By John Holl
Anyone who distributes for a living knows there is more to it than load, drive and deliver. There are hundreds of variables that must be considered—many in real time. Distributing in a city like Boston and the number of variables jumps exponentially. Beantown—with its tiny streets, never-ending construction, heavily tourist trafficked areas, the regular traffic, legendarily awful winter weather, and the cascading effect that shuts down city blocks when the Sox are playing—is not an easy place to do business.
The folks at Harpoon Distribution Co., a division of eighth-largest U.S. craft brewer Harpoon Brewery, know the city well and are responsible for making sure that 25 percent of the brewery output gets to the accounts in the home market. “We spend maybe an hour to an hour and a half per day moving things around if we know something is going on in the city or in the suburbs,” explains operations executive Chris Sweatman. “A lot of our intel comes from our sales force or the drivers. That’s one of the benefits of being smaller, we’re flexible.”
With just 24 employees (including six drivers), a fleet of seven vehicles and managing up to 53 SKUs at any one time, Harpoon Distributing Co. is able to adapt to a rapidly changing city that is constantly throwing curveballs.
Harpoon Brewery was founded in 1986 by Rich Doyle and Dan Kenary and became the first modern microbrewery in Massachusetts, earning it microbrewery license No. 1. Its first location on Boston’s waterfront is a major tourist attraction, as is its second brewery in Windsor, Vt. At first the brewery was self-distributing, but as that became more and more difficult, it sold the rights to Metropolitan Distributing in the early 1990s. In 2002, the brewery bought back the distribution rights and for the last decade Harpoon Distribution Co. has been handling all 1,100 retail customers—42 percent on- premise and 58 percent off-premise—in the greater Boston area.
Sweatman says there are a lot of benefits to handling part of distribution under the same roof—although it operates as a separate entity. There are the financial benefits, sure, but there are also cultural advantages and a strong sense of pride.
“They understand the beer, love the beer, and I found that because they have a connection to the brewery they take pride and respect our image,” says Sweatman of his road staff. “When they are driving down the road in what is essentially a 26-foot billboard, they want to project a positive image and want people to know why they should buy it. That’s a huge benefit for us.”
Keeping distribution local for this Bostonian brewery helps address customer needs quickly. If a bar in downtown runs out of beer, an order can be placed and delivered rapidly. For a distributor outside of the city it could take an hour, for Harpoon it’s closer to 20 minutes. In the craft beer game freshness is key, and Sweatman said being able to deliver just-filled kegs is a source of pride.
“Some days we have kegs of [India Pale Ale] right off the line, into a truck, and to a bar. The customer can be drinking beer in the afternoon that was racked in the morning.”
The company has implemented eoStar for invoicing—equipping drivers with mobile printers—which cuts down on backroom paperwork at headquarters. It also leases some of its vehicles from Ryder—which operates a garage conveniently located about a mile from the office.
In all, Harpoon Distribution has five, 26-foot straight box trucks (four leased Internationals and one Freightliner that was recently purchased thanks to some great tax incentives). There is one GMC 15-foot cabover and a Ford e250 cargo van that can get into the smallest of Boston’s tiny streets and finds itself doing so frequently because cellar space is limited at many city bars, meaning supplies must be replenished often.
“Our routes are fairly static, the same driver will be going to the same area each week,” says Sweatman. “In the city, we can be more flexible.”
That’s good, because in a city like Boston you have to be.