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Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant Celebrates 20 Years

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Kevin Finn, Mark Edelson and Kevin Davies

By Pam George
Special to Delaware Business Times

Many Delawareans can’t toss a can koozie without hitting a brewpub, a gastro pub, a brewery, an alehouse or a liquor store specializing in craft beer. From 2SP Brewing Co. just north of the Delaware border to 3rd Wave Brewing Co. in Delmar, the state is full of beer-centric businesses. ย 

But in the early 1990s, it was a different scene. While brewpubs were popping up on the West Coast, Delaware was a brewing desert. Soccer buddies Kevin Finn and Mark Edelson, who shared a passion for home brewing, spotted a business opportunity. They teamed up with Kevin Davies, a restaurant veteran, who also wanted to open a brewpub.

The new partners weren’t the only ones seeking to fill the void. While the trio scoured Wilmington for the right location, Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats opened in 1995 in Rehoboth Beach. Stewart’s Brewing Co. in Bear and Brandywine Brewing Co. in Greenville followed.

The frustrated partners turned their attention to new construction in Newark, which they’d previously dismissed as too college-oriented. Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant, named for nearby Iron Hill, opened on Nov. 14, 1996.

Twenty years later, Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant has 12 locations in three states and about 1,200 employees. “Our goal was to open one restaurant every year or two,” Finn says. In the past 10 years, the growth rate has been between 12 percent and 18 percent.

It is a pace that would have killed many restaurant groups. Iron Hill, however, has seemingly thrived on the momentum. Its beers have won gold medals at the prestigious Great American Beer Festival in Denver. Regional and city magazines praise their local Iron Hill as the “Best Brewpub” in annual readers’ polls. Iron Hill also receives awards for the wait staff, appetizers, atmosphere – even martinis.

“Iron Hill has truly found the winning recipe for combining great food, craft beer, and immersion in local communities,” says Karen Stauffer, director of communications for the Delaware Restaurant Association. “They were part of the early craft beer movement in Delaware but have proven themselves to be successful restaurateurs focused not only on consistency and the guest experience, but always with an eye on expansion and growth.”

At the start, the partners had a plan for failure as well as success. Their backgrounds in business helped. Finn was vice president and general manager of United Outdoor Advertising. Edelson was a production manager at Zeneca Pharmaceuticals (now AstraZeneca). Davies began his hospitality career in 1976.

Davies says now that the prolonged hunt for a location and the quest to secure funding were advantages. “It gave us more time to plan the first restaurant in Newark,” he says. “We were more prepared.”

According to research by H.G. Parsa, a professor in Ohio State University’s Hospitality Management program, one in four restaurants close or change hands within the first year. Over the next three years, the sell-or-fail rate soars to three in five. Good management is key to beating the odds.

Early on, each partner gravitated toward a certain area. Davies, not surprisingly, oversees the restaurant side of the business. “We’ve always stuck to our plan of being a restaurant that makes everything from scratch,” he says. For items not made in-house – such as the 400,000 burger buns needed each year – Iron Hill works with manufacturers to create recipes. Davies is currently working with a creamery to make an ice cream.

The core menu, which changes twice a year, started with 50 items and swelled to 100. Today it’s down to 75 plus the kids’ menu, and Davies plans to cut it to the 55 items that showcase the signature dishes and those that complement the beer.

Twenty years ago, Iron Hill opened with five beers. With the increased competition in the marketplace, Iron Hill has ratcheted up to 15 regular brews on tap. Any more is overkill. “The days of 50 beers on tap are waning,” says Edelson, who supervises Iron Hill’s 27 brewers. “People want choices, but they hate to choose. They still end up drinking the same four beers.”

The alehouse trend of bringing in a new beer each time a keg kicks has put pressure on Iron Hill to keep the list interesting. Edelson sees it as an opportunity to test drive new beers.

Pig Iron Porter is the only offering that’s had the exact same recipe for 20 years. Iron Hill Light Lager and Vienna Red Lager are routinely big sellers, while Ore House IPA is popular year round. Come fall, guests want Pumpkin Ale and Oktoberfest. In summer, they switch to Mahalo, Apollo!, which Iron Hill started canning in July 2014. The cans sell out quickly. “It is a hot craft format, especially the 16-ounce cans,” Finn says. “We’re hoping to expand in the future with more options available.”

Finn initially thought that he would be involved in the brewery operation. Instead, he gravitated toward the business end. He says the company is currently in negotiations for two new sites. Sadly, they won’t be in Delaware. The state lumps brewpubs in the same category as liquor stores; a company or owner may only have two. In addition to the first Iron Hill in Newark, there is one on the Wilmington Riverfront.

Traditionally, Iron Hill has kept is sites within 100 miles of the Wilmington headquarters. The partners are now looking outside the Greater Philadelphia area.

“I’d say that in many of the markets we entered, we were a bit of a pioneer,” Finn says. The Wilmington Riverfront, Newark, West Chester, Media, Lancaster and Phoenixville, Pa., are examples.

“Iron Hill Brewery has been a gem on the Wilmington Riverfront since it first opened,” says Megan McGlinchey, acting director of the Riverfront Development Corp. of Delaware. “We are fortunate to have them as part of our Riverfront family.”

Being a pioneer in a revitalized town is a plus, but Iron Hill looks for underserved communities with its target audience: college graduates ages 25 and 54 in the upper-income bracket. “Someone could come in for a business lunch one day, come back another day for happy hour with colleagues, come back another evening with their family and come back on a weekend afternoon for lunch with their parents,” Finn says.

At one point, the partners considered opening a new concept a la SoDel Concepts, which has nine restaurants in Delaware, most of which have different names and menus. “We decided to focus on what we do best: Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant,” Finn says. Likewise, the company is uninterested in opening an Iron Hill without an onsite brewery, which is part of the brand.

The company’s consistent expansion is appealing to employees who want to work their way up the ladder. Doris Kerr, the director of operations, started as a host when the Newark site opened. Justin Sproul, the brewer in Wilmington, began his career at Iron Hill as a dishwasher. Clint Wagner, now a regional manager, was originally a bartender in West Chester, Pa.

Edelson says that in the early years, the partners were too slow to create new positions. “We were obviously being mindful of not carrying too much overhead,” he says. “But in the long run, we probably would have grown faster if we had put people in the right places earlier.”

Finn said he’s not worried that adding to the Iron Hill empire will dilute its impact. “I think if you have a good brand and a good culture,” he says, “then the sky’s the limit.”

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