late night crowd until the wee hours of the morning.
• Sarasota-based Oak & Stone, which features a tap wall from which electronic bracelet-wearing patrons can sample from among dozens of beers by the ounce. Oak & Stone debuted in 2016 with one location in booming east Manatee County. It now has two locations, with three more on the way, including one in May.
• Those entities join World of Beer, founded in Tampa in 2007, with seven of its 65 locations in Tampa and Fort Myers.
The recipe for success, it seems, is a model that presents today’s upscale beer joint as more than just a sports bar that serves wings and burgers.
“It’s where all the breweries are heading,” says Joe Seidensticker, CEO and partner of Oak & Stone, and co-founder of Sarasota-based TableSeide Restaurant Group. “Beer was never considered something you pair with food, but you don’t realize how really good beer and good food go together. Once we really got into the concept, we felt we could really exploit that relationship.”
Despite their culinary ambitions, both Yard House and Oak & Stone first cultivate a customer experience through their emphasis on a wide variety of craft beers. Oak & Stone’s self-service tap wall offers no fewer than 50 beers and ciders at all times. The restaurant also has a traditional full-service bar. Yard House features a second-floor, glass-enclosed keg room from which dozens of visible refrigerated tubes transport its 124-draft selection to the horseshoe-shaped bar and beer tower in the center of the dining area.
“I think the beer trend is here to stay,” says Yard House Naples General Manager Sonia Ramirez. “I like to tell my managers that we’re going to be the trend-setters here in Naples. Most of our beer list is Florida beers — locals and micro-locals — and that is so popular right now. We used to not have so many local options at our restaurants, but that’s taken off. When you look at our menu, they’re from all over Florida.”
Certainly the increasing interest in local and regional craft breweries has contributed to the popularity of beer-centric restaurants and pubs and their growth in the region. As a growing number of beer lovers explore the vast available variety of stouts, IPAs, pilsners, lagers and artisan craft offerings, they’re looking for a place to do it around those of similar interests. Because many crafts beers are available only on draft, they must visit bars or brewery tap rooms to find them. Creating a social experience around that pursuit is a natural extension of the industry.
“It’s a social experience and it takes the intimidation factor out of craft beer which, from personal experience, is real.” Joe Seidensticker, Oak & Stone
“The population is getting younger, the incomes are rising, and because we have low taxes in Florida you are seeing businesses interested in trying to make a go of it here,” says Florida Brewers Guild Executive Director Sean Nordquist. “Also we're 10 years into our craft beer industry and it’s still growing. It’s thriving whereas in other parts of the country they have been doing this for 20 or 30 years. Because it's still growing here, it’s still exciting, and a generation is growing up with it, there is still a lot of upside.”
That upside is apparent as patrons fill seats in emerging concepts such as Oak & Stone and Yard House. Since opening, long waits in the evenings have been the norm at Yard House Naples. In addition to the visual emphasis on the beer element, Yard House pumps music at increasing volumes and tempo as the patron demographic decreases in age while the night wears on.
“Yard House is for everyone, and we’re known for a creating a memorable experience,” says Rivera. “Kids love us, older adults love us. There is nothing like this in Naples, and that’s what we’re hearing from our guests. There’s no late-night here, nothing that has this many options for food and beverage, so it just made sense to be here.”
Yard House will soon have company: Seidensticker and his business partner, Brett Decklever, are planning to open an Oak & Stone in Naples by year’s end — what would be location No. 5. The partners opened a second Oak & Stone, in downtown St. Petersburg, following the success of their 2016 debut location, near the Mall at University Town Center. A third location, in south Sarasota off Clark Road, is scheduled to open in in May, followed by a Bradenton store.
In contrast to the traditional bar service, Oak & Stone encourages customers to create their own beer experience with its self-serve tap wall. Customers start a tab when their sensor-embedded bracelet is paired with a payment card. Bracelets are scanned at the tap and billed to the tab by the ounce as customers can sip their way to their favorites.
“It’s a social experience and it takes the intimidation factor out of craft beer which, from personal experience, is real,” says Seidensticker. “Customers can often end up with something they don’t like, so this allows them to experiment and taste different beers. If you taste an ounce that you don’t like, you’re only out a few cents.”
Not wholly dependent on the rising popularity of craft beer, both establishments offer full-bar service. “Besides beer there is wine and craft cocktails,” Rivera says. “We describe our menu as a no-veto menu. There is something for everyone.”
To further broaden the appeal, both Yard House and Oak & Stone claim culinary emphasis that extends beyond typical beer joint and sports bar fare.
“Walking into our building it’s home, it’s fun, it’s energetic, it’s positive,” Rivera says. “There are 30-plus TVs showing different sports events. Our service sets us apart from many others, and our menu caters to people wanting a casual experience to a presentation that’s a lot like fine dining.”
Oak & Stone, says Seidensticker, emphasizes the pairing of food and beer, adding the menu was created to complement the flavor profiles of brews from lagers to stouts.
“Ultimately my partner and I wanted a restaurant, but the beer part was such a cool part of it that we wanted to build a concept around the beer,” Seidensticker says. “In order to do that, we felt it had to be focused on the two things we wanted, one being a really large craft beer selection, and the other offering high-quality food that pairs with high-quality craft beer. We’re not a sports bar, but we have become a popular place to watch games.”
'Keep coming back'
In addition to offering more dining and entertainment options to consumers, the emergence of new beer-centric eateries help raise the profile of local craft brews. With dozens of taps to fill keg rooms they are constantly restocking and rotating selections.
“Our business is driven in large part by the local markets, and typically 75% of our beer comes from the local market,” says Seidensticker. “That allows the community around the restaurant to take a little bit of ownership of it.”
Beer doesn’t have a lengthy shelf life, however, and is effectively expired after about 75 days once in the keg. As a result, properly maintaining the volume of kegs required at establishments such as Yard House and Oak & Stone is paramount and, says Nordquist, could be the difference between success and failure.
“I went to a bar in California that had 200 taps, but the beer was so far gone it was undrinkable,” says Nordquist. “The bartender just shrugged and said it happens sometimes. That’s unacceptable. Managing those taps is a key part of your staff. So is having servers who know about the beer. It takes more training and an extra effort to have a staff that can do that, and it’s the kind of thing that will keep people coming back.”