Food and beer. Craft Brewing Business’s Brewpub Files have been dedicated to digging up the secret link between these two brewpub business staples. Throughout all our files, one of the biggest themes is quality. BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse came to the craft beer community through its passion for crafting quality eats and a fun, friendly dining environment. While many craft brewers start out with small brewpubs, BJ’s leveraged its small network of restaurants that specialized in deep dish pizza to grow its brand across the country.
Come along on another exciting edition of The Brewpub Files — a series of brewpub case studies that investigates the strategies and philosophies behind some of the most successful brewpubs in the country.
Subject: BJ’s Restaurants Inc.
Brewery size: 60,000 barrels annually (2013)
Mantra: “Delicious Food, Great Craft Beer, Perfect Pairings”
Brewpub representative: Alex Puchner, senior vice president of brewing operations
“The BJ’s story is a pretty amazing one, and I’m proud to be a part of it,” Puchner began. “When I started, BJ’s operated just eight little restaurants specializing in deep dish pizza. The two passionate restaurateurs running the company weren’t beer drinkers, but the craft beer movement inspired them to pair BJ’s pizza with BJ’s own handcrafted beers. At the time, I was involved with several brewpub start-ups in Orange County and L.A. I was hired to get BJ’s into the craft brewing business, initially as a consultant in 1995. The more I worked with BJ’s, the more I believed in the concept’s growth potential. I started working full time for BJ’s at the beginning of 1996, focusing my efforts on BJ’s first brewery in Brea, Calif.”
Puchner explained that the brewery was sized to supply the surrounding restaurants with beer, creating a “hub and spoke” brewing model that has been a key strategy for growth over the years. Centralizing its brewing operations is cost-effective, and the biggest advantage from Puchner’s perspective is quality control.
“We have operated as many as 11 brewery restaurants but today we brew most of our beer in just two locations – Reno, Nev., and Chandler, Ariz. – while also contracting production of our beers with three large craft brewers. With our newest opening at the Outlets at Orange, we have grown to 136 restaurants in 15 states from coast to coast.
Although BJ’s is a big restaurant chain now, and Puchner’s job has changed radically from the days when he brewed beer on a daily basis, he said he is more passionate today than ever about being a craft brewer.
“What excites me most is research and development,” he said. “We’re always looking for more variety in our beer offerings and new beer experiences for our guests. That’s what beer drinkers are looking for these days, and craft brewers are responding while the big brewers continue to lose market share. The industry is exploding again just like it did when I first started brewing 20 years ago.”
And BJ’s is definitely devoting itself to a wide variety of styles. The brand has 10 flagship year-round beers: LightSwitch Lager; Brewhouse Blonde; Harvest Hefeweizen; Piranha Pale Ale; HopStorm IPA; Oasis Amber; Jeremiah Red; Nutty Brewnette; PM Porter; and Tatonka Stout.
“With our signature beer line up, we try to offer something for everyone by respecting the vast variety of beer styles that the world has to offer — from the delicate balance of German Kolsch to the robust intensity of Russian Imperial Stout,” Puchner said. “With our rotating seasonal beers and Brewmaster’s Reserve line, we strive to continue to differentiate ourselves as pioneers in craft beer by introducing innovative and distinctive beers.”
As a large restaurant chain, BJ’s differentiates itself with its variety of quality house beers that are unique to the brand, as well as a variety of quality domestic and imported beers. Unlike other restaurant chains, BJ’s makes a craft beer statement by not offering any bland American lagers on tap.
That puts BJ’s in a unique position, as a restaurant, to be able to aggressively promote beer and food pairings and to educate its beer drinking guests about how well beer pairs with food. On top of suggesting pairings at the table, BJ’s offer quarterly beer dinners in most of its restaurants where the focus is on perfect pairings with every course.
To ensure that the quality remains up to BJ’s high standards, the restaurants train constantly and keep a close watch on the food quality. On the beer side, BJ’s has labs in its breweries for analysis and BJ’s brewing team conducts regular taste panels. Outside of the restaurant, BJ’s primarily focuses on social media efforts and a loyalty program to bring customers through the door. Of course, the aforementioned beer dinners and other beer appreciation events help to convert new customers and keep established customers coming back for the quality brews and eats.