In July, the borough plans to introduce an ordinance allowing microbreweries to operate within its borders, counteracting legislation it had passed banning them in March.
By Matt Skoufalos
By August, the borough expects to have repealed it within certain zoned areas of its business district.
Citing a desire to take the civic temperature on the issue, local leaders used the time to craft a microbrew law that protects its B.Y.O.B., Restaurant-Row downtown, while affording the legal flexibility to make room for new business.
The new ordinance will name microbreweries an accepted commercial use in the Collingswood central business district, theater district (from Collings Avenue to the White Horse Pike and beyond), and along its Route 130 border.
The law will also prohibit the service of food in the tasting rooms of such establishments, even if state regulations change to allow food service at such places in the future. It does not reverse the official, historical position of the borough as dry by ordinance.
Collingswood Mayor James Maley said it’s a misnomer to call the legal about-face a change of heart.
“Nothing changed,” Maley said. “We did what we said we were doing. We wanted to get a hold on things first. We wanted to think it through and talk with folks.
“I’m really happy with the process that we’ve gone through,” he said. “I think overall, this accommodates what everybody’s concerns are.”
A boon to the town
Collingswood Director of Community Development Cassandra Duffey said that putting microbrews on hold afforded a chance to solicit input from residents, business owners, and even visitors to the borough.
The results, she said, were “very effective.
“The point of prohibition in an already dry town was to research people’s feelings,” Duffey said.
“People aren’t usually passionate enough about the topic to write about it, and they really took the time to do so.”
Duffey characterized the feedback as “a lot of practical responses” against “only a handful of dissenting voices.
“It wasn’t just ‘We want beer,’” she said; “it was ‘We want to bring it to town because we think it will be a boon to the town.’”
Duffey said that the process was also educational for borough government to learn about the craft beer industry itself.
Officials discovered that “brewers don’t want Cheers,” she said; “they’re a business that makes beer.”
The local restaurant industry was “skittish” about the prospect of bringing in a business model that could someday turn into a competing gastropub, Duffey said–a sentiment echoed by Lydia Cipriani of the Tortilla Press.
Cipriani said that restaurant owners in Collingswood were fearful that breweries with kitchens would have an unfair advantage over their B.Y.O.B. counterparts.
“Our position was that an entity selling both alcohol and food and making a profit from both would create a very unequal playing field,” she said.
The Tortilla Press, which expanded to a second location in Pennsauken for the express purpose of selling alcoholic beverages, enjoys the benefits of both environments, Cipriani said; but she was unequivocal about which setup most restaurateurs prefer.
“Alcohol doesn’t require the same labor as food, it doesn’t cost us as much as food, and yet you make much more money on it,” she said.
“It puts you head-and-shoulders above people who can only do one or the other.
With the protections of the proposed ordinance, however, Cipriani said that the B.Y.O.B.’s could work well in concert to elevate the profile of the Collingswood restaurant scene.
“We would want to talk with them and see what we all could offer in terms of take-out; work on special menus that would work with their product,” she said.
“We are part of a very strong Collingswood restaurant community. I think this will be an addition to the Collingswood culinary experience.”
Meanwhile, in Oaklyn…
The news comes too late for Collingswood to recruit brewer Eli Facchinei, however, who on Saturday signed a lease to open his microbrewery in neighboring Oaklyn.
At the least, Facchinei said, he was encouraged that the process allowed the borough government to “see the potential and the benefit to the community” in having a craft brewery.
“It was different to see people who don’t really know what the craft brewing community is like, and having them explore that and come to the realization that it’s a good thing all around,” he said.
“It was good to see the education happen.”
However, Facchinei said, the Oaklyn location will be better for his business model, which he said “isn’t going to fit into a Main-Street storefront.
“Brewing is more of a manufacturing process, and it doesn’t really fit the mix in that area where I was looking [in Collingswood],” he said. “I think a nano-[brewery]would work in the [Collingswood] downtown, and it would be cool to see who could pull that off.”
In Oaklyn, however, Facchinei said he believes he’s found a better fit that combines the best of a walkable downtown with the space he needs for production and warehousing. He also looks forward to being part of a local renaissance, where he believes a microbrewery will help benefit the surrounding businesses in Oaklyn as well.
“It’s a great melding of both worlds, having that community connection while also being able to get out there with your brand and having the people be a focal point,” he said.
Oaklyn Mayor Robert Forbes said that although he respects the dilemma Collingswood faced, his borough “definitely wanted to take advantage” of the chance to recruit Facchinei.
“When we saw the opportunity, we wanted to jump on it as fast as possible,” Forbes said.
“After talking with Eli and his brother, [they’re] great people, they’ve got vision, and they’re excited. That was the kind of excitement we wanted to bring into town.”
Forbes said that in Oaklyn, which is home to bars, restaurants, and a liquor store, a microbrewery will be “another type of destination” that complements its business mix.
“We’re trying to create places where people will come into town and try something different,” he said.
“To us, it’s a match made in heaven. We’re not dry, and we’re not ashamed of it. This is another business that supports an existing business.
“This has been an excruciating process only for the fact that we couldn’t tell anybody,” Forbes said.
‘Now the hard work starts’
Maley said there are still other interested parties who should be able to take advantage of the new laws—if passed—in Collingswood. Although he is optimistic at the idea of bringing in a business that can add to the downtown foot traffic, Maley is more measured in his enthusiasm.
“I think it’ll be a help, but I just don’t view it as being that kind of a boom,” he said. “But it’ll be a nice, different business mix.
“We haven’t even gotten to the point of ‘Can somebody spend the money and open it and can they make the business go?’” the mayor said.
“Now the hard work starts.”