Alaskan Brewing's downtown depot a hit in Year 1

Posted: Wednesday, October 06, 2010

The Alaskan Brewing Co. said its first tourist season in the retail game was a success.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

Alaskan Brewing opened its downtown Depot on May 6, in time to meet the first cruise ships. While retail was a large part of the new store, the downtown location turned out to offer a unique opportunity for the company to spread its name to visitors.

The Depot's retail operations manger, Damien Horvath, said the brewery in Lemon Creek has always dealt in souvenirs, but was limited by space. He said the downtown space allows for more than sales. It lets them devote a quarter of the store to education on the company and Alaska, which thrilled many of the tourists, even the ones who didn't spend money.

"There was a lot interest in going upstairs and reading about Juneau," he said.

"When we set out to talk about creating retail space, we always said it would be more than just a retail store. It would be an experience," said communications manager Ashley Johnston.

"It's an institution that's actually founded and rooted here in Juneau. Tourists want to see something local and keeping people employed," he said. "Part of our mission is to showcase Alaska. We feature a lot of products made in Alaska."

Alaskan Brewing general manager Linda Thomas said she was pleased with the amount of traffic the Depot received.

"We actually did better than expected for the number of visitors going in our store," she said. "That was awesome."

Several other downtown store owners have said the decline in cruise passengers this year has taken a toll on their businesses. Being a new store, Thomas feels this one was saved from that comparison.

"Our projections were somewhat conservative because we knew cruise passengers were down. We didn't have to deal with the past. We were starting fresh, so that was an advantage," she said.

Thomas said they may have exceeded their expected number of customers the first time out, but it was difficult to tell what percentage was tourists and what was locals.

Thomas said the store will use the numbers from this season to get a better feel of what to expect next year.

"We're all thrilled to have made it through the season and to have learned a lot," Johnston said. "We'll continue to grow and change."

"We're excited that it was a hit in this location. That was a big part of moving here. It'll add to this part of town," said Thomas.

Johnston said the store adds value to Juneau for many reasons, not the least of which is it's a downtown store that's open all year.

"We decided we didn't want to open a downtown store unless we could open it year-round," Horvath said.

Thomas said that the large space not used for retail will afford them more opportunities in the winter. She said the company is looking to offer the space to be used for meetings or classes. Rather than a rental fee, the Alaskan Brewing would ask for a donation to its nonprofit charity.

Horvath said he was surprised at the positivity other private business owners showed the store. He said many businesses welcomed the brewery's expansion into retail as Alaskan Brewing is a symbolic brand in Juneau.

"As you're in Juneau you know Alaskan Brewing Co. is a brand here.

"The biggest challenge for us was probably that we were not used to retail. What's more important to us to give customers a feel for our company and our brand. The fact that we have a quarter of our store that's not retail is a big deal."

He said while retail stores are common complements of brewing stations to visitors from the Lower 48, this one differed in that it focused on community by teaching tourists about the trials and tribulations of brewing in Alaska.

It wasn't just American tourists. Horvath said a lot of Dutch and German tourists commented on the Alaskan beer they'd encountered in their travels. He said this speaks loudly to their brand recognition. He said Alaskan Brewing has built a lot of international fans over the years.

"This helps us showcase our brewery and our community, which is probably more important to us than the aspect of the retail sales. Even when we were only selling at the brewery it was to have something people can walk away with and have a memory," Thomas said.

Thomas said the company's foray into retail was a whole different experience than manufacturing.

Horvath, who has served as the company's packaging supervisor and has prior retail experience, said the biggest thing the employees had to get used to was that in manufacturing beer, they were used to building everything up from the raw materials to get to the final product. Here, he said they had to work with a different mindset as they had to work with different outside vendors to design products rather than build them, and the products were together in a different way.

"We learned a lot about what it takes to open, run and manage a store," Johnston said.

She said the company is open to suggestions for the store or their products at www.alaskan beer.com.

• Contact reporter Jonathan Grass at 523-2276 or at jonathan.grass@juneauempire.com.



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