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Of malts and malls: In search of new space and customers, local brewers tap shopping centers

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Silvio Vitiello, owner of Pocono Brewery, sits in a booth during the Jan. 18 grand opening of the company's tap room at the Lehigh Valley Mall in Whitehall
Silvio Vitiello, owner of Pocono Brewery, sits in a booth during the Jan. 18 grand opening of the company's tap room at the Lehigh Valley Mall in Whitehall - (Photo / )

Inside the Pocono Brewery is the smell of fresh wood and varnish. An industrial looking bar with brushed metal panels makes guests feel like they are standing in an old factory building with tanks of beer fermenting in back.

But it’s all just an illusion. The tap room, which had a grand opening Jan. 18, isn’t in an old industrial complex. It is front and center in the Lehigh Valley Mall’s lifestyle center in Whitehall Township, surrounded by an Apple Store, a Chico’s and a Yankee Candle shop.

With shopping malls and other retail districts looking to fill empty storefronts with new and different attractions, and craft brewers looking to get their beer in front of the public in an increasingly crowded industry, a craft-brew tap room at a mall is likely to become more common.

According to Forbes Magazine, U.S. mall vacancies hit a seven-year high in the third quarter of last year. Locally, voids have been left by the closure of a number of Bon-Ton, Kmart and Toys R Us stores, as well as dozens of smaller stores. Those spaces not only need filling, they need to be filled with businesses that will give something new and different to draw in customers.

Meanwhile, according to breweriesinpa.com, there are currently more than 320 breweries in Pennsylvania competing for a market share and trying to grab the attention of existing and future beer fans.

It seems like a perfect match.

Early brewing

So why an industrial feel for a tap room?

Factories are where many craft breweries were born.

Pennsylvania craft brewers weren’t allowed to sell pints of beer to the public until state law changed in 2015. Until that change, many craft breweries found homes in industrial areas and saw their digs largely as production facilities.

When state law changed to allow for tap rooms, many brewers opened taprooms on site where they could offer beer for sale by the pint to be drank on premises.

Among those to take advantage of the change was Hijinx Brewing Co., which is located in the Bridgeworks Enterprise Center in Allentown. It added a tap room shortly after the law changed.

Curt Keck, founder of Hijinx, said it has attracted a fairly regular crowd, but despite creating a destination for craft beer lovers, even he is thinking of finding a new location in a higher-traffic location.

“There’s a lot of competition out there,” Keck said. “As more breweries open up it’s getting harder to find a place that will draw in people that’s in an area that isn’t already super saturated.”

Easy access

It was a desire to get in front of people and stand out from the crowd that led Jeffrey Bonner to open a tap room for his Cave Brewing Co. inside the South Mall in Salisbury Township in November.

Up until that point, he said he hadn’t heard of any brewer in the region locating a tap room in a shopping mall, but he had a list of things he wanted in a tap-room location.

“Going into the South Mall checked off every box on my list,” Bonner said.

For example, it was close to I-78, which made it easy to get to for people seeking his tap room as a destination

It also gave him access to a fresh new crop of potential beer fans who could discover Cave Brewing because they came to the mall to shop.

An experience

And the mall was more than happy to have him.

Rachel Berosh, assistant manager of the South Mall, said that while it is only open limited hours in the evenings on weekends, Cave Brewing Co. has a lot to offer the shopping center.

“He’s brought in his own clientele,” she said. “It’s a whole other customer base.”

Berosh said as more people shop online for their basic needs, malls and shopping centers need to give people a reason to get off their couches and into stores.

“On our end you’ve got to go for the things people can’t buy online,” she said. “You need an experience that you can’t get sitting in your living room.”

Cave Brewing is also helping other mall merchants. It doesn’t serve its own food. Instead patrons can buy food at eateries in the mall like Yocco’s Hot Dogs and Dino’s Pizza.

Dino’s even keeps a menu in the tap room so customers can call in an order. The restaurant will deliver it right to the tap room.

“They filled a need for me and my customers and hopefully we’ve generated a lot of business for them,” Bonner said.

A welcome addition

At the Lehigh Valley Mall, management is also excited about having the new Pocono Brewery. The 2,000-square-foot tap room offers pizza, nachos and other light fare, in a space that formerly held an Ann Taylor clothing store.

“People will gravitate to something like this. It will benefit our stores, it will benefit our other restaurants,” said Elizabeth DiDuca, director of marketing for the mall.

“It’s something different,” agreed John Ferreira, Lehigh Valley Mall manager. “It’s what we needed outdoors. People will notice it and stop in.”

The local scene

Sly Fox is another craft brewer that plans to open a tap room in a retail space. It’s opening a location in April in the Knitting Mills redevelopment, which is undergoing a $70 million makeover. It is located on the West Reading/Wyomissing border.

While the brewer already has a tap room with food in Pottstown, opening a new location in the former VF Outlets represents a change in business strategy to focus on the local market.

According to the national Brewers Association, there are now more than 7,000 brewers in the U.S. Competing against that many brewers wasn’t the best plan for Sly Fox, said Randy McKinley, general manager of Sly Fox.

“We took a look at what our growth strategy was and pulled back in our out-of-state shipping to concentrate on our core, local demographic,” McKinley said.

By locating in a growing retail and business district, he said he hopes to make the Sly Fox name more visible and to drive sales.

“You’re not going to stumble onto the Pottstown tap room,” McKinley said of the original tap room, which like many older breweries is located in an industrial park.

People will, however, discover a tap room surrounded by stores and offices that are expected to fill the Knitting Mill as the renovation project wraps up later this year.

Sly Fox is looking at opening similar tap rooms in Malvern and Pittsburgh within the next 12 months, hoping the exposure will build the brand name and fuel beer sales at distributors and other bars and restaurants, McKinley said.

The right place?

Are shopping centers the answer for craft brewers looking for a bigger following?

While he’s not sure if a mall setting is where he wants Hijinx to grow next, Keck said he certainly sees the draw – one of the biggest is the deals on rent many malls have offered craft brewers to entice them.

“Malls are struggling and from what I’ve heard they’ve been offering some extremely favorable rents to the brewers,” Keck said. “They know we have the draw.”

Silvio Vitiello, owner of the Pocono Brewery at the Lehigh Valley Mall, said he hopes a mall presence will help grow his business, which has its main location in Swiftwater.

“We saw the opportunity to be in the Lehigh Valley Mall – such a busy location – and we just took it,” he said.

And if the Lehigh Valley Mall tap room works out, it may just be the first of many.

“This will gauge if we’ll continue to expand in malls. This will be an indicator of what we’ll do next,” he said.

For Bonner, who has been operating his tap room in a mall for about three months now, the answer to the mall question is “100 percent yes.”

“People say ‘this is a pretty random place for a tap room,’ and I says ‘yes, yes it is,’” Bonner said.

But, he said his location in the South Mall has been good for both his business and the mall.

“We’ve had a lot of people come in through word of mouth who said they hadn’t been to the South Mall in 10 or 12 years and this is this is the reason they came in,” he said

Likewise, he’s had people stopping in the mall to get a new cell phone, come across his tap room and become a fan of his beer.

He said he’s glad his tap room both adds to the ambiance and draw of the shopping center.

“I think we all want to make malls cool again,” he said.

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Stacy Wescoe

Stacy Wescoe

Reporter Stacy Wescoe has her finger on the pulse of the business community in the Greater Lehigh Valley and keeps you up-to-date with technology and trends, plus what coworkers and competitors are talking about around the water cooler — and on social media. She can be reached at stacyw@lvb.com or 610-807-9619, ext. 4104. Follow her on Twitter at @morestacy and on Facebook. Circle Stacy Wescoe on .

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