John Urlaub was brewing craft beer before brewing craft beer was cool
Can you tell me about Rohrbach, Germany?
It’s outside of Heidelberg. I think it’s one of the most beautiful cities in all of Europe. It’s a university town. There’s actually a big university there in Heidelberg, and it overlooks the Necker river. In Rohrbach the one thing that I remember about, because it’s a tiny little town, quite a few residents around it and it’s definitely just a suburb of Heidelberg. But there are two buildings that were built way before roads, and it’s just a tiny little road. And honestly, small cars can get through it and not trucks. And that’s the main road, but they’re not going to take these buildings down. So it’s just a town that was built a long time ago. And when we were thinking about names for the company, we had a long list, but we’re back, we’re moving into the German house, and it seemed to be the right fit.
Did you live in Rohrbach for work?
I did live in Rohrbach. It was nice. I was there for two years. I was working for Kodak. Great assignment. I was responsible for any of the US sales that would go directly to US embassies and the military and the territory was really Iceland to Turkey. So it was all of Europe, but Germany was in the middle there, and Heidelberg was a nice place to live.
Coming out of a career at Kodak, did you have a background in food? How did you go about building such a successful business in food?
Well, it’s almost like everything we’ve done; you surround yourself with the right people, and you have to know the skills that you have. I really have a finance background. So I think I knew how to run a company. But first thing I did, I don’t know if you remember Oscars, but back then it was Ozzy’s. I worked there for awhile. I worked at Spaghetti Warehouse, and it was a funny time because I had left Kodak on my own volition. I don’t know if people knew it or not because I was pretty young, but then all of a sudden I’m waiting tables at Spaghetti Warehouse. My Kodak friends would come in and really felt bad for me, and I’d have a little smile because I knew I had a plan. But it was an interesting time. So I tried to do some hands on to learn a little bit. I took some classes at RIT, and you don’t always learn that much from classes, but we’ve always had really talented culinary folks, and as a company you just put the focus on what’s important. To this day, every single shift, our servers have to write a little report that says a customer said “this was great,” or they didn’t like this, or “the portion looks bad in this,” or “we’re out of this.” And it drives them crazy because some of them have been working for me for twenty years, and I’m still doing shift reports. But all those little things in a competitive business make a difference. So we focus every single day to make sure we’re delivering value, good quality, we’re listening to our customers, what are their concerns? What do they like? And you do that all the time. You’re relentless, and you can keep the quality up. The restaurant’s been around for twenty-five or thirty years. To me, that’s the secret, just listen to your customers and making sure you’re delivering what they’re looking for.
What do you think is the most creative limited release you’ve done?
Maybe the griddle cakes. It really was like blueberry and maple and tasted like pancakes. And we’ve really hit the mark. And we stuck to our guns that it was a limited release. We may bring it back as a throwback, but it was part of the neoteric series, and it was meant to be out there for six or eight weeks, and people ask for it all the time so it might come back and in limited basis. But that did really well for us.
Do you think the craft beer movement has grown too fast and is at risk of deflating?
I think that it’s happened really fast in the last two or three years. So again, I think that the right business plan could really work. I think part of the smaller breweries is the retail piece. You’ve got to have a nice tasting room and have people come in and buy a pint of beer or take some beer to go. The wholesale market, you look at the shelves and the local supermarkets out on Wegman’s. There’s a lot of products out there. So the reality is I think maybe there’s a few too many. It happened all too fast, and there might be a little bit of adjustment. But really, I don’t think craft beer is going away. I think if craft brewers continue to be creative and make really good products, there are a lot of beer drinkers that drink domestic beer that might slide over to craft. So I’m very optimistic about the market, but there might be a little bit of a shakeout. There’s a lot of breweries that have opened up all at once.
Are there any other particularly strong partnerships that have resonated throughout your company’s lifetime?
The Redwings brought us on a long time ago. I mean, before craft beer was even that popular, it was back at Silver Stadium. We go back twenty-plus years with them, and I remember there were national magazines saying, “Why can’t craft beer get into sports venues?” And we’ve raised the flags. We’ve been doing this for years. I really think it was in the forefront, and they’ve made a big commitment. We make the Redwing Red, which I think is a great summer beer. And really, especially back in the day when we were trying to pitch our beers to different people, they gave us credibility because, “Oh, Rohrbach, you’re the one that’s at Frontier Field or at the old Silver Stadium.” We were, and that gave us a foot in the door that would maybe let them try our beer.