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The Boys of Iron Hill

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Cheers from the owners (from left): Kevin Finn, Mark Edelson and Kevin Davies. photograph by Jared CastaldiIt’s 12:30 p.m. on a Monday and Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant on the Wilmington Riverfront is busy. Men and women in suits talk business over burgers and sandwiches. Children share a pizza under a mom’s watchful eye, and girlfriends catch up over iced tea and salads.

Tucked in a booth near the open kitchen, owners Kevin Davies, Kevin Finn and Mark Edelson sip beers while perusing the menu. For the average diner, that would take time. Menu categories range from soups and salads to sandwiches to egg rolls to entrées. Edelson, however, doesn’t hesitate. He wants the Thai popcorn chicken, golden nuggets in a zesty chili sauce. “It’s outstanding,” Edelson says. “That dish is great. I love it.”

Davies looks up with surprise. This is something he didn’t know. “Do you really?”

“It’s my favorite,” Edelson says. “It is so good, I’m singing the praises of it.”

Davies is more of a tuna tataki kind of guy. We order the two items for the table, and when the dishes arrive, their enthusiasm for both becomes evident. I hastily get a fork in before only the pea shoot-and-bean sprout salad is left on the popcorn chicken’s plate.

There’s something satisfying about seeing restaurant owners enjoy their establishment’s food with such gusto. But as the hour unfolds, it’s equally impressive to see how well the partners get along after nearly 15 years in business.

I first interviewed them together back in 1997, after they’d opened the flagship Newark location, and again in 2001, before the Riverfront’s opening. The partners still trade witticisms in an easy repartee, and they still listen to each other instead of stepping on each other’s words. When one offers an opinion about the business, the others seem in agreement. There’s no eye-rolling, no barbs, no contradictions.

Are they for real? If not, I’m not the only one who’s fooled. “I’ve had a lot of beers with each of them, and I’ve never heard them say a bad word about each other,” says Don Russell, who writes the Joe Sixpack column for the Philadelphia Daily News.

Iron Hill’s achievements in many ways are the sum of their parts. As Sam Calagione, founder of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, puts it: “They’re three really good, smart, complementary, talented people who attract hundreds of good, smart hospitality coworkers to help them build a great success story.”

Iron Hill is indeed a success story. There are eight locations in suburban Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey. The ninth, scheduled to open in Chestnut Hill, Pa., before the year’s end, signifies Iron Hill’s official foray into beer-centric Philadelphia, which tolerates no slouches when it comes to suds. Russell has frequented all but one of the restaurants. “They do a lot of things right in my opinion,” he says.
 

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Among them is playing up the partners’ strengths. Finn, whom I met in the late 1980s, when he worked for his father’s company, United Outdoor Advertising, takes the administrative lead. He and soccer buddy Edelson’s home-brewing efforts prompted the idea for the business. Initially, Finn thought he would be more involved with the brewing. “A week after opening,” Edelson jokes, “that desire quickly evaporated.”

“I enjoy the business part,” acknowledges Finn, a former ski bum who has undergraduate and graduate business degrees. He also enjoys scouting for locations, and that keeps Edelson, who supervises new construction, busy. A former production manager at Zeneca Pharmaceuticals’ Newark facility, Edelson also handles the brewing side of the business. Both duties keep him on a constant rotation between the locations, making him more visible among the staff.

Although brewers report to Edelson, they’re free to experiment. The creations often lead to seasonal additions. Between the specials and the five house beers, there are 12 offerings on any given day. I try Mahalo, Apollo!, a refreshing summer wheat beer livened by honey and lemongrass—and I like it.

Of the core beers, only the Pig Iron Porter—which consistently brings home medals from the Great American Beer Festival—has the same recipe. Others have been tweaked over the years. Not all beers have been well-received. Consider Wassail, an aromatic holiday beer, spiced with cinnamon and cloves. “No one understood it,” Edelson recalls. “No one liked it. They didn’t like the name of it—they didn’t like anything. I think we had it for Christmas in July.”

“I hated that beer,” Davies chimes in.

“If the staff doesn’t like it, it doesn’t sell,” Edelson says. Only Sam Calagione, Edelson laughs, could sell it. “He could have put it in a bottle and said it came from a Himalayan recipe. Everyone would have gone wild.”

The partners and Calagione, widely considered the poster child for esoteric brews, have a good relationship. “We’re friends, and our companies are very different,” Calagione says.
 

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Early Brews

In the mid-1990s, all were in a race to open Delaware’s first brewpub. Dogfish bellied up to the bar first. Stewart’s Brewing Co. and the Brandywine Brewing Co. also beat Iron Hill, whose frustrated partners couldn’t find the right location. They eventually moved their sights from Wilmington to Newark.

Delaware’s brewpubs were in good company. Between 1995 and 1997, 600 brewpubs and 300 microbreweries debuted, and production of craft beer soared 50 percent each year. But in 1997, industry growth skidded to 4 percent. “We opened just as it started to go down,” Edelson says of the market. Remember Rockford Brewery, Blue Hen Beer Co., and John Harvard Brew House on Route 202? All gone.

Iron Hill, however, was on a roll, opening a West Chester location in 1998 in an old Woolworth’s building and a Media site in 2000 in an old A&P supermarket. Wilmington, Phoenixville, Lancaster, North Wales and Maple Shade, N.J., followed. The industry shakedown and Iron Hill’s continued success demonstrates that it’s not enough for a brewpub to make beer. It should be good beer. And it’s not enough for a brewpub to serve food. It has to be good food.

That’s where Davies comes in. The restaurant veteran was also considering a brewpub business in the 1990s. Mutual friend Xavier Teixido suggested he join Finn and Edelson. “They weren’t restaurant guys, and I didn’t know anything about beer,” says Davies, a self-professed “wine guy,” who’s learned to love a good brew.

Like the beer, Iron Hill’s menu has experienced fine-tuning. A revamp that took the menu from 50 to nearly 100 selections necessitated kitchen remodeling. Now the list is down to a more manageable 80 items. Offerings include the expected: loaded nachos, wings, burgers, fish and chips, and pizzas. It also has the unexpected: a salmon BLT burger, vegetarian black bean cake, Mediterranean lamb meatballs and pecan-chicken salad sandwich. You’ll find plenty of Asian, Cajun and Southwest influences. Those cuisines pair well with beer, Davies explains. Well, of course they do.

The locations share the same menu. Lancaster, however, gets hot rolls. (“They don’t understand the concept of cold rolls,” Edelson confides.) Chefs at each location choose daily specials from an approved list. Longtime chefs, such as David Anderson in Media and Dan Bethard in West Chester, have earned the right to devise their own specials sans approval.

Davies spends much of his time at the West Chester site, where the chefs test new recipes. There are menu changes in fall and spring, but you can’t mess with some dishes, such as the best-selling turkey burger, a fat patty topped with guacamole, bacon, tomato and pepper-jack cheese served on a springy roll slathered with ancho-honey mayo. It was so big, I took half home and so tasty, I ate it cold.
 

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But where, I ask, are the salmon spring rolls I remembered from Best of Delaware parties in the past? The trio breaks out into guffaws. “You set that up!” Edelson says to Finn. “I know you did.” Apparently, a customer has been waging a relentless Twitter campaign to get them reinstalled, and Iron Hill recently agreed. The Lejon pizza, put on hold when the company had trouble finding the right rock shrimp, is also scheduled to return.

 

You like customers. You really like them.

Listening to customer feedback is common at Iron Hill. Finn, in particular, is a numbers and stats guy who digs into surveys and statistics, which are important when it comes to new locations. The core customer is a college graduate between the ages of 25 and 54 in the upper income bracket. As for sites, “we’re very Main Street-based,” Finn says. “We like to be in small urban towns with a good upscale population and foot and car traffic.” The partners are looking forward to the day when the Riverfront residences are fully occupied.

Iron Hill restaurants are currently within a 100-mile radius of Wilmington, home to the headquarters of their company, C&D Brewing Co. Lancaster is the farthest away. Since Delaware last year boosted the number of brewpubs a single company could own from two to three, another Delaware location is possible.

The challenge is not finding the right site or the right financing, Finn says. It’s finding the right people. Iron Hill is picky, and training is intensive. Judging by the server who reeled off the qualities of each beer and suggested appetizers to share, it works. Those who do well move up the ranks, which is partly why Iron Hill keeps expanding, says Finn. He’s not joking.

Employees are hired with an eye on management. “Who’s going to run the next kitchen? Who’s going to run the next restaurant? The next brewery? What we do is complicated; you need to be good at business, good at marketing, good in the restaurant business,” Finn says.

Those questions have become even more important lately. During lunch, the partners frequently talk about “getting out of the way.” They learned the need for that early on in Newark when a manager took Edelson aside and told him the partners didn’t need to be on site so much; the managers wanted to do their jobs.

“We’re successful restaurateurs,” Edelson says. “Our interest now is building the company.” Since they aren’t the face of the brand, which often happens in the brewing industry, they’re in an ideal position to step back from daily operations and focus on the future, Russell says.

Franchising, however, is not part of that future. Nor, for now, is second concept. “We feel there are plenty of opportunities for Iron Hill still,” Finn says. And that’s something beer fanatics in the tri-state region can drink to.

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