From the Assassination of Sadat to the Birth of Brooklyn’s Empire
“In so many ways, the Brooklyn Brewery symbolizes—and helped to create—the renaissance that has taken hold in Brooklyn.”
—Michael Bloomberg, Forward to Beer School, 2005
In 1983, two years after Steve Hindy witnessed the assassination of President Anwar Sadat, he left Egypt with his wife Ellen and their two children and returned to Brooklyn. It was there that he convinced Tom Potter, his upstairs neighbor, to quit his investment banking job and start a brewery.
The pair consistently beat the odds—getting their investor signatures just two days before the stock market crash in October 1987, persuading Milton Glaser, the esteemed graphic designer who came up with the I <3 NY logo, to design theirs, barely escaping serious trouble with the mob, and finally developing their microbrewery into an international success.
One key to this success was the founders’ choice to distribute their own beer. Thanks to the advice of their neighbor Sophia Collier, who developed Soho Natural Soda, Hindy and Potter delivered their product directly to the vendors. “Sophia told us to put the beer in a van, put a logo on the van, and go out there, door to door, and pedal it directly to the retailers,” explained Hindy. “There were about twenty other companies that tried to start breweries in New York during our first ten years, they all failed, and many of them had more money than we did. Most failed because of distribution,” Hindy said, stressing the importance of receiving direct customer feedback.
Another key to success was the company’s innovative marketing strategy: instead of paying for marketing, Hindy and Potter advertised by donating their beer to local artistic events, and sponsoring events of their own. “In the beginning, we did something called ‘The Brooklyn Lager Band Search.’ It was a competition for unsigned bands,” Hindy said. “The winner got to open for big name bands in Prospect Park, at the Celebrate Brooklyn series.” These competitions grew in popularity, and the more popular they became, the more people got to try Brooklyn Beer.
Over two decades later, the company continues to pursue similar tactics but now relies on outlets like Facebook and Twitter to advertise its events. “We hired a young guy, Ben Hudson, who used to work in marketing at The Onion, and Ben has really done a great job of kind of re-inventing us in the world of social networking and social media.”
Hudson has linked the brewery to a project called “The Food Experiment,” which was started by two young Brooklyn chefs. “Twenty-five amateur chefs prepare tasting portions, and come in to showcase their food for people who pay $20 to sample the food, and drink our beer.”
Hindy’s past as a journalist, his determination, and the unique marketing strategies employed by the Brooklyn Brewery have always intrigued me. As soon as we conceived the idea for Construction, our own startup, I knew that I wanted to interview him for the first issue. This April, I spoke to Hindy at his office in Williamsburg.
Construction: You’re the owner and founder of one of the most successful and important breweries in the country, but what most people probably don’t know is that before you started it you had a career as an AP war correspondent. You were sitting near the Egyptian president Anwar Sadat when he was assassinated, and I’ve been dying to ask you about it. How did it happen?
Steve Hindy: I had just gotten to Egypt in 1981, and actually, when I first got there I wrote a story with the lead: “It’s been an uneasy summer for Anwar Sadat . . .” I talked about the protests that were happening against the regime almost every Friday after prayers (they were handled very effectively by the Egyptian riot police), in Cairo, in Upper Egypt and up in the Nile Delta.
Everyone in the West saw Sadat as being this great paragon of leadership because he’d made peace with Israel. After I wrote the story, Nate Polowetzky, the foreign editor of the AP, called me and said, “So Hindy, what is this? You get to Cairo and suddenly President Sadat’s in trouble?” I responded, “Well, I wouldn’t say in trouble, it’s been an uneasy summer . . .” And he told me, “No one else has written about this, I’m killing the story.”
Then, about a month later, Sadat rounded up 1,536 activists and threw them all in jail. It came as a big surprise to people in the West that Sadat was behaving like another Middle East dictator. Polowetzky called me and said, “Hindy, didn’t you write something about Sadat and these fundamentalists?” I said, “Yeah you killed it.” And he said, “Well, never mind; just re-write it for tomorrow’s papers.”
That was in late September 1981. About a week later I got my presidential security pass. I went to the October 6, 1981, military parade—they were celebrating what Egypt called their victory in the 1973 War against Israel. Tanks went by, soldiers raised their turrets and bowed down in front of Sadat . . . the Camel Corps went by, different units of the Egyptian Army. There were jets flying over the stadium we were in when soldiers jumped out of the Jeeps with artillery pieces and charged the reviewing stand. That parade was the first time I ever saw President Sadat, and of course it was the last time anyone ever saw him, because he got his head blown off.
Construction: Did you actually see the . . .
Steve Hindy: I didn’t see . . . no one saw him, they hurried him out, the body was helicoptered out, but I’m told they basically blew his head off his shoulders and that he was dead before he left the reviewing stand. I think there were like nine other people killed. There were a lot of people wounded, we ran down to the site where Sadat had been shot, and there was chaos. The police were beating the killers.
Construction: How many killers were there?
Steve Hindy: Umm . . . I think there were like three, or four? It was pandemonium. We filed the story with walkie-talkies, and then I wrote a first-person account when I got back to the bureau. So, that’s what happened . . . The parade was on a Saturday, it was normally a day off, I figured it would just be a photo opportunity with Sadat, which is what it would have been normally, but of course it became one of the biggest stories I ever covered.
Construction: How did people react to his assassination?
Steve Hindy: One of the stories I wrote after Sadat was killed, was that it was striking, the lack of mourning for Sadat, because when Nasser died there had been mass mourning. People were beating their chests in the streets and weeping . . . Egyptians are very emotional and there was such an outpouring of grief when he died. There was none of that with Sadat. I wrote about that and people were kind of puzzled by it.
About a year later, I went to a dinner party and I was talking to this one professor and I told him, “I thought that people liked Sadat, and I don’t really understand why there was no mourning the way there was for Nasser.” He responded, “To Egyptians President Nixon was a great president because he came to Egypt after the ’73 war and opened up relations with Israel, and basically turned Egypt toward the West and away from the Soviet Bloc. I know that many Americans think that Nixon was a crook, and that he did terrible things. That’s the way I think about Sadat. He virtually ignored the Egyptian people during his years in power. There was no economic progress, and making peace gave us a chance to do great things, but Sadat didn’t help us internally. A lot of people really didn’t think much of Sadat. They thought he was a hero to the foreigners but not to Egyptians.”
Construction: Was there much of a change then, when Mubarak first came to power?
Steve Hindy: You know, in the beginning . . . Sadat had basically spit in the eye of the rest of the Arabs. He was really great at name-calling. He referred to a meeting of the Arab League, which he didn’t attend (they ostracized him because he’d made peace) as “a costume party.” And he called King Hussein of Jordan a dwarf—he called all of the Arab leaders dwarves.
When Mubarak came in, he kind of mended fences. That was a smart thing to do because it got him financial aid from Saudi Arabia and some of the rich Gulf countries. He cooled things with Israel a bit, and it seemed like in a lot of ways, he was leading Egypt back into the center of the Arab world.
I interviewed him about a year into his first term, and I was not impressed. He was a nice guy, but he seemed sort of like the jocks I went to college with—not terribly bright. I thought, this guy is never gonna last. Of course he did last, because it turned out he had very firm control over the intelligence services and the military. He was good at keeping the opposition at bay, but today we see the results.
Construction: What’s your take on the events that took place in Egypt on and after January 25th?
Steve Hindy: The protests were courageous, surprising, and inspiring. At the same time, I think most journalists, myself included, had been predicting a revolution in Egypt for thirty years. People there were really deprived, they were living hand to mouth.
I have to say I’m impressed that Mubarak stepped down, that he did not machine gun a thousand people the way the Syrians are doing right now. There’s something basically good about the Egyptian people, there’s a deep sense of pride . . . national pride, and a deep sense of decency. I think Mubarak stepping down, even though everyone is reviling him as a dictator, I think it was a very decent thing to do, it saved a lot of lives.
Construction: There’s been a lot of debate about how much of a role the youth movements played in ousting Mubarak. What do you think?
Steve Hindy: Well, my understanding is that they played a huge role. These were not Islamic fundamentalist fanatics, not provocateurs or professional demonstrators, a lot of these kids were middle class kids who have prospered in Egypt, but who wanted political freedom, and it took a lot of courage for them to go out there. One of the reasons that the military didn’t fire on them is probably because these kids were related to their kids, or maybe their kids were there.
My friend Tim Phelps, who works for the LA Times, was in Cairo during the protests and told me that when the thugs attacked, the people who really fought them off were the Muslim Brotherhood youth. He said that they were much more organized than the rest. That’s interesting, I think.
Construction: What do you think is going to happen next? A lot of people are treating it as a given that Egypt is on its way to democracy . . .
Steve Hindy: No, I think it’s too early to say it’s moving into democracy. I certainly hope so, but you know, Mubarak’s leaving did nothing. If you think of Mubarak as . . . the figurehead on top of a great building—he’s on the steeple—they removed that, but the great building is still there. And the great building is really the military and the institutions that he left behind. The only viable institutions in Egypt are the military, and the security services. The military has a lot of political and economic power, they’re involved in all sorts of industries in Egypt, and they benefit greatly from that. These military leaders are wealthy, so I think to really get Egypt along the road to democracy, the military is going to have to give up a lot, and I’m not sure that they’ll do that as easily as President Mubarak did.
Construction: And what about the Muslim Brotherhood? You said they were very organized, and I’ve heard that they’re pretty much the most organized group around, and the only group that knows how to run elections . . .
Steve Hindy: I think they are the most organized. I’ve always felt that their leadership was a bunch of old guys . . . but, I’m told that they actually do have a youth movement, and they do have influence among a certain sector of youth, so I think it remains to be seen to what extent they will play a role in the future. And, you know, in Iran, the religious leaders, the Mullahs, were the only ones able to jump into the void when the Shah left. The military basically gave in to the Mullahs in Iran, and the Mullahs developed their own alternative military with the revolutionary guards. I don’t see that happening in Egypt, I think the military is unified, but it remains to be seen whether the military will be an impediment to change, or an agent for change. I’m afraid they might be an impediment to change, particularly if they see the Egyptian courts going after Mubarak and his money. Their reaction is going to be “I don’t want you coming after my money.”
It’s wonderful what’s happened in Tunisia, and what’s happened across the Arab world. It was wonderful what happened in Bahrain, and you saw how the Saudis put the hammer down there, and the Syrians are putting the hammer down in Syria. Egypt is different. If Egypt develops in a positive way that is gonna put a lot of pressure on the other dictators around the Arab world. It’s unbelievable, it’s a huge story, it really is. It’s the biggest story the Middle East has had in a long time.
Construction: So, let’s switch to beer now, which you became interested in while you were living in Egypt . . .
Steve Hindy: Yeah, I knew some diplomats living in Cairo who had been based in Saudi Arabia before and got into homebrewing because you couldn’t buy alcoholic beverages there. They were still avid homebrewers because the beer in Egypt at that time was not very good, it was reputed to have formaldehyde in it, so it was kind of like mummified beer, and often tasted a lot like formaldehyde—a preservative.
I really enjoyed drinking their homebrew, and then when my wife Ellen got fed up with being married to a war correspondent and we came back to New York, I started making beer. I eventually persuaded my neighbor Tom to quit his job with me and start a brewery.
Construction: And he thought you were absolutely nuts . . .
Steve Hindy: He thought I was crazy, yeah, because he had studied the beer industry in business school, and he knew that the big brewers were stamping out the small brewers in America and getting bigger and bigger, and the distributors were getting bigger and bigger, and he just didn’t see how we could crack into the industry.
Construction: And how did you finally convince him?
Steve Hindy: Well, it was partly . . . I did a LexisNexis search of the word microbrewery, and I got this stack of articles (this was before the internet) about the history of the microbrewery, mostly on the West Coast, but some in the East. I learned how microbreweries had been started by people who just had a passion for beer, and for beer with a lot of flavor, and for all of the different styles that the American brewers were not making.
I showed all of it to Tom, and I said, “Look, we’re not going to compete with Anheuser Bush, and Miller and Coors, we’re gonna compete with the imported beers, and imports are growing in the US.” Back then we only drank imports; we didn’t drink American beer because we wanted beer with flavor.
Tom went to the Small Brewers conference in Portland Oregon, in 1986. At that time there were only about 25 small breweries in the country. Today there are 1,750. Tom was at the conference as a banker from New York, wearing a Brooks Brothers suit. All of these entrepreneurs wanted to talk to him, thinking he might be a source of financing, but in fact at the end of the conference he was ready to chuck his Brook Brothers suit and come with me and make beer.
We made a business plan, he did the numbers side of it, I did the marketing, the “Why Brooklyn?” Brooklyn used to be a major brewing center, a hundred years ago there were 48 breweries there, and I thought if we rooted our company in that tradition of brewing, it would give us a reason to be Brooklyn Beer. That was sort of the premise.
Construction: I read in your book that you ran into someone while you were jogging, some guy on the loop in Prospect Park who was wearing a Brooklyn Brewing t-shirt . . .
Steve Hindy: He was wearing a t-shirt that said “Breweries of Brooklyn” . . . and actually this is his book (Steve pulls a book called “Breweries of Brooklyn” from his shelf) . . . which tells the history of the brewing industry in Brooklyn.
Construction: And this book was one of your big inspirations . . .
Steve Hindy: Yeah, I stopped him, and asked him about the shirt. He was a very gruff guy, and he said, “What do you want to know for?” I told him, “Well you know, I’m thinking of starting a brewery,” and he said, “You and everybody else!”
Then I met with him, but he wouldn’t give me a copy of his book. It was out of print and he only had one. He let me photocopy it though, and it taught me about the history of brewing in Brooklyn. I became an expert overnight.
Actually, I visited a lot of the old buildings that housed the breweries in Brooklyn back in the day, there are many . . . dozens of them are still standing, and our first warehouse was in one of the old breweries over in Bushwick. (Steve pulls out a photo of a large warehouse building and shows me). It’s still there.
Construction: So how did you end up with a copy, if it was his last one?
Steve Hindy: My antique dealer friend, Dave Mason, bought it for me at a flea market.
Construction: Unbelievable . . . but what’s even more unbelievable is that you were able to convince Milton Glaser (designer of the I <3 NY logo) to design your logo. How did you do that? And how did you know that the other designs that had been proposed to you before you found Milton, weren’t right for the company?
Steve Hindy: You know, when I started working on the logo and the identity of the company, the more I learned about it, the more I realized, that it was really important because hopefully this image would be around for a hundred years. I wanted to get an image that we really believed in.
At the time, I wanted to call it Brooklyn Eagle Beer, after the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper edited by Walt Whitman. I would talk to designers and they would all say “Ah! That’s a great idea, brilliant! This is gonna be such a success!” They were flattering me . . . I sell things too, I flatter people. But I wanted someone to tell me something because I knew I wasn’t brilliant, and I knew that I didn’t know anything about consumer packaging.
I went on a kind of crusade. Like a journalist, I wanted to find the right person, the person who could teach me what I should be doing.
I ended up talking to the best designers in New York, and they were all interested in the project, they loved the idea. They had these elaborate lunches for us . . . catered lunches with screens and projectors and different partners coming in and showing us projects they’d done. I felt like a little bit of a phony, because we didn’t have any money at this point, and we couldn’t pay anybody anything.
When I called Milton Glaser’s office, his secretary said, “Do you know who Milton is?” I responded, “Yeah, you know, I hear Milton’s pretty good, I wanna talk to him,” and she said, “Well he doesn’t just talk to anybody who calls here.” and I told her, “Well, I’m president of the Brooklyn Brewery.”
I called her every day; it was like a challenge for me to get to meet Milton Glaser. Her name was Eva, and I’d call her up and tell her what was going on in the news, because I was working at the newspaper then . . .
Construction: And she didn’t hang up on you?
Steve Hindy: No, I kind of charmed her . . . after a certain point she said, “You’re not gonna give up are you?” and I said, “No, I want to talk to Milton Glaser.” so she said, “Ok, here he is,” and put him on the phone. I blurted out the idea of Brooklyn Eagle Beer, and Milton said, “Oh that sounds like fun, come in and see me.”
Tom and I went in and saw him, we did a presentation, and to our surprise, he proposed that he take stock in the Brewery for his main payment and then we pay him for basically the time that he spent on this with his staff. It was an amazing deal because most of the designers we’d talked to, the minimum price to get a corporate identity and a label was $40,000, and it went up from there. Milton I’m sure would have been a few hundred thousand to do this kind of stuff.
Construction: I really think the fact that a) you have Brooklyn and b) that you have this logo was such a big part . . .
Steve Hindy: Absolutely. Milton’s done some great stuff, he’s the one who said, “Brooklyn Eagle . . . ok . . . but do you really need a bird if you’ve got Brooklyn?”
Construction: Thank God . . .
Steve Hindy: Exactly.
Construction: Something like this logo really makes people remember, and you wrote this in your book, it looks like something that’s been around for hundreds of years . . .
Steve Hindy: A lot of people think that it’s an old company that I inherited from my dad or something, which is not the case at all. But it’s good to have people feel that it’s an institution . . . that it’s been around. People can believe in it. We had the logo on our business plan when we went out to raise money, and people were very impressed that Milton Glaser was on our team, because they didn’t know anything about Steve Hindy or Tom Potter, but they knew about Milton Glaser, so that helped us raise money. You know, it’s really a key part of any beer company, any consumer product, you’ve gotta have an attractive logo.
Construction: It’s been easy for you guys to get free product placement, right? Because of your great logo, and the name “Brooklyn” . . .
Steve Hindy: We got product placement early on, Spike Lee put us in the movie Do the Right Thing, you know, for free, we didn’t pay anything for that. We did give them beer afterward, we gave them beer for a big party, but it was a blast to go to a party with Spike Lee and all of his friends, Public Enemy was there, and that was really cool. I drank way too much that night, but it was a thrill, you know?
There were actually a lot of people who questioned naming the beer Brooklyn in the beginning, including some of our investors, and some of our smart investors. One guy, Charlie Hamm, had been an account executive at McCann Erickson, he did Coca Cola International, so he knew a thing or two about advertising . . . and Charlie said, “Eh, you sure you want to call it Brooklyn? I’m not sure how that’ll play in Connecticut, or Jersey . . . You understand that right?”
Construction: Brooklyn wasn’t trendy at the time . . . today you have Brooklyn Industries and . . .
Steve Hindy: Brooklyn was a symbol of urban decline. Today there are like seventy companies that have consumer products branded as Brooklyn.
Construction: Speaking of Brooklyn as a symbol of urban decline, you ran into some problems with the mob early on, can you tell me about that?
Steve Hindy: Yeah. Actually, the year before the mob encounter, we were robbed at gunpoint. These guys came in with 9mm pistols, grabbed one of our sales people, put a gun to his head and made him come back to our office. They made everyone lie on the ground, people screamed. I told them, don’t hurt anyone, I’m your guy. They wanted money of course, so they made us open the safe and they got $30,000. Then I spent another $30,000 on fences and buzzers and cameras, to prevent that sort of thing.
My partner Tom was kind of upset at me for spending all of that money after we already lost so much in the robbery, but I said, “Tom, the gun was at my head, and everyone’s terrified, no one wants to come to work at this place because of what happened.” Then the robbers came back a month later, the first robbery was on the day before Thanksgiving, and they came back the day before Christmas, and actually the cameras and the fences scared them away, and it was worthwhile spending that money.
Then, the next year, we were building our brewery and The Daily News did a story about the first brewery in Brooklyn in twenty years—it was a two-page story with photos and we were thrilled.
The next day, two big limousines pulled up in front of the brewery and these thuggish looking old guys got out. There were cars following them, filled with young guys, who were the real thugs, the kind who couldn’t button their collar because their necks were so big. They walked into the job and all the workers on the job disappeared. It was like rats off of a doomed ship.
They wanted to talk to the guy in charge. Garrett Oliver, our brewmaster, was there along with the superintendant on the job, and he said, “Well you boys have to talk to Steve Hindy, he’s not here right now, he’s at lunch.” I guess I stayed late at lunch, they got impatient and they left.
I came back, and Garrett was freaked out, he said “I can’t believe these guys, they look like central casting, right out of the movies,” and Don the super said, “Well buddy, how’re you gonna handle this one?”
So I called the contractor on the job, Richard Wolf, who’s been in business a hundred years in New York, and Richard said, “Oh man, what’d ya get that article in The Daily News for?” And I told him, “It’s great for us, we live by that.” and he said, “It’s not great for you, this is really gonna be a mess.”
“Well you’ve gotta talk to these people,” I told him. “I don’t know what to say to them.” So he said, “Ok, give me their names.” I gave him the name of the boss of the group and two days later I got a call from the boss’s assistant, “Yo, how come no one’s called us?” I answered, “Well, our contractor was supposed to call you.” He told me, “No, no, we haven’t heard from no one.”
I called Richard, “Richard, you told me you’d call these guys, how come you didn’t?” he said, “Well, I think it would be better if you talked to them.” and I told him, “What am I gonna say? They’re union guys, and we’re doing this without union labor, so this is something you should figure out.”
So, I thought I’d call one of my neighbors in Brooklyn, this guy named Ed McDonald. Ed had been the head of the Organized Crime Strike Force, he’s a federal prosecutor and he’d prosecuted mobsters. He’d been my son’s Little League coach, and he’s a really good guy. Now he’s in private practice.
He told me, “Steve, you’re making a big mistake here. These are bad people. Your brewmaster said they look like central casting, these are the people they make the movies about, and you’re giving them the run around. You keep doing this, and they’re gonna beat up some of your people, or they’ll burn down your brewery, and you won’t be able to do anything about this, they’re really good at this.”
He said, “They’re probably gonna want you to put no-show jobs on your payroll.” I was pretty sure I knew what he meant, “I pay them for workers who don’t exist. Basically, I bribe them?” I asked. “Well . . . yeah.” he said. I didn’t want to do that, “I used to be a journalist trying to catch people doing that. And anyway, if I bribe them once, do they go away? Or are they here forever?”
Then I asked, “What if I call the guy at your old job?” This guy Goldstock, who was head of Organized Crime. He said, “He’s gonna want you to wear a wire, and if these are really bad guys, you could be lookin’ at you and Ellen and the kids going into a witness protection program.”
It was like, What? How did it get to this? I’m just trying to make a little beer in Brooklyn.
Ed told me, “Look you’ve gotta talk to them, preferably with your contractor.”
I called Richard again. “Richard, we gotta talk to these guys, somethin’ bad’s gonna happen.” He said, “Ok, set up a meeting.” I set up the meeting for eleven o’clock in the morning, it was supposed to be with the boss. His limousine showed up and three guys came out, the boss and two other guys, and there were two cars following with the thugs—two thugs for each of the leaders.
After about fifteen minutes it was pretty clear that Richard Wolf, the contractor, was not gonna show up. So I said, “Look the contractor’s not coming, let me take you guys to lunch.” They didn’t want lunch; they wanted to meet in my office. I told them, “No, my office is way back in the warehouse, there are no windows . . . ” they said, “Oh, that’s perfect, let’s go back there.”
We started walking to the back, we opened up the door to the office and there were maybe six people running around. Everyone kind of looked at me and these thugs, they were like, “Oh, look at Steve, look who Steve brought.” And the boss said, “No, we can’t meet here, there are too many people.” I said, “Yeah, let me take you to eat.” he said, “Nah, nah, we don’t wanna eat. Let’s go out in the warehouse.”
We go out in the warehouse, where the chain-link fence is, there’s a table where the drivers settle up when they come in at the end of the day, and there are a bunch of broken office chairs. There were not enough chairs for everyone, so I offered to get some more.
“No, at our meetings the old guys sit, the young guys stand.”
This was fifteen years ago, so I stood at the end of the table and just poured my heart out, talking about how I didn’t know if we had enough money to finish the project, which was true, and you know, we were a growing company.
I was telling them about the Middle East, and the boss was actually kind of interested, at one point he said, “Wait a minute, you were there when Sadat got it? What was that like?” So I told him him about the Sadat assassination.
This other guy who was with him—he was like 5’6”, his head was shaved, he had a stubbly beard (very unattractive man; I don’t know if he’d invented Joe Pesci or Joe Pesci invented him)—kept interrupting me and saying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’ve heard enough of this bullshit, we’re here for one thing, J-O-B-S, ya did this without us, it’s an insult.” And the boss kinda shut him up. “Sal, let him talk, let him talk.” he said. So I just continued talking.
At a certain point the boss, who was sitting right in front of me, looked at me and said, “Look, we don’t wanna hurt you.” I’m thinking, Ok, I don’t want you to hurt me either . . . why don’t you go home, and we’ll forget about this? He said, “I don’t mean what you’re thinking,” he said, “Has anyone been on the job since we showed up?” I told him no, “Ten days and no one’s shown up to work.” he said, “Exactly. No one’s comin’ to work until we put the word out there. No one’s gonna unload your trucks until we put the word out.” We unload our own trucks, so that was bologna, but I wasn’t gonna argue with him.
“Well, you know, Mr. Boss, I think you’ll be making a big mistake, we’re a growing company, we’re gonna be important here in Brooklyn, and you’ll be part of it in the future when we expand.” After a while the boss said, “Ok, the boys and I need to talk.” I said, “Ok, I’ll leave.” He said, “No, you stay, we’ll go out there.”
I sit in this office chair that’s broken, it’s like, either you’re forward or you’re back…so I lean back in the chair, my feet are off the ground, and I’m just sitting there. I sweated all the way down into my pants. They’re out in the warehouse yelling at each other, like back and forth, and I’m thinking, who are these people? How can this be happening? Every now and then they laugh, and I think, Great.
So, I’m sitting there, thinking, and they come tearing back in. The boss is in the lead, and I’m in this chair with my feet off the ground and I can’t get forward to stand up, and the boss is on me before I can do it.
He puts his hand between my legs, puts his face down close to me and says, “We’re gonna have to hurt you.”
Then he grabs me by the shoulders, slams me into the fence, and says, “Just kidding!” and they all burst out laughing.
I was sitting there like, Can this be happening? Is my underwear still intact?
He said, “Look, we’re gonna leave you alone. We want you to come to our Christmas party, bring your wife, take an ad in our journal. I was thinking, I’ll take a gold page in their journal, no matter what it costs.
I never heard from them again. I didn’t get to go to their Christmas party, which was not a great disappointment, and I wrote about this in Beer School, in my book . . .
When the book came out, New York magazine interviewed me and they wanted to know the name of the boss. I said, “Pfft, you gotta be kidding, I live in Brooklyn!” But I Googled the boss and I found he went to jail for extortion and racketeering the year before the book came out for a 4-6 year term, for putting no-show jobs on a school construction project in Sunset Park not too far from where I live.
Construction: Well, he lasted a pretty long time, your book came out when, 2005?
Steve Hindy: Yeah, who knows how much money he put away before he got put away.
Construction: That’s an amazing story.
Steve Hindy: It’s incredible. I’m kind of counting on him not being a big book reader . . .
Construction: That would be a good thing . . . So, tell me about your involvement in the Brooklyn community in general, I think that’s been one of the greatest things about the Brooklyn Brewery, from the beginning you’ve involved yourselves with artists and musicians and different projects . . .
Steve Hindy: Yeah, right away we realized that New York City is a pretty noisy place when it comes to advertising and media, and we saw some import breweries spend millions of dollars on media and get nothing in return. Hardly a ripple in the New York market place. We decided early on, we weren’t gonna spend money on media or advertising. And instead we decided, with the money we did have for marketing, we would donate beer to non-profit organizations, arts institutions, start-up art galleries and literary publishers. That would be our marketing—word of mouth. Getting bottles of Brooklyn Lager into the hands of consumers, so they could try it, in a kind of cool setting—a fundraiser for the Brooklyn Historical Society, or the Brooklyn Museum, or you know, the Pierogi 2000 Gallery, here in Williamsburg.
It always seemed to me that if you go into business, number one, you’ve gotta make money, because if you don’t make money, you’re not gonna be in business for a long time, and number two, you’ve gotta have fun. I wouldn’t have quit journalism to, you know, make computer chips—probably something where you could make a lot more money. To me it wasn’t just the money, I wanted to have some fun, and if you can’t have fun in the beer business, maybe you can’t have fun period.
Third, I wanted to do some good, it seems to me that if you have a successful company and you’re making money, you can do good in your community, so that and sort of the practical marketing value of donating beer like this, is why we got into it. For years we didn’t make any money and we were giving away maybe $100,000 worth of beer every year. We still do that, we give away a lot more now.
One of the interesting things about the beer business though, is that generations change. My generation bought this beer and made it happen, but a lot of times in the beer business, the next generation doesn’t want to drink the same beer their dads drank, they want something different, something new, so, in the beer business, and I think any consumer market, you’ve gotta be reinventing yourself for each generation that’s coming along.
Hopefully you will remain true to your brand and your vision, but with your marketing you’ve gotta be appealing to new generations, new tastes, and part of that challenge for us has been getting into social networking and social media. There seems to be a big “do it yourself” kind of culture in your generation.
Construction: One of the reasons that I knew I wanted you to be our first interview as soon as we conceived of Construction is that you started from scratch, and you had been a journalist . . . and this was before the Egyptian protests, that was just lucky . . . but I was really impressed with the story of how you started the brewery. What advice would you give us, as people starting a magazine based in Brooklyn, in the age of everybody trying to start their own publication?
Steve Hindy: Well, you know, you have to be really dedicated to what you’re doing, and you have to expect that it’s going to be really difficult, because it is, it’s so difficult to make money. It’s like covering a war, and that’s what I like about it. The first time I ever left home while I was living in Beirut, and went to Tehran—they wanted me to go to Tehran to cover the revolution—I said to Ellen, “Well, I’ll probably be back in a couple of weeks.” Then I went there and I was there for like two or three months, and because of the war in Lebanon and the revolution, I couldn’t really call Ellen, I could only relay messages to her, and that’s what starting a business is like. It consumes your life, and that can be very difficult, it can be very destructive of your other relationships.
If you want to succeed you really have to pour yourself into it, pretty much all the way, and hopefully it won’t be that way forever, and it’s not that way anymore, I mean I actually kind of feel like a slacker now, compared to the way I worked in the beginning.
One of the hardest things I think, about being an entrepreneur, is when you do begin to succeed and you do begin to make money, you’ve really got to stop trying to do everything, and you’ve got to basically sit in your office and talk to people and get them to do everything, and that’s different. In a lot of ways that’s harder than doing it all yourself, and that’s been a big learning curve for me. I think I’ve managed to do that, but an entrepreneur is very different than a manager, and at a certain point, if you’re trying to build an organization, you’ve got to become a manager, and a lot of people don’t like that. They leave a company when it gets to that point because they know they’re not good at it. I tried to learn it, and I think I have, but it’s difficult.
“I love the Brooklyn Brewery. I love that Brooklyn has a Brewery; I love the beer they make.”
—Morgan Spurlock, “The Five Reasons I Love Brooklyn”, Brooklyn Magazine, Summer 2011