Heroes of NYC Brewing
JOHN DANTZLER of TORCH & CROWN
Looking beyond the beer, Manhattan’s Brewery is all about community.
Opening a brewery is a big job. Opening a brewery in Manhattan? An even bigger job. And then try doing it all during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Perfect timing,” as John Dantzler, CEO and co-founder of the SoHo-based Torch & Crown Brewing Company, puts it. When Dantzler and his co-founder Joe Correia first started conceptualizing their business idea in 2008, they had no idea what an uphill battle it would be. But the two New York natives were determined to see it through.
“We wanted to create something that we thought was missing in this area – something that people could enjoy but also something that would take care of its own and give back to the community,” John explains. “We saw an opportunity to build something that creates jobs that are worth having – jobs that pay well and provide benefits, so that people can really take care of their families. Ultimately, that’s way cooler than just brewing beer.”
That personal drive is what kept the co-founders going despite the setbacks – and there were more than a few. From creating the initial business plan to obtaining a manufacturing license from the state liquor authority, the process required plenty of paperwork and perseverance. Then, there was the logistics of building a brewery in Manhattan, an area with notoriously high rents, strict building codes, and significant red tape.
Something as seemingly simple as installing a boiler – an essential in any brewing facility – quickly turned into a nightmare of Kafkaesque proportions. When building code prevented the boiler from being installed on the same side of the building as the brew house, it was moved to the opposite side of the building. The shift required installing some 300 yards of piping to connect the boiler to the brew house. Problem solved? Not quite: “The problem is that the boiler needs to have a lot more power to be able to send pressure that far,” John explains. “We basically had to buy a boiler twice the size we thought we were going to need.”
Adaptability and flexibility were essential throughout the process. For two newcomers to the brewing world, it was all about constant learning. “All of our waking hours in that first decade were spent in various forms of research,” John reveals. “We met with over a thousand different brewery owners and asked them a lot of stupid questions. I look back and kind of chuckle because it was too early to even know what the ‘right’ questions to ask were.”
Financing was another sticky subject. After speaking to traditional bank lenders, John realized that they would have to find a non-traditional lender, someone open to out-of-the-box thinking. “The Torch & Crown business model doesn’t fit neatly into any one category. We’re in manufacturing and distribution, but we’re also in hospitality with the restaurant. That’s kind of a weird business model to put in a box,” he says.
Some bigger lenders weren’t sure how to handle the Torch & Crown concept and ended up pigeonholing the company as a result. On top of that, the project was capital intensive, involving a lot of hard assets, like equipment and machinery. And it was set in Manhattan – one of the most expensive real estate markets in the world. Looking for financing alternatives, John connected with Fountainhead, a national non-bank direct commercial lender that helps fund small to mid-sized businesses to get the money they need to fulfill their dreams and grow their businesses. “It was clear that they treated the underwriting process very differently,” John says: “We needed a lender that really understood us and what we were doing – that understood the complexity.” Fountainhead fit the bill.
All the research, administrative paperwork, funding applications, and boiler drama ultimately paid off. Torch & Crown Brewing Company’s beer can now be found at over 300 different bars, restaurants, and stores throughout the five boroughs. Meanwhile, the brewery and restaurant is well established in the community – even after the setbacks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The grand opening in October 2020, when COVID was in full swing, was muted. New York still had many safety regulations in place, from limiting capacity to barring people from standing and holding a drink – not a promising prospect for what was supposed to be a buzzing brewery-slash-eatery. And then winter came, and the city shut down completely.
“It was heart wrenching,” John says. “We had just hired a full staff, and they were doing a great job. To then have to turn around and tell them ‘hey, you’re doing a great job, and as soon as we’re able, we’re going to bring you back – but right now, we have to cut back because have to do what we can to survive here’… It was the most emotionally difficult time of the entire process.”
By spring of 2021, the situation had gotten lighter, and John was able to fulfill his promise, scaling back up to full capacity. And since then, the outlook is good. The brewing company and restaurant continue to gain notice in the community as they grow their operations, adding more drivers, salespeople, and distributors. Looking ahead, John and Joe are hoping to expand production capabilities even further. The unique location also functions as an event space, another growth area for the business.
It’s good news for Torch & Crown – the first craft brewery based in Manhattan in years. It’s also good news for the community that the brewery and restaurant call home. As John explains, “Through it all, we’re really focused on providing jobs that are worth having and creating a team environment that we think fits New York. We want to create something that’s worthy of this great city.”