Town Square Brewing's turnaround from harsh reviews to high praise

How an Edmonton brewpub went from harsh reviews to high praise

In the investing world, a restaurant doesn’t often come up as a solid bet. For every two independent operations that live to see their their first anniversary, three don’t. By year five, the ratio worsens to one out of five, making most food ventures more like money pits than cash cows.

But the hospitality business made sense to Brandon Boutin (Steamfitter/Pipefitter ’05), Tyler McNaughton (Architectural Technology ’05) and Sterling Nordin (Heavy Equipment Technician ’02). With their families, the three friends were interested in diversifying a shared investment portfolio, which consisted mostly of rental properties.

“That market took a bit of a tank, so it was scary to invest our capital in that direction,” says Boutin. “So, let’s see what else we can put our cash in.”

Despite not being chefs, they’re all “big foodies,” he says. Good taste would be their guide. Another advantage was the nature of their concept: a hybrid pizzeria-brewpub that would tap into Alberta’s rapidly expanding craft brewing scene and capitalize on a relatively underserved Edmonton market.

Good taste would be their guide.

With that, Town Square Brewing Co. opened in a stripmall in southeast Edmonton in September 2017. It began selling its first batches of its own beer a month later.

But it didn’t launch without incident – a fact that did not go unnoticed by food reviewers. Over the next six months, Town Square was forced to find its footing on the fly after stumbling out of the gate, and to see its missteps reported in local culinary criticism.

“We didn’t have all the answers coming into this,” says Boutin.

What they did have, however, was a strong sense of direction. That's now seeing validation. Halfway to that one-year mark, Boutin and his team earned what could prove to be auspicious accolades. In March, Town Square won two Alberta brewing awards that, not long ago, seemed a long shot.

the interior of Town Square Brewing's tap room

A blank canvas

To heap more improbability on that win, Boutin and the team hadn’t originally considered brewing. At first, they wanted to import a successful U.S. model. Family holidays in Anaheim had introduced them to a make-your-own-pizza chain called the Pizza Press, a place with a strong focus on craft beer.

When legal issues complicated launching a franchise north of the border, “We said, ‘Hey, let’s take a similar model, adapt it to our region and make it happen,’” says Boutin. As a seasoned homebrewer, he liked the idea of making beer onsite, something the American model didn’t do.

To get started, Town Square brought in Drew Sinden, a former production manager at Lighthouse Brewing Co. in Victoria, B.C., who studied brewing at the Siebel Institute of Technology. They gave the new head brewer free rein (with Boutin pitching in as time permitted) to create a rotating selection of beers.

“It’s always been: use your creative vision,” says Sinden. “Here’s your blank canvas. That’s a brewer’s dream, someone saying, ‘Go have fun, do some crazy stuff. Have a passion for it and do it.’”

"That’s a brewer’s dream, someone saying, ‘Go have fun, do some crazy stuff.'"

With Sinden’s help, “We went from a five-gallon pot [at home] to doing 1,500 litres of beer,” says Boutin.

That jump reflects the challenge any new restaurant faces: a necessary deep-end dive, regardless of how well you can swim. When harsh reviews appeared in December 2017, it seemed like Town Square was treading water.

From the start, the owners wanted to approach food the same way as beer, giving staff freedom to create.

“I took that and ran with it,” says 24-year-old executive chef Alyce O’Neill (Cooking ’15, pictured). “I think you should when someone gives you that opportunity.”

Chef Alyce O'Neill holds a pizzaHer menu took on what Boutin would describe as an “artisanal” feel. Pizzas feature unusual ingredients such as kimchi and chutney, and have even been made with dough darkened by squid ink. Spent brewery grains are incorporated into as many dishes as possible, including desserts.

“I wanted to create something that no one else has,” says O’Neill.

When critics proved skeptical, neither Boutin nor O’Neill got their backs up. Instead, they listened.

“They gave us some really hard things to hear about our food,” says Boutin. “We had to not take offense to it, and take it as feedback and try to correct behaviours.”

“My biggest challenge probably was learning to manage a team, because in my previous jobs I was just part of a team,” recalls O’Neill. “Taking that extra step [to be] a leader has been a big challenge. You have to learn.”

The culinary community can be divided on how to deal with reviews. Daniel Huber (Cook ’10), a.k.a. the Burly Chef and author of a widely read blog post critical of critics, argues that only those with professional kitchen experience are qualified to offer advice.

“You should get good service and you should get good food,” says Huber. But he suggests that perfection isn’t realistic for restaurants in their infancy.

“Any chef does not want to be reviewed in the first couple of months. They want a review three or four months deep because there’s so much turnover in staff, so many issues to sort through.”

When NAIT Culinary Arts instructor Maynard Kolskog (Cooking ’82) ran his own place, south Edmonton’s Tavola de Pranzo (1988-94), he was fortunate to receive only “good to very good” reviews. They were a pick-me-up in a business that takes much and returns slim margins.

“I can sympathize that getting a bad review could be a real kick in the pants,” says Kolskog. “But if you look at it with the right attitude, it can be a way to grow and improve.”

Huber, too, acknowledges that criticism, when constructive, may have long-term benefits.

“I make a point of reading reviews [of restaurants] that are open for a really long time and they all have to deal with the stuff that Town Square has to,” says Huber. “It’s how they weather it.”

Overcoming variables

Town Square took a broad, multi-faceted approach to weathering “it.” Part of that involved recognizing the complexity of their operation.

Boutin feels that a brewery is much like a jobsite in the trades; there are relatively few variables.

“You set up your production facility and then you build schedules to run product through.” Running a restaurant can be less straightforward. “You’re coordinating kitchen staff, front-of-house staff and the guests that are constantly coming in the door.”

The owners and managers at Town Square identified what Boutin describes as a “complacency thing.” Food was leaving the kitchen in a state it should not have, he says, and there was a palpable lack of pride among some staff. Boutin and the other owners responded by reinforcing a sense of autonomy over different “pillars in the company,” encouraging a sense of personal investment in the work.

Meanwhile, in addition to focusing on her leadership skills, O’Neill contributed to the solution by scrutinizing menu items, specifically her pizza dough. She sought out advice from other chefs and began working out kinks. And she continued to listen to feedback.

“I’m not better than anyone else,” says O’Neill. “If they have something to change, let me know and let’s try it.”

The learning curve began to level out. Then the first real return on the team’s investment came in: the awards.

In March, the Alberta Small Brewers Association held the inaugural Alberta Brewing Awards in Calgary. Nearly 60 brewers submitted more than 300 entries to 22 categories.

Of the 66 medals up for grabs, Town Square earned a silver and a bronze: the former for its Pond Surfer California Common, an amber, malt-forward lager, and the latter for Beets by Sinden, a unique, sweet-tart sour beer made with actual beets.

“Sometimes, if you’re an artist or creative, not everybody is going to agree with what you’re making."

“It was a huge win, being six months old and for beers that we love,” says Boutin. And it was validation. “Sometimes, if you’re an artist or creative, not everybody is going to agree with what you’re making. The awards are affirming that we’re on the right track.”

interior of town square brewing, edmontonThese days, Boutin says business is growing, with weekends – what Kolskog might call a litmus test of success – their busiest days. Recent reviews on average 4.5 stars (including those for the pizza). And the early days are being seen in a different light. “It’s been a fun challenge,” says O’Neill, “that’s for sure.”

Nevertheless, Boutin isn’t letting newfound success erase the memory of how hard it was to earn. He knows maintaining it – and impressing customers and critics alike – will take just as much effort.

“We make things that we love and that we want to do,” says Boutin. “But you can’t get it in your head that we’re right and they’re wrong.”

In fact, sometimes you don’t just react to reviews; you get inspired by them. When another critic labelled Town Square beer as “one dimensional,” they blended an unlikely combination of two batches to create a tart India pale ale they called, with a bit of a wink, the 2D New England Sour IPA.

On the popular beer rating app Untappd, roughly 160 reviews average nearly four out of five.

“We thought we’d up our game,” says Boutin, without a hint of resentment, “and go two dimensional.”

Court ruling  hurts  small,  newer craft breweries 

Alberta brewers face another hurdle after a court ruled in June that the provincial government’s grant for Alberta brewers is unconstitutional.

That grant, introduced through the Alberta Small Brewers Development Program, was deemed unconstitutional by a Court of Queen’s Bench judge in Calgary. The judge ordered the government to pay about $2 million in restitution to two out-of-province breweries who challenged the program.

Premier Rachel Notley has said the government will appeal the ruling.

“The smaller the brewery and the newer, the more it will hurt.”

Brandon Boutin says the decision is a setback for breweries like Town Square and others who built their business plans in an environment that has now changed, possibly causing them to struggle with operating costs.

It might also limit the ability of some breweries to grow, he adds. “The smaller the brewery and the newer, the more it will hurt.”

Still, he hopes publicity around the ruling, and the Alberta government’s subsequent appeal, will increase awareness about the obstacles craft brewers face in trying to sell their products in other provinces. In Ontario, for example, Alberta brewers face prohibitive costs and long waits to try and enter their market, says Boutin. 

“Even if we lose our grant, I hope the government puts a lot of pressure on tearing down those barriers” between provinces, he says. “I feel they’re definitely trying.”

The Alberta Small Brewers Association is also lobbying on behalf of the industry, Boutin adds.

The small brewers program has been credited for a boom in Alberta’s craft beer scene. Since 2016, when the program was launched, 46 new brewers opened their doors in Alberta, according to the province.

– Marta Gold

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