…And now for a slight change of pace and some content that is a bit more behind the scenes and industry-related…
Bella Vista Beer Distributors has been around in Philadelphia for over 25 years. Brand Manager, Jordan Fetfatzes, answers a dozen questions on how one of the largest beer markets in the country works and what it’s like being the little guy among AB and MillerCoors distributors.
1) Give me the Bella Vista Beverage story in one paragraph. [or in Jordan's case, several...]
Bella Vista to Eastern Pennsylvania means an unabashedly and ferociously independent wholesaler who refuses to accept anything less than unbeatable service with great beer. Bella Vista Beer Distributors is a family run company built from the ground up in 1984 by Mario and Olimpia Fetfatzes that started out as a retail mom and pop operation. Over time, Bella Vista became a craft beer wholesaler due to three major reasons.
a) The current wholesale system was filled with holes regarding brands WE wanted to see in the market.
b) Our favorite and most recognized wholesaler had been bought out (Edward Friedland Co. We miss you!) and created a void in Philadelphia Proper for an Independent, craft-ONLY beer wholesaler.
c) Passion – the love of craft beer has led us down the path as a wholesaler for the world’s best brewers and importers.
Our first brand was Boulder Beer Co, and we have them to thank for us being in this game. It was down to the big Coors House or little ass Bella Vista Beer… four years later, we are Boulder Beer’s #5 wholesaler in the country out of over 30 markets covered by that brewer. We knew nothing about the wholesale aspect but, boy, did we learn fast!
Today Bella Vista is known nationally for having a truly highly regarded portfolio of beer from brewers and suppliers we call friends, share joy and tears with throughout the year. We bust on each other about sports and weather but we also feel their pain when we hear from them firsthand of devastating occurrences we see on TV. To have a familiar voice on the phone echoing what we just saw on the news in their area- fires, landslides, earthquakes- this craft beer business sure makes the world a much smaller place.
Bella Vista is the true David in a Goliath world of beer wholesale! We go out of our way to work with our brewer-friends. For example, we will grab cast iron tubs from North Philly for Sixpoint and get Apple Brandy barrels for the likes of Voodoo and Cigar City. Those are the things that makes Bella Vista who we are. We give a damn!
2) Pennsylvania is known to have some unusual liquor laws. Can you briefly describe how Bella Vista acts as both a wholesaler and a retailer and why that is?
Unusual? At least we don’t have crazy ABV caps or package size bans. However, we do have the case only law on the beer store front, and a maximum volume allowed sold by deli’s, bars, and restaurants.
As a wholesaler, imagine trying to get across to a potential supplier that what the mother carton looks like matters! They look at us like we have three heads sometimes. Then when we say, think of Pennsylvania with a bunch of mini Costcos or Sams Clubs. Then the light bulb goes on. “OH!!–then the puzzled response, “Really? you mean my beer will be sold in the original container it was packaged in? Even a case of 22oz Bombers?” That response never gets old, Then we get the, “Well how do you buy a single? And then we state, bottle shops, which are basically restaurants by definition that must have seating for 30 people and food ready for the same amount. They must then have an addition to their license which is primarily for consumption on premise first and foremost. All in all, it is confusing but it has worked for a long time. As far as we know, it won’t change any time soon. Hey, you out of state brewers eyeing up Pennsylvania, polish up that mother carton!
Another confusing word is “distributor.” In Pennsylvania, that is a catch-all phrase for both wholesaler and retail case stores. The only differentiation is whether or not they are an “ID” (importing distributor), a “D” (distributor) or BOTH! Many of us wholesalers in Pennsylvania are both, some only offering our brands at the retail venue and others offering beer they buy from other ID’s to bolster their overall selection. We are both an ID and a D.
Prior to the craft beer boom, there had always been some sort of movement to at least allow “D” distributors to sell 12-pks which has never come to fruition. Now with craft beer and smaller Pennsylvania brewers, the MBDA is making a push for 6-pack sales in the D’s so they can offer these products at a much more consumer-friendly and economically less-challenging package. We don’t have an opinion on the matter and all we can say to that is, “Whatever the law of PA is, is how we will run our business both as an ID and a D.” We do feel that some changes are needed to be more current with today’s way of life, both on the eating establishment licensee and the “D” level that is fair to both operations and works for the consumer. We all know that never ends up working.
3) Of the 100 or so beer brands in the Bella Vista portfolio, only five are based in Pennsylvania. What challenges come with carrying a largely non-local, niche portfolio filled with small breweries like AleSmith and Cigar City?
Hmmm…seems like you are asking us the hard questions!
Well, first off, we love our locals. We support them in our retail store. In fact, we have a PA-only designated aisle. We carry more local brands than most other local retailers believe it or not. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be all that credible. Our retail floor manager makes an emphasis on weekly samplings of local beers, working closely with brewery reps from the likes of Victory, Stoudts and others to make sure that we show them the love they deserve.
The main reason we dont rep that many locals is simple; we got in the game a little later than most. The bigger locals had established their wholesaler partners a few years prior to us getting in the game but it is never too late to add local credibility to your repertoire, something which we are working on now. We signed with Jeremy Myers of up-and-coming Neshaminy Creek Brewing Co. out of Croyden (35 minutes from Philly!). Lavery out of Erie is an upstart but they make phenomenal beer and, in this crowded market, you better make good beer or you better get out of the way.
We have been approached by a few brewers in Pennsylvania that we’ve had to respectfully turn away due to our more discerning palates here at Bella Vista, and though they may not work for us, we wish them the most success and will help them by carrying their beer in our retail showroom. We also don’t leave them high and dry. We will usually send them a few more contacts for other wholesalers who may be interested in carrying their beer.
Some may call many of our brands niche, but we know other wholesalers would die to have the brands we have, and to be honest, there is a waiting list for lots of the niche beers, and allocations set forth for the brands like AleSmith and Cigar City. There just isn’t enough of this to go around, and we are happy they choose to send their beer to our region. Us being their voice, as an extended family member, is icing on the cake for us. Sometimes, we pinch ourselves when we start spouting off the brands we represent in one of the greatest beer centric regions of the world! Just an an FYI, if you pay attention to those beer rating websites, we distribute Voodoo Brewery, and Matt Allyn’s beers are some of the highest rated in all of Pennsylvania.