Flight Crew

Flight Crew Q&A: Barrel33’s Brian Fry

What got you interested in the world of craft beer?

My first memory of craft beer was my Uncle Bob always getting a case of Sam Adams Boston Lager and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale for his holiday party every year. It was a big deal back then. This was in the mid to late ’80s and those two breweries were a couple of the forefathers of the craft beer movement. In the early to mid ’90s, I’d spend summers following around the Grateful Dead and there was a lot of craft beer being sold in the parking lot, particularly Rogue Dead Guy Ale and Anchor Steam. Finally, my brother attended the U.S. Air Force Academy in the mid ’90s, and I’d go out to visit him twice a year. There was a lot of craft beer being made and sold in the western states, so when it started making its way to Ohio, I was one of the few people who was already aware.

We know you’re a wine connoisseur, but is there a special place in your heart for craft beer, too?

There truly is a special place in my heart (and my business model) for craft beer. My first job in the service industry was as a bartender at The Draught House from 1998 through 2007. I developed a world beer tour program that encouraged guests to try 40 different beers from around the world. Once they completed their tour, they received some prizes and their name on the wall. While this concept is common now, nothing like it had ever been done before in the Mahoning Valley. As you know, I travel the world tasting wine and learning about the people who make it and the places the grapes are grown. I always include brewery visits in my wine trips. I got to visit the original Heineken brewery in Amsterdam, I was super impressed by the quality of the small brewpubs in both Sydney, Australia and Auckland, New Zealand. I was surprised at how much good craft beer was being made and sold in Tokyo when I was there. On my last big trip to Argentina, one of the winemakers I spent time with had a side brewing project. I’m still in communication with him today and will be involved in bringing the beer into Ohio when they’re ready.

What piqued your interest in purchasing Barrel33?

I founded and owned a wine club ten years before the purchase and had worked in the service industry for nearly a decade before. I was fortunate enough to have a lot of success and build a good local following, so making the move to have a place of my own was a natural transition. I’ve also been blessed to have some great local mentors along the way, including Pat and Ottavio from Station Square, Michael Alberini, Mark Canzonetta, Lee Delgarbino, Chrisitne Bell and Jeff Chrystal, just to name a few. They all helped prepare me to be an owner.

How do you determine the craft beers to offer for sale at your establishment?

We’ve recently made a big shift to supporting the local breweries. When I bought Barrel33, none of the 16 taps were local. Now five of our 15 taps are local, and it’s going to stay that  way for the foreseeable future. We also try to keep a balanced list featuring a variety of brewing styles, so that we’re not too heavily focused on one area. Since we are now the largest independent seller of craft beer in Trumbull County, we get offered a lot of the hard-to-get, exclusive beers that the previous owners were not offered.

What distributors do you work with?

Pretty much all of them — from large to small. If they have craft beer, we buy from them.

It’s a challenging environment out there … how do you compete (what’s your competitive difference)?

It’s challenging. I think the biggest thing that’s enabled us to stay open through the whole pandemic is the fact the we combine retail, full-service restaurant and bar under one roof. I know that model exists a few other places, but none of them have the extensive food menu and liquor selection that we have. When you combine that with the craft beer and extensive wine selection, it gives us a well-balanced business model.

What is the best thing about owning Barrel 33?

I genuinely enjoy talking to people about what they like to eat and drink, so I don’t have to fake it. It is a personal mission in my life for me to help people enjoy what they drink at the highest level. It genuinely warms my heart to see people enjoying themselves in my establishment and I think that’s reflected in how we do things and the vibe of Barrel33.

What’s the most challenging?

Navigating the pandemic continues to be the greatest challenge I’ve ever faced.

Talk about some of the people you’ve met through your craft beer connections.

I’ve been so fortunate in that area and have met people all around the world. The great thing about craft beer is that you can walk into a bar just about anywhere in the world and get yourself in interesting conversation with interesting people.

Often, you do beer tasting and meal pairings. Explain why this is important to you.

I think the pairing of beer and food in something that is greatly under-appreciated around the world. It’s common to see wine dinners being done all around the Valley, but very few places do beer dinners. We had great success doing them and we look forward to resuming them once conditions return to normal. The craft brewers are doing so much cool stuff these days. The work they’re putting in deserves to be recognized and pairing their wonderful beer with a tremendous five-course meal is a great way to honor their work.

Do you serve a lot of local brewers’ beers? If so, why?

Yes, we do. No one sells more local in Trumbull County than we do. I’ve made it a personal mission to support them and help assure they’ll still be here when the pandemic ends. These people have helped reestablish the great German and Belgian tradition of each town having their own brewery. This existed in America too before it was wiped out by the large mass producers. Now, it’s coming back and these local brewers are the reason it’s back. We all need to support their efforts.

How have things changed for you due to COVID-19?

The biggest change has been the shift of focus to the retail part of the business. We were able to pivot pretty quickly and, as a result, we have managed to stay open and keep all our people working pretty much through the entire thing. Now, the biggest challenge is the changing dynamic on a daily basis. Face mask mandates, questions about indoor dining shutdown, rumors about bars being closed. I’ve just decided to stay focused on delivering quality experiences for our guests in the restaurant and our retail shoppers. I can control that. I have no control over COVID-19 or the decision the government makes in its effort to control it.

Do you foresee some of these changes sticking after the pandemic?

That is a big question. I think one of the things that’s sad but true is that we’ll likely see 30 to 40 percent of the independent bars and restaurants in our Valley never reopen their doors. Commercial landlords are going to have to make some significant adjustments for their leaseholders in order to keep viable businesses in their spaces. This is the biggest topic of conversation among restaurant and bar owners who don’t own their building. How can a commercial landlord expect a restaurant owner to pay the pre-pandemic lease amount? Most of us were totally shut down and we’re now facing a 50 percent capacity reduction, mask mandates and other negative impacts on our industry. There is a reckoning coming regarding commercial real estate for sure.

Talk about your customers and how you go the extra mile to take care of their needs.

Well, the great thing for me is that many of our guests have been with me for a long time. They were coming to my wine events for 10 years and many of the people who live in the immediate vicinity of Barrel33 are members of Avalon Golf and Country Club, where I was wine director for almost three years. I had a lot of well-established customers, many of whom were also friends, and I’ve been fortunate to meet so many more great folks from the Howland, Cortland, Warren and Niles area since buying Barrel33.

Copyright 2020 AfterHoursYoungstown.com Youngstown, Ohio.

Posted Sept. 24, 2020.

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