Case Study: How Trillium (Temporarily?) Lost the Plot

Following a viral scandal that revealed Boston’s Trillium Brewing, one of the country’s hottest hazy IPA-makers, was cutting wages, I spoke with four current and former employees as well as co-founder/owner JC Tetreault to try to understand the story behind this story.

The week of Thanksgiving was not a festive one for Boston’s Trillium Brewing. An anonymous post on BeerAdvocate surfaced a spate of slashed wages for the brewery’s retail workers. It was a shocking report because Trillium is one of the country’s buzziest breweries, able to command premium prices for four-packs of hazy IPAs. The initial news was followed by an enormous flood of coverage, including three articles in the Boston Globe, one informal and two official apologies by the brewery, and finally, two weeks later, an announcement that retail workers would be getting substantial raises.

The details of what has already happened have been covered extensively—have a look at the Globe’s initial reporting and follow-up story if you want to get up to speed. As I spoke to four current and former workers, whose experiences aligned with the reporting on the story, I began to wonder how any of this could have happened. Trillium brewed 18,000 barrels of beer in 2017, and 95% was sold on-site. The profit margin of beer sold on-site is enormous (a conservative estimate puts gross on beer sales at over $20 million), and expansion means increased sales in 2018. Meanwhile, in the five years the company has been around, it has expanded four times. The brewery started out in a tiny space with a retail operation described by one worker as “a hallway,” grew to include a large production brewery and taproom, a downtown restaurant, an outdoor venue in the summer, and most recently a plan to turn a 163-acre rural parcel into an estate farm to supply the restaurant with produce and ingredients for the beer.

All of this leaves a giant question at the center of the recent events: how could a brewery this successful be cutting salaries of its lowest-paid employees? The answer gets at the challenges breweries have in allocating finite resources, and the dangers of focusing too many on growth at the expense of employee wages and benefits.

Constant Growth

Perhaps the most salient fact about the Trillium story is how much and how fast it’s grown since its founding in 2013. At first, the brewery was located in a 2,300 square foot space that had just 300 square feet for retail. JC Tetreault, who with his wife Esther founded and owns Trillium, called it “a shoebox of a brewery.” That formed the initial beachhead from which the company grew. The space was almost immediately inadequate, particularly after the brewery attracted a following.

Trillium Timeline

March 2013 – Brewery opens
December 2015 – Canton production brewery opens
Summer 2017 - Garden on the Greenway project begins
Summer 2018 – Purchase of a farm in CT announced
October 2018 - Boston restaurant opens

Two of the workers I spoke to were at the company in its early days. They describe a familiar situation of seat-of-their pants chaos that seems to characterize so many start-ups. One told me, “We all wore a thousand hats. We all did everything because we thought we were together working toward the goal of making something bigger and that we would all reap the rewards of that.” It was chaotic, hectic hard work—and fun.

“We were just constantly pouring,” another said of the time. “It was very high-paced, high-energy, just pour as many beers as possible because you want to keep the people happy.”

For the most part, the employees didn’t mind the craziness of the work. The workers I spoke to characterized themselves as beer geeks and were psyched to get a job at the hottest brewery in Boston. The retail jobs put them at the center of the excitement and seemed to channel the feeling about the brand.

The first signs of trouble started when the goal of expansion began to dominate thinking at the brewery—something Tetreault acknowledges. “In between those times”—initial opening and finding the second location—“we basically used cashflow from ongoing operations to grow the business. Any free cash from the business would go right back into buying a couple more tanks, to hire another brewer.” The growth led to a kind of tunnel vision, where the Tetreaults were only looking forward. “It’s easy to get complacent that the thing you’ve already built is on a good track while you bring your focus to the new thing, the new baby you’re trying to take care of,” he said. And at every stage of the company’s five years of life, there has always been another new project on the horizon.

Workers Felt the Squeeze

As the brewery grew, the Tetreaults focused on the future rather than ongoing operations, and the organization followed suit. Because there wasn’t enough money to do everything, wages lagged and worker needs were overlooked.

One of the workers I spoke to, who was still slinging cans at the original location (Congress Street) when the second opened, put it this way. “Everything was focused on making Canton awesome and Congress Street was forgotten. We operated that facility completely on our own. We never had any support.” The evidence of benign neglect started cropping up. As one example, managers would offer worker perks, but forget they had two locations. A worker at the original location relayed this story. “We’d get these staff-wide emails saying, ‘We’re having a pizza party in Canton today!’ or "‘Burgers or special ice cream for Canton staff today!’ and we’re sitting there at Congress Street going”—said with sarcasm—‘Cool. Thanks for thinking of us.’ That happened quite a bit.”

Every worker I spoke to also described miscommunications or undelivered promises made to workers during this period: one worker was promised a certain 401k match before hiring that never materialized; another was promised raises that never came, one was promised a particular wage to transfer to a different location, but later learned it would be reset to the lowest level.

Many described gave background on one of the issues that led to the initial BeerAdvocate posting. When the new restaurant opened this fall, one of the jobs would be working the retail station where cans were sold. Because there was a bar and a restaurant at this location, the retail job would be more like selling merch—though employees there were slated to be paid as tipped staff. “It was going to be busy, yes,” one employee acknowledged. “But [customers have] already tipped the bartenders and the servers; when they swing through retail at the end of the night to grab their cans to go, they’re not going to tip retail associates. We saw this coming. We kept saying this over and over and over again, and upper management just said, ‘Oh no, it’s going to be fine. It’s going to be so busy; you’re going to make so much money.’”

One employee I spoke to blamed the Tetreaults, but the other three were ambivalent. They felt that, amid the chaos of growth, leadership just wasn’t paying attention to the staff. One described the Tetreaults as “sometimes out of it,” and elaborated. “There’s definitely something that’s referred to in the company as an ‘ivory tower effect.’” He described the two buildings at the big production brewery in Canton—the brewery proper and a warehouse and office building where management worked. The office was known by staff as the ivory tower. “The ivory tower was often out of touch with how things happened on the ground. At the end of the day they’re pretty well-intentioned, but it doesn’t always work out as easily as they think it will.”

It’s worth underscoring one point here: no one argues Trillium was doing a bad job with their workers. Aside from cutting wages and neglecting staff, the brewery just didn’t treat the workers well. (Tetreault acknowledges that the details describing events were accurate.) The following story, relayed by a worker at the new restaurant, doesn’t describe sweatshop conditions—but it highlights the thinking that was guiding worker relations leading up to the BeerAdvocate posting.

“Normally you’d get a beer at the end of your shift—you know, it’s your shift beer. That went away. And then, after one of my first shifts I went up and I was like, ‘Oh hey, I want to get a beer.’ And they were like, ‘Yeah, we don’t do shifties any more.’ And I was like, ‘That’s fine, whatever. I’m tired; I’ll buy a beer, I don’t care.’ They said, ‘No, you can’t actually drink here when you finish working.’ That’s still the case. What else says we like this place more than employees having a beer when they get off work there?”   

And of course, getting pay cuts sent an unmistakable message of disregard workers couldn’t help but take personally. One worker got emotional and put it this way. “Telling me they were going to cut my pay just—it really hurt a lot that they even thought that was an okay thing to do to me.”

Trying to Make Things Right

Imagine starting a business like it’s a board game. You’re given finite resources that you must allocate to accomplish certain goals. Until very recently, Trillium allocated all its resources to growth—the owner’s time and focus, the organization’s energy, and the money they were bringing in selling hazy IPAs. If you were playing a board game, you’d probably do the same thing. (Most breweries do, too.) Growth brings in more money, it expands a brewery’s reach and strengthens its brand. It seems like the best way to spend those precious and finite resources. Internal company functions, like compensating employees at a high level and spending hours on organizational management, don’t sell more beer. They drain the resources and don’t seem to bring anything in. But eventually, every organization gets large enough that the failure to attend to these matters results in the kind of crisis Trillium’s experiencing. The chaos leads to dysfunction.

Esther and JC Tetreault

Esther and JC Tetreault

Tetreault, looking back, sees this. “As you grow a business, you wear a lot of hats. Think about all the different disciplines any business would need: marketing, operations, recipe design, engineering, architecture, legal, HR. And you’re not good at any of those things because you’ve never done them before.”

When all of this came to a very public head recently, Trillium didn’t respond well. Used to uniformly positive press, Trillium had never had to address criticism. The effect at the brewery was profound, and it rocked the Tretreaults. “This has really shaken us,” JC said. “Seeing the assumptions made about who we are and our integrity—that’s been tough for us to look at.”

Eventually, though, they did more than just issue another statement. They raised retail workers’ wages from the $5 they’d been dropped to (from $8 an hour) to $15 an hour—up to $18 for experienced workers. It came at real cost, too, because the increased expense will for the first time delay a project. “The farm will have to take a little bit longer than we planned, Tetreault acknowledged, and added that the brewery was entirely rethinking its approach.

“We certainly missed something. I think we’re going to be much more sensitive to that. Less, ‘Okay, we’ve got that covered, now onto the next thing.’ To have people say things like, ‘Corporate greed is creeping in and ruining this thing I love,’ and for our name to be attached to that makes me really, really sad. But at the same time we’re looking at what we can do to make sure that will never be called into question again.”   

The proof will be in the results. Craft brewing is animated by passion—which can cut both ways. Had a Boston sports bar cut server wages, it wouldn’t have caused a ripple of interest. This story blew up because Trillium is such a prominent avatar of craft beer. An industry insider texted me as all this was playing out and joked snarkily that Trillium had “been sideswiped by finding that craft beer fans drink the ‘craft beer movement’ Kool-Aid!” If a brewery preaches an ethos that craft beer is different, that it is about community and connection, then it will be held to that standard.

The workers I spoke to think the passion that caused fan outrage can still be transformed by making things right. One of the employees I voiced what comes next for Trillium.

“People want the easy villain. You can just say, ‘Oh, they’re terrible! They treat their employees like shit and we don’t want to support their business.’ That’s okay, if that’s how you want to feel. But we know it’s a lot more complex than that. Shit happens, and what you do to make it right is indicative of who you are and your character.”

Because of Trillium’s very high profile, people will be watching closely. If this current issue could be chalked up to inexperience, future episodes will confirm the critics’ worst suspicions. But fans are also going to be looking for Trillium to turn things around, if for no other reason than they love the beer and want to feel good about drinking it. Going forward, Trillium will reconstruct their reputation not just one beer at a time, but one employee at a time.

PHOTO: Andy Crump/HopCulture

Jeff Alworth2 Comments