Update (August 16, 2011): The sheriff’s sale is scheduled.
As was reported last week, the General Lafayette Inn is still on the block — the original sale fell through, and it remains on the market for $1.8 million. While the location, although handy in the 18th century and through the streetcar era, leaves much to be desired now (at least as far as public transit options), the historic site has a great deal of largely unrealized potential. I would suggest that two potential avenues would be an ideal use of the space: first, it could become a satellite location or ‘testing’ brewpub for an established brewer; secondly, it could become a showplace (and temporary home) for a rotating cast of ‘gypsy’ brewers.
Option One – Brewpub Brand Extension
Given that the kitchen, brewery equipment and, given that this is Pennsylvania, the liquor license are already in place, so it should (in theory) be reasonably straightforward for an existing brewery to take over the space and get things up and running fairly quickly. Local brands like Victory, Triumph or Sly Fox would be an interesting fit – it’s a good distance away from all of their current locations, so it would not be taking away from their regular customer base. That’s not to say that there isn’t some work to be done before the staff could walk in and start brewing – the carpets need to be removed, other repairs are likely needed somewhere, given the age of the building, and decisions about the bed-and-breakfast building would need to be made. And finding and hiring a professional chef, brewer and other restaurant staff, developing a menu, training and promoting the restaurant before launch would all take time (and money) – but that might be more easily absorbed by an already-successful business with a track record of making such things work. Having an ‘extra’ location would be an ideal way to test out new beers on a smaller scale – and for a larger craft brewer with a more national scope (e.g. Rogue or Stone), it could be a very useful way to get an east-coast outpost up and running without investing in (too much) new brewing equipment.
Option Two – Gypsy Brewer Paradise
The General Lafayette property includes a cottage and guest house; while it is far from an ideal place to operate a bed-and-breakfast, it could be a perfect way to host traveling brewers like Pretty Things or Stillwater for a longer-term engagement – after all, housing would be included. Rather than relying on the individual brewer-in-residence to supply all the beer, some of the tap lines could be reserved for other local brewers as well – cultivating and maintaining these relationships would go a long way toward extending the pub’s reach – following the Earth Bread + Brewery model would be no bad move. The novelty of hosting rotating brewers creates ample opportunity for special events, tastings and new beer launches. While day-to-day business would still need to rely on having high-quality food and service at a reasonable price (think TJ’s – they really know how to do this), bringing the beer geeks back again and again works to keep things ticking over nicely as well. And hey, it’s a good way to generate a little press coverage. There’s even potentially room for a take-out bottle shop – again, bowing to Pennsylvania laws, it could be a side business worth pursuing, especially if it’s offering things that are hard-to-find or are brewpub exclusives.
In Any Event
Before the General Lafayette Inn closed late in 2010, it was sorely lacking in a few key areas – most notably the much-aforementioned food and service, but it also was not well served by its web site or other promotional activities. Regardless of who takes on the location, these elements will all need to be addressed. It needs a completely new web site, social media profiles, well-planned events and food – and service – worth the drive. It also needs to reach back out to the Mug Club members and local homebrew clubbers who previously met there, and a reinstitution of events like Winterfest, the annual indoor celebration of cold-weather beers hosted at the brewpub for years, would be very welcome as well.
Another factor that cannot be overlooked is the historic value of the property – and maintaining the original fabric doesn’t come for free. But much more could be done to properly research and promote the venue as a historic site; partnering with some of the area’s tourism folk would not go amiss, nor would locating and displaying historic photos, clippings and other ephemera relating to the area’s history (without becoming an Applebee’s, obviously). And let’s not overlook the folklore aspect an old property like this one has to offer – why not generate some free publicity by inviting one of the seemingly endless number of ghost hunting television shows to stay the night? I’m sure they could rustle up a few orbs or loud bangs, and it gets people in the doors. Make sure they have great food and a good experience and they will come back again.
Before the most recent incarnation of the General Lafayette went under, it was a regular destination for us to take out-of-town guests (look! it’s old!) as well as to enjoy some unusual local beers (and the often-on-offer lower alcohol beers were great for whomever was unlucky enough to be the driver). If Fork & Barrel can get people to a part of East Falls that has only marginally better public transit access, there’s no reason the General Lafayette Inn cannot – it just needs a firm hand, great food and beer and (here’s the hard part) access to capital to get things moving in the right direction. With its 300th anniversary only a few years away, it’s time someone took the reins with a long-term view of its past and future.