In the comments to section of a Facebook page for my friend, Sue Kidd, former food reviewer for our local Tacoma News Tribune, covered the closure of a Seattle brewery which opened a pub in a ritzy (well, ritzy for Tacoma, anyway) new shopping and retail center on the Commencement Bay waterfront. The center is called Point Ruston and at least aspires to be an upscale location with more in common with our neighboring Seattle than sweet ol’ blue-collar Tacoma. The brewery occupied a large retail space there which had previously been the pub for another out-of-town brewery. The new closure was significant. People noticed…and came to a Conclusion.
Hundreds of Tacomans started to call this space “cursed”.
There is nothing at all “cursed” about the location. As someone who has been actively involved in the beverage trade for 37 years, I saw what was happening with those breweries going into Point Ruston and told my wife I gave them both less than six months…and that is because of ambition exceeding their realities.
Fish Brewing, to be blunt about it – even though they are a FINE brewery – is past its prime. They are simply not mentioned, anymore, in discussions of the state’s best breweries and their quasi-Flower Power, aging hippie aesthetic didn’t connect at all with Point Ruston’s post-yuppie vibe. The rent on a vast space like that at a retail/residential center like PR is CRIPPLING and any sane analysis by Fish of their current status in PNW beer would have ruled out that sort of ambition altogether.
That is even more true – FAR more true – with Magnuson, a brewery which makes just about zero waves even in its hometown of Seattle and is never mentioned in any discussions of the state’s better breweries. Simply put, they have no buzz. It was lunacy for the owners to try their original rebranded name, Kobrew, or Magnuson. Magnuson’s original location is in a city-owned former military barracks on Seattle’s northside, a place where the lease MAYBE costs them 40% of what they were in for at PR. You cannot run a business in that sort of situation and get too big for your britches, especially here in the ’20s, with the economy in decline. The FIRST principle of retail is to Know Your Standing. You have to take a LONG look around, be absolutely brutal about what public perception of your business is, and then be VERY judicious about expansion. I work in and write about beer and brewing 24/7/365 and I have barely even heard of this brewery, 45 miles from my porch. Find me some knowledgeable beer person in Seattle who names Magnuson in their top ten breweries. I’ll wait…
Breweries – and wineries and distilleries and restaurants and candle shops and ALL other businesses – have SOME following. It’s all too easy to sling suds across your taproom bar and hear compliments from your core customers and get the idea that you’re a bigger deal than you are. That is, in fact, maybe the single biggest contributing factor to brewery closures, aside, of course, from Covid, in the current market. Combine bloated self-image with Covid and there is your recipe for an almost guaranteed failure. Neither of those breweries had ANY business trying to operate in that space. They were priced out before they even opened their doors. Tacomans drink beer at OUR local breweries and neither of those was one.
I inquired about the leasing terms at PR and sent the figures to a friend who runs one of the largest and most successful breweries on the East Coast and another pal who runs a large, multi-location California brewery. Both said basically the same thing: “Were they drunk or crazy?” These are businesses at least ten, twenty times the size of Fish or Magnuson. They both said it didn’t pencil out, even for them.
There is no “curse” on that location. It is just waiting for one of two things to happen: a large company with DEEP pockets to lease it and vow to hang in there until they build a trade, or the center’s management to come down off their lofty cloud of their own assumed preeminence, drop their lease prices, and HELP some semi-local business survive, before the general perception of the place as a black hole DOES become established.
This isn’t rocket science.
There are certain things you HAVE TO DO to run a brewery or, really, any business. Gotta have some financing, gotta present yourself in a professional way, gotta get the word out, (it ASTOUNDS me how many businesses just do a month of social media, open the doors, and expect a tsunami), GOTTA check to make sure you won’t get sued for your name and image, gotta LISTEN to your customers, and GOTTAGOTTA be realistic about your market and your ambitions. It doesn’t matter if everyone who walks into your taproom raves about the beers. It’s wonderful and you have to have that, at very least, to even think about expansion, but good vibes and adulation are not building blocks for what is, in effect, a new business. You have to step outside your frame and see how you stand in the market overall. You have to seek out the news coverage and online conversation and be ready to accept reality if you’re not generating buzz or, worse, being trashed daily. Worse still, if you just don’t EVER appear on any of those Best Brewery lists, you’re just not ready to expand.
IMO, there are MAYBE seven, eight breweries in Washington AND Oregon which could have any reasonable shot at making a go of a space that large, in a pretentious retail center like Point Ruston. It’s a space which makes some sense for Cheesecake Factory or Fogo De Chão or maybe a Morton’s Steakhouse. Maybe not even them. But it is NOT a place for a niche brewery or one that is struggling to gain back an audience and I know the very real pain I feel in seeing a good brewery like Fish try and fail so abjectly is not even a patch on the ass – to use an apt Southernism – of what the Fish folks felt. And that breaks my heart.
When I sit in the Fish Brewpub in downtown Olympia, which I do as often as I can, I sip those lovely beers and feel that it’s exactly the place and community for their quaint but still QUITE relevant aesthetic. Expansion was NOT their problem. It was expansion into a space and an area that wasn’t compatible with Fish and that is a judgment they have to make in a FAR more clear-eyed manner. There IS, even within Washington, a place for another Fish Pub. I just hope they find it and remember their fine skills and venerable mission.