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Home Brew Evolves Into $35 Million Business

Iron Hill Continues Expansion

Home beer brewers take heart. It is possible to turn your passion for the world’s oldest and most popular alcoholic beverage into a successful business.  But it is not easy. Just ask someone who has actually done it.

In the early 1990s, Kevin Finn and his soccer buddy Mark Edelson would spend their Sunday afternoons watching football and fermenting home brew kits. Finn recalls that their first attempt, ‘Dog Blaster’ was “a really dark, nasty beer” and eventually was consumed by his dog Shredder.  But with perseverance soon Finn and Edelson were creating libations worthy of entry into competition. In 1993 they won their first of many awards. Now, the hobby was fermenting in a different way. We began to kick around “this crazy dream” of opening a brewpub restaurant.  Coincidentally, the country was in the midst of a microbrewery and brewpub boom.

As they evaluated their plan they realized that a key piece of the puzzle was missing from their skill set. Finn was vice president and general manager of an outdoor advertising company, and Edelson, a chemical engineer, was a production manager at a local pharmaceutical company. Neither had any real experience opening or operating a restaurant. Fortunately, a friend who owned two local restaurants, and was aware of their plans, introduced them to Kevin Davies who had 24 years experience in the restaurant business. They had found their missing piece; Finn would be the overall business manager, Davies would be in charge of restaurant operations, and Edelson would serve as head of brewing. Together they formed a formidable team.   

The three newly assembled partners found an asset in the local Small Business Administration (SBA) office and its resource partners, SCORE and the Small Business Technology and Development Center (SBTDC).  SCORE and SBTDC provided counseling in business matters and assisted finalizing their business plan and loan proposal. In 1996 they secured a $400,000 loan through the SBA 7(a) loan program, which they combined with their personal savings and investments from family and friends, to fund their startup.

On November 14, 1996, C&D Brewing, doing business as Iron Hill Brewery and Restaurant, opened in Newark, Delaware. The business headquarters is located at 2502 West 6th St, Wilmington, Delaware 19805. “If SBA didn’t exist, Iron Hill wouldn’t exist” said Finn. The name Iron Hill refers to a local Revolutionary War landmark where General Washington battled General Cornwallis.

The company grew quickly in size, earnings and stature in the ensuing years. In 1998 Iron Hill utilized the SBA 504 loan program, through which SBA funds a loan made by a local development company, to obtain $308,000 to open their second location in West Chester, Pennsylvania. By 2000 there were 3 Iron Hill Restaurant and Brewery sites, employing 300 people and garnishing $12 million in sales. Iron Hill beers won awards in Delaware, regionally, nationally and internationally. Food reviews consistently ranked them very highly for food quality and value. Also in 2001 Iron Hill won the SBA Entrepreneurial Success award for Delaware and the mid Atlantic region.

The growth has continued, and today Iron Hill operates eight restaurants in three states and employees more than 750 people. Revenues continue to grow again and last year topped a record $35 million. There are currently no plans to franchise, go public, or offer their brews in stores. Finn indicates that the goal is to “continue to open about one new location a year until we reach 20 restaurants. We want to keep a footprint within 100 miles of Wilmington. The current limit to our growth is finding good locations and good managers. That is my main focus. I am currently evaluating a site in Philadelphia and another undisclosed site.”

"Iron Hill Brewery's success is a direct result of an entrepreneurial vision, a well executed business plan and years of hard work," said Jayne Armstrong, district director SBA's Delaware District Office. "The SBA is honored to support its start up and early stage growth."

All three owners agreed from the beginning to focus on their employees’ welfare. Iron Hill offers above average pay, health care, a 401-k plan, and they strive to keep a reasonable 40 hour work week for employees in an industry known to burn out managers and employees. They do a survey of employee satisfaction two times a year, and use advanced personality profile training to foster unity and cooperation among staff and managers. It is not a coincidence that people are mentioned first when Finn discusses their three core values of “people, products, and then profits.”  

Finn points out that they are primarily a restaurant. The market for a bar is relatively small compared to the potential market for a good restaurant. The bar area is a small fraction of the restaurants overall footprint. Seventy percent of sales are derived from food. Iron Hill caters to business people for lunch and families for dinner. The menu is all American, featuring baby back ribs and gourmet pizzas that go well with beer.

To keep their business growing the management team has developed systems including a balanced scorecard of metrics and measures to identify problems and trends. The restaurants intentionally have little freezer space because they make everything fresh daily. Brew masters keep the five Iron Hill staple beers on tap year ‘round, rotate others and produce two to four seasonal beers. The menu is updated twice per year based on customer surveys and sales metrics. Management meetings can be interesting says Finn, “We maintain a culture of opinion and argument. It is ok to dissent here.”

Iron Hill has several monikers; ‘No hype, Just hops’ and ‘Good taste, served fresh daily’ are two to remember. But when asked, the owners say “One slogan can’t define us, we would rather be doing it. Walk the walk.” The Iron hill owners are the epitome of the American entrepreneur: start with a dream, make a plan, take a risk, take care of your people, and then walk the walk. And their 750 employees and thousands of customers are glad they were willing to take that risk.