Sam Calagione, the founder of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, started his company when he was 24 years old after brewing only six batches of beer. Then, since Delaware's laws didn't allow breweries, he had to work to get the laws changed.
"I wanted to open a brewery in a state that didn't have one yet," Calagione tells Inc. during a tour of his new hotel in Lewes, Delaware. So, why open a hotel now--especially without any industry experience?
There's two reasons, Calagione says. First is that he took a survey in his Milton-based brewery, which will produce 230,000 barrels this year, and found out that half of his 1,000 weekly visitors trek from out-of-state specifically to see Dogfish Head's brewery--and then stay overnight. The second reason is to help grow his brand, but not through a lush, new revenue stream from the 16-room inn, but rather through good old customer engagement.
Back in 1995, when Calagione opened Dogfish Head Craft brewery they were among the smallest of America's 600 craft brewers. Today, he's the 13th largest craft brewery out of 3,000.
"We grew mostly through events and making unique beers that have their own story to them and find niches to make our own," he says. From Festina Peche, a malt beer brewed with peach concentrate, to Birra Etrusca Bronze, a malted barley and heirloom Italian wheat beer with hazelnut flour, pomegranates and myrrh resin; to their most popular beer 60-Minute IPA, which is made by a process Calagione invented called "continual hopping" where hops are added in a constant stream for 60 minutes.
"We have been able to grow by talking to our customers, what was called human-scale marketing before social media. I think our hotel will help extend our conversation from a one-hour brewery tour, a two-hour dinner at our brewpub, to a weekend so people can get a really great idea about our company and hopefully become evangelists and spread the word," Calagione explains.
The Dogfish Inn, which just opened July 1, is about 20 minutes from Dogfish's brewpub in Rehoboth and 20 minutes from the brewery in Milton. Calagione bought the building, formerly a run-down family-owned hotel, last year. Then he partnered with Brooklyn-based Studio Tack to design and renovate the space to make it a modern-Americana beer-themed hotel.
Inc. spoke with Calagione about why a craft beer company--the mission of which is to make "off-centered ales for off-centered people"--would open a beer-themed hotel and not serve or sell its beer on premises, not hire any hotel experts, and other, well, off-centered decisions.
No experience preferred.
Calagione made Andrew Greeley, who was a supervisor in the Dogfish brewery's tasting room, his innkeeper. With an English degree, a big red beard, a talent for making fires, and a penchant for telling stories, Greeley doesn't have any experience in running hotels. But cultural fit is more important to Dogfish.
"He's such a good storyteller and has such positive energy, that we decided to make him our innkeeper," Calagione says. "He doesn't have hotel experience. Nor do any of us. We interviewed some people who did, but frankly we decided to pick people who were more like us. We'll learn together and from our mistakes collectively. Maybe a corporate hotel manager would have more experience out of the gate, but they wouldn't be a great cultural fit for us."
Calagione isn't your typical CEO. He is not preoccupied with massive success and isn't motivated by potentially taking a bath in a tub of cash. Instead, he's motivated by his company's mission. "When we opened Dogfish, I only home-brewed six batches of beer, we mostly learned how to brew after we opened the brewery. Our goal was always to not listen to the established ways to make beer. I feel like if we brought in professionals this inn would start to feel like other hotels. Instead, we want to see what a hotel means to Dogfish by putting Dogfish first, hotel industry second," he says.
A beer-themed hotel--that doesn't sell beer.
At first, it doesn't make sense as a business decision. Not selling your own beer at your own beer-themed hotel seems like a real missed opportunity. But Dogfish isn't trying to crush Anheuser-Busch. This hotel is about community, support the local economy, celebrate coastal Delaware, and celebrate Dogfish.
"We made a conscious decision not to try and change legislation, which we've done numerous times, and build a restaurant and bar [at the hotel]. I live three blocks away, all my friends own restaurants in town, and they all serve Dogfish on tap. I thought if I'm going to do something three blocks from my house, I'm not going to compete with my friends, I'm going to do something that brings business to them while at the same time bringing business to Dogfish," he says. "It sounds counter-intuitive to open a beer-themed hotel that doesn't serve beer, but I think as you stay here it's designed to get you out in nature to find our beer and bring it back."
The Dogfish Inn isn't a big bet on a new revenue stream. "We'll probably break even," Calagione says. It's more of a gesture to his customers to come on down and hang, a means to help the local beach town's economy, and help Dogfish get closer to its customers and fans. It's also a place to help displace Delaware from being the butt of jokes to a popular vacation destination. "Delaware is never mentioned in top 10 places to vacation and it really bothers me," Calagione says. But with his beer and his hotel, he's giving vistors two really good reasons to stop by.