As Mike Doble scouted Milwaukee for fertile ground to plant a brewpub, he settled on the southwestern suburb of Greendale, a largely working-class area that’s home to chain brands, a big mall, and most importantly, zero craft breweries.
He canvassed the region for a stand-alone building, something that would be different in the sea of restaurants like Olive Garden and Applebee’s. During his search, a real estate broker contacted him about a potential fit. The Southridge Mall was looking for a restaurant tenant. Would he like to check it out?
“I never contemplated going into the mall,” Doble says. But he went for a quick look and discovered a holy trinity of selling points: plenty of foot traffic, parking, and a buildable space. Better still, the mall’s corporate owners were offering incentives to craft breweries and would help with the brewpub’s build-out.
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“Without their investment, I couldn’t have opened as elaborate a place as I did,” says Doble, who debuted the Explorium Brewpub in January 2017. Shoppers can relax at the bar with, say, a ricotta-stuffed calzone and rounds of its Patagonia Hitchhiker Lager, or drink beer on the outdoor patio, which features a 400,000 BTU fire pit. Says Doble, “We’re trying really hard to make the mall cool again.”
Online shopping has decimated brick-and-mortar businesses, a downturn felt acutely at malls. The hulking retail complexes have hemorrhaged stores, relics of an earlier commerce model. But where some may see demolition-worthy ghost towns, others perceive ample opportunity to reshape the structures as lifestyle centers anchored by breweries.
“A local craft brewery in a common area becomes a gathering place,” says Lou Conforti, the CEO of the Columbus, Ohio-based Washington Prime Group, which owns more than 100 shopping centers nationwide. “We jammed Auntie Anne’s and Sbarro down people’s throats for too long.” Washington Prime’s prime properties include Indiana’s Muncie Mall, where a branch of Redemption Alewerks beckons customers beside a Macy’s, and the Pearlridge Center in Aiea, Hawaii, where Beer Lab Hawaii sits in a food court.
The appeal for breweries is people—and tons of them. “Our assets have 350 million visitors a year,” Conforti says. “If you get a large concentration of people, you’ll sell beer. It’s a low-cost proposition. It’s an amenity for our guests and good for breweries too.”
This past holiday season, Migration Brewing in Portland, Oregon, opened a pop-up in the city’s Lloyd Center mall, serving burgers and cans of its IPA and pale ale in a former ’50s-style diner outfitted with red leather booths and a full kitchen—plug and play and pour beer.
“We’re not going to find many opportunities where there’s zero overhead and zero debt and the opportunity to make x amount of dollars,” says Migration’s co-owner, Colin Patrick Rath, noting the high profit margins on selling the brewery’s own beer. “We didn’t run, we sprinted. It was three to four weeks from the first conversation to getting the doors open.”
Migration started serving customers in the mall the week before Thanksgiving. Even if mall shoppers don’t amble past Migration’s location, on the third-floor food court, there’s plenty of foot traffic from the nearby bingo parlor and thanks to people popping in for haircuts at the beauty school. “We’re kind of able to have our cake and eat it too,” Rath says, noting that the brewery extended its lease through January, and is negotiating to stay longer.
Two years into his venture, Explorium’s Doble has seen firsthand how a mall can deliver new customers to a brewery, people who might not be motivated to visit beer makers in remote parts of town. He says, “I must’ve missed the chapter in how to start a craft brewery that said you needed to put it in an industrial place.”
Joshua M. Bernstein is a beer, spirits, food, and travel journalist, as well as an occasional tour guide, event producer, and industry consultant. He writes for the New York Times, Men’s Journal, New York magazine, Wine Enthusiast, and Imbibe, where he’s a contributing editor in charge of beer coverage. Bernstein is also the author of four books: Brewed Awakening, The Complete Beer Course, Complete IPA, and the just-released Homebrew World.