expr:class='"loading" + data:blog.mobileClass'>

Monday, October 28, 2019

Lompoc and the Legacy Brewery Hex

Finishing up a week in Hawaii, I got a message suggesting that Lompoc Brewing was about to close. Two or three inquiries later, I learned it was all a vicious rumor, apparently started by irresponsible, fake news journalists and suspected communists.

A day later, the vicious rumor turned out to be true. Jerry Fechter was calling it a day and closing the Fifth Quadrant Brewpub, along with Sidebar. The Oaks Bottom Pub will carry on with Fechter at the helm, but it will remain a pub with no brewing and no connection to Lompoc. 

Fechter's collection of pubs had shrunk from five a few years ago to just three in recent times. Hedge House on Southeast Division closed two years ago and now houses Little Beast. Lompoc Tavern, formerly New Old Lompoc where the adventure started in 1996, closed in September 2018. 

When I was putting the final touches on Portland Beer in 2013, I included Lompoc on my list of the city's significant beer businesses. Laurelwood and Lucky Lab were the other two...the list being focused mainly on the multi-pub footprint of the three entities. 

These are all what we currently refer to as legacy breweries. I'm not exactly sure how to define "legacy brewery." Is that a five-year-old brewery? 10 years old? 20 years old? Or does it just need to be a brewery that has failed to keep up with the twists and turns of the market? You tell me.

The Lompoc story is fairly well-known. Fechter, a transplant from Ohio and wannabe brewer, worked at Old Lompoc Brewing in Northwest Portland for several years in the early 1990s. When he saw an opening, Fechter inquired about buying the business. During a round of golf.

Soon enough, the owners came back with a number. Fechter thought he could manage it, but realized he would need an investment partner to pull off the purchase and make needed improvements. That's when legendary Portland publican, Don Younger, entered the picture.

Don Younger tribute beer in 2013
Fechter and Younger mixed blackout drinking with business over a period of several months. They eventually hammered out an agreement whereby Younger became a partner in the business, but stayed mostly in the background while Fechter managed day-to-day operations.

It turned out to be a good match. Old Lompoc was renamed New Old Lompoc to signify the change in ownership and did well. Fechter and Younger later opened the Fifth Quadrant, Sidebar and Hedge House. Fechter also partnered with the late Jim Parker on Oaks Bottom Public House. After Parker exited and Younger passed away (in 2011), Fechter became sole owner of the businesses. 

As the list of brewery/brewpub failures grew over the past few years, many were left wondering which brewery might be next. After seeing Lompoc Tavern and Hedge House close, I added Lompoc to my "Most Likely to Fail" list. There was nothing diabolical about it. I always liked Jerry, who is one of the more jovial people you'll ever meet.

In recent years, I had several conversations with Fechter and with Mike De Kalb of Laurelwood about the difficulty faced by older, so-called legacy breweries. Probably the biggest challenge is that the people who follow craft beer tend to be attracted by shiny new breweries and beers.

Sidebar entry 2014
In the saturated beer market that is Portland, fads and trends are king. Customer loyalty is zero. Drinkers bounce from pub to pub and beer to beer with little thought, seeking the newest thing. That's why you rarely see a non-rotating tap at beer bars and pubs. Bad for business.

This is surely truer in a place like Portland, which is overrun with breweries and pubs, than it is in a rural setting like, say, Baker City or Yakima. The sheer glut of beer-centric businesses in Portland make it an increasingly difficult place to stay viable and relevant.

Add to overcrowding and fierce competition the fact that craft beer market growth is static or in gradual decline. That's bad news for everyone, including breweries that opened more recently, as they, too, will get old and be forced to deal with the challenges Fechter and De Kalb faced.

Laurelwood worked hard over the past decade to build brand recognition outside Portland. That's likely why, as things got tough, De Kalb was able to sell Laurelwood's intellectual property to Legacy Breweries, parent of Ninkasi. Laurelwood's core brands have value in regional distribution.

Lompoc was not in a similar situation. Its brands never gained the kind of following that would have attracted Legacy or a similar entity. Fechter had his collection of pubs and that was where he was going to live or die in an increasingly trendy, difficult market. We know things didn't work out.

I don't think Lompoc failed due to bad beer. Sure, their standards came off as a little flat next to the fancy stuff many breweries are pushing out in wrapped cans. But you could always find more interesting stuff on tap in the Lompoc pubs.

C-Note was a favorite of mine
What went wrong? It wasn't the food and service, which I always found decent. I suppose the beer could have been more exciting and certainly more visible in beer bars and taprooms, though that would have been difficult as competition stiffened. At the end of the day, I think Lompoc mostly fell victim to being old and less cool in a saturated sea of newness.

The last day is Tuesday, Oct. 29, when the Fifth Quadrant and Sidebar close for good. Fechter will hold a "garage sale” next Saturday, Nov. 2, at Sidebar from Noon to 5 p.m. Vintage Lompoc bottles, schwag, glassware and more will be for sale.

Fechter's trajectory? Untied from the Lompoc brand, he'll be free to build the tap list he could never have built at Lompoc. With no brewing, he'll focus strictly on the pub part of the business. Things may work out fine for him, though I doubt he's pleased with how it happened.

Farewell, Lompoc. Thanks for the memories.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

The Long Goodbye After 30 Years

Most of my beer friends don't know it, but my top priority when I arrived in the Portland area back in 1989 was to find a place to play racquetball. I eventually settled on Lloyd Athletic Club (then Lloyd Center Courts), where I've been a member for 30 years. My time ends in late October.

Racquetball was my passion in those days. I wanted to join a club that had at least a handful of good players. Location was a secondary concern. I scoured both sides of the Columbia River for months before making a decision.

I chose Lloyd Athletic because it had a large group of active players and was in a reasonable location. Traffic wasn't as much of a mess as it is today. A trip to LAC from my house or office in Vancouver took about 20 minutes most days. That seemed okay.

By the time I moved to Portland in 1993, I was deeply immersed in the culture at Lloyd Athletic. I played challenge court, in leagues and sanctioned tournaments...literally thousands of matches. It was a fun place and I made a lot of friends...even met my wife there. I continued to play most of my racquetball there even after I became racquetball director at a club in Vancouver. 

If you're looking for a beer angle, there is one. As I've noted before here, the club had three tap handles in the old days. They were occupied by Bud, Bud Light and Widmer Hef. We often wagered pitchers on games.  If you were brave, the bet was for Widmer, which was something like $7 a pitcher. Bud and Bud Light were around $5. The club was a great social setting and we drank a lot of beer after playing. There are four taps now and the beer selection has improved considerably.

I've been thinking of leaving LAC for several years. I joined because of racquetball. My body, primarily my knees, can no longer deal with the game. I'll have partial knee replacement surgery in late October. Playing racquetball again will be possible, but maybe not wise. I probably should have stopped 10 years ago. Playing on increasingly brittle joints wasn't smart.

As my time on the court faded over the course of the last five or so years, I started using the club primarily as a place to work out with weights. The workout routine I follow can be done pretty much anywhere. For people who want court sports (the club has racquetball and squash courts), LAC is a good option. But I don't really need the courts any more. 

There's more at work, of course. Traffic congestion makes for awkward car trips to the club. Parking is another issue. LAC has a small lot that's full most of the time. That wasn't a big problem in the old days, when membership was capped at around 300. Even if the lot was full, street parking was free. Today, you pay to park on the street. I avoid parking and driving issues during the summer by riding my bike, but that's not practical for much of the year. It's also increasingly dangerous.

What made the decision more difficult is that new management is doing great things. The club is cleaner and better in many ways than it had been under prior management, which seemed intent on running it into the ground. I doubt LAC will ever be what it once was in a racquetball sense because the game has failed to catch on with millennials. But there's reason to think the place can carry on as a nice fitness club with great social amenities.

Regardless, it's time for me to go. With racquetball no longer a priority, there are workout options closer to home, places I can get to by bike or car in far less time and with less hassle. Once my knee is recovered from surgery, I'll join one of them and see how it goes. Easier access may encourage me to work out more often. We'll see about that.

There are things I'll miss about Lloyd Athletic. Almost all of my racquetball contemporaries are gone, but I still have friends and acquaintances there. And I'll miss the familiar feel. It will be impossible for me to replace or replicate the friendships and experiences I acquired there.

But sometimes you need to move on.

Postscript: I quit Lloyd Athletic two weeks prior to my surgery. Three weeks later, I rejoined the club. The other potential workout places I considered didn't agree with me. So I'm accepting the traffic and parking hassles that come with membership. Still not sure about my racquetball future, but my repaired knee feels good.