Craft brewpubs have fallen in and out of fashion during the past 25 years, and the beer category itself has struggled as consumers turn to spirits and cocktails. So how has Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant, founded 25 years ago, managed to not only survive the ups and downs but also continue to grow and innovate?
It’s all about the beer, as well as the food and restaurant settings, says founder/director of brewing operations Mark Edelson. “Iron Hill Brewery has built a reputation for high-quality beer and made-from-scratch menu items that consistently deliver on flavor in a fun and friendly atmosphere.”
The Exton, PA-based company, which now operates 20 locations across Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, South Carolina and Georgia, brews its own craft beers on-site. The variety of beers, wine and cocktails, and breadth of the menu aims to offer something for everyone, Edelson notes. “Whether stopping in for a drink with a friend or co-workers, dinner with the family, or date night, Iron Hill meets guests where they are.”
Beer carries the highest percentage of Iron Hill’s non-food sales, and this has remained steady over the years, Edelson says. At press time locations were transitioning from popular fall brews such as Oktoberfest and Pumpkin to holiday and more full-bodied beers that appeal to guests as the weather gets colder.
Fan favorites Reindeer’s Revenge, an American Tripel, and Kryptonite, a Double IPA, came out in early November, while the award-winning Russian Imperial Stout was available later in the month. Special small-batch, limited releases for December include Winter Warmer, a medium-bodied ale finished with classic winter spices and served in a cinnamon-rimmed glass, and Queen of the North, a Bourbon Barleywine. “We’ll end the year with Brave Noise Pale Ale to benefit the Pink Boots Society and St. Malty of the Oak, a wine barrel-aged quad,” Edelson says.
“What’s unique about Iron Hill is that we have all these great beers available in every location,” he notes. Yet the individual neighborhood locations also have the freedom to experiment and deliver unique styles.
“As a result, some of the best-selling beers started as one of our independent brewer’s recipes and made it to company-wide distribution. It’s this innovation that keeps our fans excited, and brewers pushing the limits of flavor profiles,” he says.
“We love the fact that people are interested in exploring. Our cornerstone is craft beer, and our sales remain strong whether it is on-premise or in retail.”
The brand also recently launched a new cocktail program. “Staying true to our roots, the Homestead Shandy, made with our signature beer Homestead, a Farmhouse Ale, is popular and a familiar stretch for beer drinkers and cocktail enthusiasts,” says Edelson. The Thyme is Honey cocktail captures the spirit of Iron Hill blending fresh flavors like lemon and thyme with juniper-rich gin and honey and the Sangria is a year-round classic.
Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant, named after the historic Revolutionary War landmark in Delaware where General George Washington battled the British, was born when Edelson and fellow amateur brewer Kevin Finn teamed up with restaurant pro Kevin Davies. They opened the first location in Newark, DE, in 1996.
At that time the U.S. had 693 brewpubs, 276 microbreweries and no taprooms, according to the Brewers Association. As of 2020, there were 3,219 brewpubs, 1,854 microbreweries and 3,471 taprooms.
Is the massive increase in competition a concern? Not according to Edelson.
“We love that more people are interested in learning about beer, pairing beer with food and even cooking with beer,” he says. “We want to educate our guests and let our beer and food shine.”
Iron Hill servers are experts and can easily describe the flavors of the beers to find the perfect one for guests, or they can explore with flights of beer.
For its 25th Anniversary, Iron Hill brought back some iconic menu items for a limited time, which has been fun for both customers and the culinary team. “Iron Hill is well known for our Philly Cheesesteak Egg Rolls, as well as favorites like the Brewski Burger and our Hearth Baked Pizzas, plus our beer-inspired dishes like the Fish & Chips and Grilled Brewben Sandwich are always a hit,” Edelson says.
All Iron Hill beers are made to pair with a variety of dishes, and the restaurants offer weekly rotating chef-inspired menus with a suggested beer pairing. Chefs and brewers work hand in hand to create exciting flavors, says Edelson.
In keeping with current consumer preferences, Iron Hill introduced Rivet hard seltzer in 2019. “Rivet was canned in May 2020, and shortly after, we sold it in a variety of 12-pack in retail locations,” Edelson says. “The response has been great. Listening to our customers enables us to innovate and stay current with consumer trends while maintaining our commitment to quality and fresh flavors.”
Iron Hill began selling beer in stores in Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey in 2020. It’s convenient for customers; “and has also allowed us to reach new customers that haven’t dined with us before,” Edelson says.
The company saw an increase in demand for take-out beer during the pandemic, “which led us to accelerate our plans to enter the retail market,” he says. “We see a real opportunity for growth in this capacity.”
Iron Hill also made its menu available via third-party delivery partners such as DoorDash for the first time.
The pandemic didn’t stop the company from expanding: It opened three new locations in 2020, including one in the Buckhead section of Atlanta. A second Georgia location, in Perimeter, opened in August 2021.
This past January the company unveiled a new concept in Exton, PA: Iron Hill Brewery TapHouse. The polished fast-casual eatery offers a laid-back vibe and innovative fare, plus a black steel-topped bar offering 26 taps. It also houses Iron Hill Brewery’s first large-scale production brewery.
In addition to the brews, a selection of signature cocktails includes the Iron Hill Old Fashioned ($13), Espresso Martini ($12) and Homestead Peach Shandy ($8). Alloy Wine Works 12-oz. cans ($14) are available in Pinot Noir, Everyday Red Blend, Everyday Rosé and Chardonnay.
“The TapHouse is an exciting concept for us and enables us to go into neighborhoods with a smaller retail footprint,” bringing Iron Hill beer to more communities, Edelson says. The company has learned that it can create fresh, cravable beer-inspired food in a more casual environment without losing the quality that it’s known for.
For instance, “At the TapHouse, we can make excellent food fast and have fun with it, like a Fried Bologna Sandwich and our 3-Alarm Firefighter’s Burger, a fiery smash burger that benefits the local firehouse.” Iron Hill will be opening more TapHouses in the future, he notes.
The company in October announced that it has named Chris Westcott as its new CEO. Westcott most recently served as the CEO of New York-based restaurant chain Rosa Mexicano; before that he spent more than 20 years with McCormick & Schmick’s Seafood & Steaks, where he participated in the brand’s growth from 8 to 93 units.
Westcott will continue Iron Hill’s growth in new markets throughout the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast regions. What drew him to Iron Hill?
It’s a legacy brand, for one, Westcott says, plus the fact that the three founders are still engaged, available and working in the business. “This original passion and philosophy shine through in the corporate culture out to each team member in every location.”
Considering its quarter century of success, “it is evident that the commitment to quality and guest-first approach has led to the company’s continued growth and expansion, which is an exciting environment to lead within,” Westcott adds. “Iron Hill’s values transcend concepts and are ingrained in a culture within the channels of full-service, fast casual and retail—each with expert operators.”
A mission to inspire loyalty
Edelson notes that the company’s commitment to community and supporting local non-profits has helped it expand into new markets. “Aligning with local charities in every market builds connections and inspires loyalty,” he says.
Another way Iron Hill inspires loyalty is via the King of the Hill program, which Edelson says keeps its fans actively engaged. For a one-time fee of $15, members get access to all of the loyalty program benefits for life. These include earning one point for every $1 spent on food purchases; a $20 reward for every 200 points, invitations to exclusive events, plus other perks.
In addition, “our commitment to listening to guest feedback, as well as focusing on hiring, training and retaining team members who deliver exceptional service, has kept us top of mind among diners and beer fans,” Edelson says.
The company works to make its food and beer more conveniently available to fans, whether dine-in, take-out, delivery or picking up a four-pack at the store, says Edelson. “Iron Hill has always had a customer-focused philosophy, and at times that means listening and adjusting to meet the evolving needs of our guests. We want to be their first choice for a night out or a night-in.”