So What Can We Learn From Duggan’s? 9

One of the nice things about the craft beer industry is that generally speaking, everyone wants everyone else to succeed. Also, in the rare instances in which this is not the case, both parties are usually too drunk to effectively fight a duel to the death. It’s very much a case at this point of cumulative success across the market. One brewery succeeding will mean that other breweries will get more business. Of course if a brewery folds after it has succeeded it usually means that the other ones will pick up the slack on whatever sales that brewery has made.

Duggan’s didn’t exactly fold. The #9 IPA is still being produced out of Cool Brewery in Etobicoke. I hear the (#5?) Asian (Sorachi) Lager will be joining it (I’m beginning to think that one might be slightly over branded). But, one day last month they had the brewpub doors closed for them. There was a tense period there while people determined whether they would be afforded the opportunity to reopen. They were not. I don’t like the way that they were closed (I have friends working there), but I’m not sure how surprising it is that it happened.

Here’s the thing: Duggan’s was in a precarious situation from the start. For whatever reason (probably because the equipment was there and it looked like a lock) they decided to take up the space that was occupied by Growlers about a decade ago. The space is ridiculous. Dining Room probably seats 75, not including the patio during the summer. I haven’t been out there, but let’s call that 40 if it’s a decent size. The bar could probably seat 40. The basement event space could fit 100 without a great deal of trouble.

That’s over 250. The square footage must have been insane. I can’t imagine what the rent was, but think about the massive pain in the ass that must have been on a monthly basis. You need to rent the space, you need to hire enough staff to make the place look occupied. Mill Street, for instance, is opening a brewpub in Ottawa, but they envision it as a destination. Even Pearl Street in Buffalo, which seats a huge number is kind of a destination spot. Duggan’s wasn’t a destination. Its interior was essentially a void without much in the way of decoration; White walls, with the occasional outcropping of brick.

Now, I’d been in there maybe five or six times and I almost never saw the basement in use. Or the bar. Or the patio. But, in fairness, the main dining room was usually pretty busy.

Apparently, it was so busy on a consistent basis that they went through a very large amount of the beer brewed on premises. This doesn’t take into account the beer that was sold offsite. There were a lot of Duggan’s  seasonals around in other pubs. Some of the beers were so successful that they couldn’t keep up with production. The lagers didn’t always have time to lager. The ales didn’t always fully attenuate. I guess if people come to a brewpub for lunch, it’s not unreasonable to expect that there will be beer on tap, even if that beer is a little green.

That’s the crux of the thing, of course. Huge amount of space with a huge amount of rent, large amount of staff (I have cards from three people whose titles were some variety of “manager”). So you’ve got to make the rent on the place, which means that you’re selling the beer you’re brewing offsite, which adds revenue, but makes the quality of the beer suffer because in order to meet production, you have to take shortcuts. So they went along for a while, with the appearance of success. It looked like a successful brand.

There were other issues, of course.

The Porter: This was their best beer and they took it off the menu for 8 months or so last year. It was a delicious, roasty London Porter. If you look at the stories that were published about the closing, the Porter is mentioned in every fourth or fifth comment. Maybe I’m naïve and idealistic, but I think that if you create a high quality product, success will just follow it. I think they took this off in order to make way for a seasonal tap. Too bad. Launch it in bottles.

The Menu: There was a lot of choice on the menu. Probably too much. This might be the result of the fact that they had a good lunch trade and needed a diverse menu to be a draw in the neighbourhood. Think of the sunk cost in terms of ingredients just in order to make the kitchen function day to day, though. Especially with the space. Who knows what the crowd size will be day to day? Who knows how many of them will order schnitzel? You have to keep a lot of stuff on hand just in case.

The Oysters: How do you even source these? They had six varieties sometimes. What if no one orders them that day? That must have happened. It seems like a losing proposition to me. Even if the raw bar was displayed in the window, I’m not convinced that it was a sufficient draw to bring people in. It did, at the very least, give people behind the bar another way to look busy. It’s hard to look idle when you’re constantly tending to seafood with buckets of ice and grimacing slightly.

Social Media: The place launched without a website. People found out that it was open through Bartowel. When they finally got a website, it looked like Geocities. It still has not been updated to tell us that they have closed. Reappropriate it for branding the beer coming out of Cool already! You still have a dog in the fight, for God’s sake.

Also, they started a Facebook page on March 14th, after having been open for about 16 months. One wonders what the impact might have been if they’d had one at the beginning. Obviously, if you’re going to put seasonal or one-offs on tap, people need to know that they’re there in order to be a draw. Twitter. Myspace. Friggin’ something.

Overall, here’s what we can learn from Duggan’s: Ambition is good up to a point. If you start out too big, though, you end up in a situation where you have to make compromises on your core competencies in order to continue and that becomes a vicious cycle.

Also, that space should be something else because it’s untenable as a brewpub. If insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, then anyone who occupies that space next should get no sympathy when they crash and burn.

I actually suspect that Duggan’s will do better without the brewpub. The #9 IPA is pretty good. The Lager will hopefully get time to condition if it’s brewed at Cool. Maybe he can find somewhere to brew small batches and release seasonals into the LCBO.

Here’s a thought: Start with the Porter.

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9 thoughts on “So What Can We Learn From Duggan’s?

  • Anonymous

    Their website was the WORST. One of the main reasons I never bothered heading down, I never knew what was going on down there.

  • Grimes

    Wow – tellin’ it like it is!! (“you didn’t have to tell it like it is, Marge”)

    As I read this all I could do was nod in agreement. LOL @ Geocities, but you’re not incorrect. I also agree the porter was their best offering. I think it was around the time they took it off that I stopped heading there semi-regularly.

    Still looking forward to the beers Mike will produce in future. He’s a talented brewer with tons to offer to our local beer scene

  • Chris Schryer

    I can confirm (unofficially) that the Number 5 Sorachi Asian Lager is being bottled at Cool. Having drank one out of a branded bottle.

    While all your thoughts are fairly accurate, I cannot express enough the importance of utilizing the web (and not just because it’s my day-job). Sure, a really shiny cool website might cost you a good chunk of coin, and maybe it’s a bigger chunk than you’ve got. But there is absolutely no reason why a business shouldn’t have at the very least a facebook page, probably a twitter account, and a or page which would provide them with something people can see. A .com registration per year is $12. If you can’t afford that, you probably need to readdress your business plan.

    I hope Duggan’s succedes because, as you noted, it’s better for everyone. I also enjoy the No 9, and would like the opportunity to try the Porter (No 8?). It’s a shame the way the pub got closed, but it’s time for a reshuffle and hopefully a good future.

    • Jordan St.John Post author

      Exactly. Plus, a monkey can operate a wordpress site. Hell, my 12 year old brother has a account. I think that even if you tricked it out so you can add audio and video, it’s still less than $100.00. It’s non-optional at this point.

      That said, Mike’s a talented brewer and I think that not having the brewpub to weigh him down is going to help his beers long term.

      Does anyone know whether they’re still using the small bottles? That seems like an expensive, pointless marketing gimmick.

  • Sheryl

    I think you’re bang on with everything except the food bits Jordan. Remember that the key demographic of Duggan’s was never beer geeks, but business guys. Dating back to when it was Denison’s, the place would be packed at lunch and “happy hour” with suits. More than once when it was Denison’s, Greg and I waited for a table at lunchtime there.

    So I think the oysters probably made them money consistently (because douchy business guys like oysters), and I think they probably weren’t losing money on the food, unless chef Rene Chauvin was slipping in some high quality, local organic blah-de-blah ingredients. Prices were on par for the style and neighbourhood and while the menu was big, chefs spend as much time at menu planning and food cost analysis as they do actually cooking. I’ve met Chauvin – he’s from a military background and not the kind of guy to dick around if something in his kitchen isn’t working.

    However, over-staffing, poor use of space, etc. definitely contributed.

    • Jordan St.John Post author

      I’ll take your word for it, since you’re a waaay more qualified food writer than I am.

      Also because I try to make it a policy not to piss off folks with military training.

  • Al B ischoff

    I was saddend to hear of duggans passing the PORTER was delish!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! each time i was there was great my last visit was Nov. for the cask social it was noon they opened @3pm ,MIKE PLEASE BOTTLE YOUR PORTER cheers AL