The Ambitions of Von Ebert Brewing

Tom Cook has ended the franchise he had with Fat Head's Brewery so that his brewpub in the Pearl can be reborn as Von Ebert. But it's not just a simple reboot; Cook has very aggressive plans to make it an "all-around, world-class brewery." Can such a thing be engineered?

One late evening a month ago, the Cleveland HQ of Fat Head's Brewery sent out a surprising press release: "Despite success, Fat Head's Portland to close." The short release contained confusing information that the employees could stay on with the "new company that will occupy the space at 131 NW 13th." Two hours later, Tom Cook sent out an email announcing a new brewery called Von Ebert Brewing set to open at ... 131 NW 13th. The name Fat Head's was never mentioned.

All very curious.

Tom Cook

Some information has filtered out, but the whole situation has remained very curious. Last week I got to sit down with Tom Cook to learn what happened with Fat Head's and get a sense of his plans for Von Ebert. Given how surprisingly things had played out thus far, I expected a good story--and got even more than I bargained for.

The Demise of Fat Head's

The first surprising detail to emerge about Fat Head's Portland was this: it was a franchise. Cook was in partnership with his father, a restaurant-chain entrepreneur familiar with franchises, but no one had any experience with brewpubs. “At the time we had no clue. We understand the restaurant side," but didn't know the brewing side at all. They had come into Fat Head's orbit because a construction company they worked with had also done work for Fat Head's. Cook approached the Ohio-based brewery, wondering what kind of arrangement could be made. Fat Head's was focused on the Midwest and wasn't sure about launching 2,000 miles west, but they had the knowledge and experience to help Cook launch a brewpub. They chose the franchise model as the best solution, but didn't advertise it much until last month. “We always felt it was a dirty word and just kept it among us.”

Keeping things quiet seems like Cook's native mode. Throughout our interview, he was reluctant to give definitive answers. At first I thought this was an example of an owner's natural caginess I've seen many times, but as we talked, it seemed less like a business approach and more like Cook's personality. Unless he was certain about a fact, he preferred to hedge. He also didn't like to give offense. Once, when I offered him an opportunity to take a shot at the city (I've had my own criticisms), he was polite and deferential. (And, probably, a smart businessman.)

So, when I asked about why he decided to end the relationship with Fat Head's, he said this:

“It wasn’t a good fit because, number one, there were some things that Portland was asking us for that we were not part of Fat Head’s. Portland’s pretty good about saying what they want. If you’re a good listener and you can find a way to execute, Portland will appreciate that. We’re successful, don’t get me wrong, but we were being for things that we just were not able to execute under Fat Head’s.”

He stopped after that and I asked, "Do you mean the food? The branding? The beer?" To which he said, diplomatically, "Yes," without offering more.

According to Cook, the franchise ended mutually.  “It goes both ways, it’s not just me. Their new production brewery is going to blow your socks off. It’s awesome. They got a ton of money into it; they have a lot of time into it. Their strategy is much more regionally-focused in the Midwest, and most people would agree that stretching too thin is not a great way to grow a brewery.” Cook said he was tremendously grateful to Fat Head's for what they'd taught him, but he was ready to break out of the safe little cocoon they offered and see if he could spread his wings. (I reached out to Fat Head's founders Matt Cole and Glen Benigni for comment but they didn't respond.)

What Fat Head’s does, they—we—are one of the best at. But there are things that Fat Head’s don’t do right now that I feel like with the team we’ve built we could do—so we’re going to give that a shot.

The Birth of Von Ebert

Tom Cook is a young guy, just 30 years old. He grew up in Vancouver, WA but went to Purdue to study finance. He stayed in that field for a few years before coming home to work with his father. The elder Cook founded Pacific Bells, one of the largest franchisees of Taco Bells and Buffalo Wild Wings, as well as other restaurants. Embarking on the brewpub experiment was Tom's idea, though, and while he has partners in Von Ebert, he clearly seems to be the person overseeing the vision and operation.

And what a vision it is. At first, the change seemed like it was going to be modest.  “It will be similar cuisine to what we do now. The menu will be a little smaller. The beers won’t change that much. Most other things will. We're going to make the bar bigger. You can see it right now.” He gestured to the bar when he said this. “The money’s in the bar, the people want to be in the bar. It will still have family-friendly [seating], but Portland’s a drinkin’ town. Décor and everything are going to change; we’re getting a new dining package.”

The name comes from his maternal grandmother, who came to the US from Germany. The "Von" is actually an aristocratic designation, one the Eberts lost generations before arriving in America--but Cook has restored it. As we chatted, this all seemed like a pretty standard re-boot. Going from a weirdly-branded Midwest brewery to something with a purely local feel, but without dramatic changes. But then Cook laid out his fuller vision, which extends far beyond the current Fat Head's site.

My vision for Von Ebert is: I want an all-around world-class brewery. In order for us to become a world-class brewery, we need to be able to brew lots of different beers, we need to be able to have many retail locations, and we need to be able to serve lots of beer on-premise. That’s the strategy.

The phrase "all-around world-class brewery" was one he uttered probably ten times over the course of the interview. For a guy who is reticent to have anything definite put on the record, this was impressively unequivocal. Few people start breweries by saying, "I'm shooting for mediocre!", but such an overt statement is also uncommon. To accomplish his goal, superb beer is one of the baseline requirements. One of his first steps was to hire Sean Burke, The Commons' former brewer, when that company started taking on water last summer. Sean is a German-trained brewer who has an exceptional touch with delicate European beers. He'll be joining Eric Van Tassel, the assistant to former head brewer Mike Hunsaker, who left Fat Head's about a year ago to start his own brewery. Cook and Burke (who joined us for the interview) praised Van Tassel--who was brewing and couldn't join us at the time.

Sean Burke

Good brewers are an important start, but it's the model he envisions that is truly unusual:

“We’re going to build different locations. Different locations will have different specialties. We’re not built here [Fat Head's] to do certain styles. As we move forward with different things, future locations will have brewhouses and equipment that can do lots of things. But we also realize that trying to do everything in one location is not possible. So we’re going to do different things in different spots. In general, there will be identities at each location.”

I tried to push on this concept, but beyond this comment, he was not willing to say. I asked whether it would be something like a German outpost, a Belgian one, and so on, but he wasn't prepared to go that far. There has also been speculation about the Ringside Grill, which Cook recently purchased after it closed down. I asked whether that would be one of the future Von Eberts, but he hedged again. “One thing I’ve learned in the great city of Portland is, never count your chickens before they hatch. Do I think it’s a super-awesome spot that a brewpub should go into? Hell yeah.”

The million-dollar question is this: how do you engineer a world-class brewery? I mentioned to Cook that definitions vary broadly; in Europe, most of the famous breweries are narrowly focused on certain styles. What did he envision? He'd thought a lot about it, and has driven around the country visiting breweries to see what works and doesn't work.

“We went to the best brewpubs, the highest-rated brewpubs--we went to a lot of brewpubs. Early on, we started to say, of all the people we’ve visited, who inspires us? There were a lot of people doing a couple things right. But it was very hard to find people doing everything right. We found a few. I would say Firestone-Walker is one of them. pFriem is one. Breakside. It’s really hard to do everything—everything—world class. That’s what inspired me.”

The press releases said that Von Ebert would open in the first quarter of 2018, but Cook wasn't saying. In a follow-up email, he allowed that it would be in the first half of 2018. Beyond that, I expect information will be slow to come by. “The other thing I learned when we did Fat Heads? We announced nine months before we opened, and by the time we opened, nobody [cared] about us. I think it was a big mistake. Our opening week was pretty lackluster, to be honest. As new prospects and new spots become available, I’m hesitant to say too much, because I got burned on this. When we opened, the ultra-geeks were the only ones who showed up.”

Cook is also gearing up for a long haul, which is another reason he's staying mostly mum. “You can’t execute this huge undertaking in a matter of five years. That’s not how it works. It’s a long-term plan.” So stay tuned. This is an interesting experiment, and Cook's bar is sky high. “I think the team and I are ready, and we’re ready for the challenge.” We'll see if he can pull it off. Either way, it should be fun to watch.