Boening Brothers, Inc. and Oak Beverages, Inc. comprise the Boening organization, a beer wholesale distributor serving the metropolitan New York area market. The distributors are recognized for their focus on customer relations and brand building across all markets including restaurants, bars, hotels and supermarkets.
The fourth-generation family business began in 1901 by Philip Boening and today, his grandson Hap, presides as president of Boening Brothers, a post he has held since the 1960’s. Here, he discusses the beer wholesale distributor business in New York and offers insights into where the beer market is heading.
The Beverage Information Group (BIG): You became president of Boening Brothers several decades ago. What are your current responsibilities and main focus at the company today?
Hap Boening: My current responsibilities as president are many-fold. However, one important area is keeping company personnel abreast of changes in our business and how they can use these changes in a productive way. We’re living in a time of change in terms of the many beers sold today—flavored, craft, seasonals, and so on.
BIG: Boening Brothers and Oak Beverages are well-established family businesses. What do you feel is the greatest strength in a family business, as well as the biggest challenge?
Boening: It can be fun and enjoyable to work with family, and we get to share the rewards. My son is the vice president here at Boening Brothers, and my daughter is the president of my other company, Oak Beverages. But I also have two daughters who are not in the business. As far as challenges, there can be one in terms of continuity. By that I mean, you want the right people in the right places—whether they’re family or not. It’s a business, and everyone is expected to cut the mustard, or they can’t be in that position. In dealing with all employees, setting a good example and being honest are key.
BIG: Given your vast experience as a beer wholesale distributor, please indicate in what ways you’ve seen the business change or evolve over the last couple of decades or so.
Boening: The brands we have from brewers now, including flavors, crafts, and seasonals, were not the norm 20 years ago. Back then, we didn’t have apricot beer. You need to think the unthinkable in terms of beverage consumption! What’s changed is the length of the portfolio of beers. Twenty-five years ago there was Bud, Bud Light and Michelob. Today there are many new brands such as Dogfish Head, Magic Hat, etc., and you have major companies producing smaller, boutique beers. The consolidation of suppliers has been a big change.
BIG: Can consumers handle all the new brands out there--is there really market demand for them?
Boening: Consumers are more fickle today. Many are looking for something different all of the time. People are going out to eat more frequently in the New York area, and eating a greater variety of cuisines, and this has influenced the beer they drink. For example, if I’m at an Italian restaurant, I want a Peroni, or if I’m at a Chinese restaurant, I’ll try a Tsingtao. Rather than paying four dollars for a Bud, people don’t mind paying an extra dollar for the Peroni, to tie their beer into what they’re eating.
There’s also been a huge change in the way beer is consumed, compared to 25 years ago. Back then, we’d see working men drinking beer at lunchtime. Beer is not consumed that way anymore—it’s more likely to be enjoyed after a softball game or after a game of golf back at the clubhouse. So athletics play some role with beer today.
BIG: What is it like working in the New York metropolitan area market and what challenges does it present to your business?
Boening: The beer business is a very local business. In New York, we have Spanish, Portuguese, French, Irish, to name a few—and you have to gear your marketing to these groups with promotions and brand building. And there are no Wal-Marts in the city; the urban business is small-sized. It’s difficult to deliver in the city too—parking is tough. Then you have to carry the beer in boxes down stairs leading to basements. Also, the state of New York has stringent alcohol beverage control rules and container laws. We have to take back all the empties, crush the glass and aluminum.
BIG: But hasn’t technology made your business easier, in some ways?
Boening: Yes, it has. For example, our delivery drivers use two-way communication devices in their trucks, that way drivers get answers to any problem that arises in an instant. Equipment has improved, too, as has the weight of cartons—they’re lighter now. Our salespeople use hand-held computers to communicate with customers and track product. Computer technology has made payments and electronic transfers easier.
BIG: How do you respond to the overall beer market being flat? And are there any hot trends you’re seeing now?
Boening: Although beer has leveled off, it will continue to grow and thrive. Spirits have diminished a bit, too, while wine has grown. And just as you’re seeing with spirits, people will likely drink a bit less but better beer in the future. Instead of three Buds, they’ll have two imported beers, for example. As far as trends go, as I mentioned, craft and flavored beers will continue to grow. And this summer, we had a lot of success in our Long Island markets with Miller Chill, a light beer with lime and salt added.