How Do You Build a Strong Brewery? Jackie O’s Focuses on Home
Jackie O’s Brewery is tucked away in Athens, Ohio. Athens is a college town, home to Ohio University, but also a town smack dab in the middle of Appalachia, in one of Ohio’s most impoverished counties. Here, the business model is different. Jackie O’s isn’t trying to dominate the Midwest, become a national brewery, or get rich quick. This brewery has built a business model that sustainably increases the quality of life for its community, bringing jobs, tourism and sales tax dollars to the city and state while producing consistently high-quality beers.
To Art Oestrike, owner of Jackie O’s, “Everything spawns from the brewpub.” This is both literally and metaphorically true.
Jackie O’s journey started in 2006, when Oestrike bought the former O’Hooley’s brewpub, a declining product of the 90’s brewpub boom, and hired Brad Clark as his brewer. Oestrike renamed the bar Jackie O’s in honor of his mother and he and Clark cultivated a cult following with Ohio University students.
As the brewery’s popularity grew, so did its footprint. Within a handful of years, Clark strained the brewpub’s 900-barrel capacity. In 2013, Jackie O’s opened an 8,000-barrel production brewery five miles from the brewpub and inked a distribution agreement with Cavalier, a Cincinnati-based craft beer distributor, to sell throughout Ohio.
Less than two years later, Jackie O’s found themselves again at capacity. In 2015, they expanded once more, this time a massive blowout of their production facility, adding 120-barrel fermenters, a quality control lab and a dedicated space for souring. In 2016, they’ll likely hit the 14,000-barrel mark, with room to grow to 30,000 barrels annually.
Sustainably Crafted with a Purpose
Jackie O’s has seen remarkable growth, but it is a controlled growth guided by the principles established at the brewpub. Their motto encapsulates their business model: “Sustainably Crafted With Purpose.” As they expand, Art Oestrike and Brad Clark are making conscientious decisions about how to sustain that growth, both for the brewery and their community.
It is not surprising that Jackie O’s looks to companies like New Belgium and Patagonia as role models. Both companies have philanthropic bona fides, and both are certified B Corporations, a certification that sets “rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency.” The standards required for B Corp certification guide Jackie O’s growth, and not surprisingly, the company is working towards this certification.
There are obvious ways that Jackie O’s drives sustainability: they have their own CSA; they donate spent grains to local farmers; they invested in solar panels; they can their core offerings to offset their carbon footprint. But they also see sustainability through human resources lenses. In addition to the above, sustainability to Oestrike “means people and the ability to live and have a life in this impoverished area, and be happy and enjoy what they do.” Oestrike explains, “If we don’t take care of them, they’re not going to take care of us. And we’re not going to have this Sustainably Crafted With Purpose thing in a human sense, in a resource sense.”
This year, with 127 employees (64 FTEs), Jackie O’s will be one of the top ten employers in Athens County. Nearly all of the production brewery employees are full time, including their photographer, plumber and carpenter. This staff comes from the local area. Many are former Ohio University students who, upon graduation, looked for ways to stay in Athens. And many stay for the duration—four of five original employees are still with the brewery.
To retain talent, Oestrike and Clark empower individuals to advance within the company. When an employee comes on board at Jackie O’s, they are often hired for a specific growth track. “There’s another job above the one that we’re putting them in the position for, that is always in mind,” Clark explains. “There has to be [movement within the company] … we need to have those options so that people stay here.”
Employees also stay because Jackie O’s pays a living wage and health benefits, with additional benefits added as the brewery can support them. “What it all comes down to is, we have a lifestyle company,” Clark explains. “It’s not necessarily about profit. It’s about us having good jobs that are supporting us that we enjoy.”
Being an outstanding employer is just one way that Jackie O’s gives back to Athens. They also create opportunities with Ohio University, from working with business students on the B Corp certification process to conducting brew chemistry courses during the summers. When a fire broke out in 2014 that destroyed several buildings in the Athens business district, including part of the Jackie O’s kitchen, Oestrike was on the front lines helping the city recover. And, most importantly, through their business model, the brewery works to drive tourism and tax dollars to the impoverished county.
Driving People Into Athens and the Local Economy
Although Jackie O’s is widely available throughout Ohio, the majority of their limited release beers are sold at the production brewery. Taproom sales for breweries are more marginable, so direct sales help fund special projects and provide face-to-face contact with consumers. But the main reason Jackie O’s consciously funnels the majority of their rare releases through their Athens facilities is because doing so drives people to Athens to visit and participate in the local economy.
Aaron Spoores, state sales manager for Cavalier Distributing in Ohio, sees Jackie O’s as a major force for tourism in Athens. “Jackie O’s brings people to that city when there’s nothing else going on.” Art Oestrike agrees, explaining that, “We liked for years that the only place to get our beers was Athens, Ohio.” He adds, “That drives a lot of people through Athens.”
“The consumer is spending their money in Ohio and we’re bringing people in from outside of Ohio. It’s building and strengthening everything around us and within us.” ~ Brad Clark, Jackie O’s Brewer
The release of Champion Ground is a perfect example of this phenomenon. The 2016 limited release is a bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout made with coffee beans from Stauf’s, a Columbus, Ohio, roaster. Jackie O’s produced 700 cases, of which 460 were sold through the production brewery taproom and the brewpub. This approach drives people to spend money in Athens. “Even if they just come here,” Oestrike notes, “maybe they sleep here, maybe they just spend some money up at the brewpub, but they’ve tipped a couple of people along the way, they bought some gas, eaten dinner, bought a pair of sandals at the Import House, stayed the night at the OU Inn. Whatever it may be, that is money and sales tax generated for the area.”
Although taproom sales dominate the rare releases, Cavalier sells the majority of the core beers in about 3,500 accounts throughout Ohio. Cavalier was a natural fit for Jackie O’s, in that Cavalier’s core values align with a lot of Jackie O’s, especially “being a vibrant community partner” and “pride in doing the right thing in all things.” With Cavalier’s help, Jackie O’s is now available all over the Buckeye state, from local carry outs to chains like Kroger and Costco. There are approximately 1,600 Jackie O’s tap handles, including in venues like Ohio State University’s Horseshoe and the Cleveland Indians’ Progressive Field. Oestrike takes pride in never being more than a car ride away from servicing any of these accounts.
Winning at Home
It might be tempting for Jackie O’s to branch out beyond Ohio. Yet, Jackie O’s wants to support Ohio in the same ways that another role model, New Glarus, supports Wisconsin: to drive people and dollars to the local community in a sustainable way. By very conservative estimates, Jackie O’s generates $550-$600,000 annually in Ohio sales tax. This limited distribution model is the Jackie O’s motto writ large.
“Staying within the state is sustainable,” explains Clark. “There’s a reduced carbon footprint but there’s also keeping money within the state, whether it’s going to the distributor or the retailer, the consumer is spending their money in Ohio and we’re bringing people in from outside of Ohio. It’s building and strengthening everything around us and within us.”
Spoores agrees. “We always tell brewers to win at home,” he explains. With Jackie O’s, Spoores sees a strong foundation based on local roots that nourishes both the brewery and its community. “I look a Jackie O’s as an oak tree—those roots are deep in the earth, and they stick towards the river where there’s water. They really want to sink deep and grow tall.”