Way before becoming one of the tri-state area’s most successful brewery owners/restaurateurs, Jon Bloostein had entrepreneurship in his blood. Bloostein, who is 50 and grew up outside of Washington, D.C., started selling Burpee Seeds door-to-door when he was just four years old, but it was just the beginning. Throughout junior high school, high school and college, Bloostein was running businesses, selling everything from candy to brass instruments. Some eight colleges and one MBA later, Bloostein opened his own ice cream vending business on Wall Street: Known as “the Cone Ranger,” he became the first person in New York City to sell Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. After that, there were more business ventures, including owning a car wash, selling ladies’ shoes and making and selling terrariums.
In the early ’90s, Bloostein was working as an independent investment banking advisor on Wall Street and traveling frequently to the Pacific Northwest for business. Enjoying a variety of great beers in the local pubs out west (where pub brewing was deregulated) motivated Bloostein to try his own hand at becoming a brewer and leave the banking business behind. In 1995 he opened up his first micro-brew pub in Union Square. His next location, three years later, was on 51st Street across from Radio City Music Hall. These two were followed in quick succession by 43rd Street’s Heartland Brewery and Chop House (2001), a Heartland Brewery at the South Street Seaport (2003), a twostory beer hall and restaurant in the Empire State Building and Spanky’s BBQ restaurant in Times Square (2004). Now a 400- person-strong company with six locations, Heartland Brewing Company sells more craft beer than anyone in the Northeast and is one thriving enterprise indeed. Recently, NY Report Editor-in-Chief Robert Levin sat down with Bloostein and, over a couple of cold ones, talked about what made all his hops and yeast such a massive success.
RL: When — and how — did Heartland begin?
JB: Well, the first Heartland opened in 1995. And the reason it began is because when I was consulting on Wall Street and I did a lot of traveling to the Rocky Mountain states and California and the Bay Area, I found myself drinking in these great brewpubs that had this great character. And then I’d come home and go back to the Wall Street grind, but during that whole period of time, I did due diligence on the brewpub industry. And that was during the same period of time that I was working on weekends with my brother on this coffee business idea that we had — which is another water-based beverage, which is no accident. But ultimately, I came to the conclusion that whatever I planned for us to do together wasn’t going to come to fruition, so I ended up looking at what else I could do other than compete with him in the coffee business. We’re a year apart. I would have looked like a bad brother.
So I started to look at the brewery business. I decided that New York could really use one of these great, homegrown brewpubs where the bartenders talked about the beer and the process. And you can watch them making the beer. And there was imagery and aroma, and it was fun. And the food sort of matched up with the beer nicely. To me, the defining element of a brewpub is the experiential thing. We opened up thefirst Heartland Brewery in 1995 in Union Square and the second one in 1998. Then we opened the Heartland Brewery and Chop House in the summer of 2001, which was a little bit more upscale.
RL: Did you use your own funds to launch the business, or did you have investors, partnerships?
JB: It was mostly my own funds, plus I got an SBA loan for $400,000. And the general contractor involved at the time rolled his fee into the business, meaning he invested in it as well, doing the job at cost. And I also borrowed money from a couple of friends, who came in as debt investors, convertible to equity. There was no documentation. I needed a couple of hundred thousand dollars and they sent me a check. I had no restaurant experience whatsoever. But they knew I would never be able to sleep if the place started to fail.
RL: Did you have to take on additional partners as you opened up more locations?
Robert Levin is the Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of The New York Enterprise Report. Levin has extensive experience with midsize and small businesses, having previously held CEO, CFO, and COO positions with companies in several industries. He is also a contributor for The Huffington Post. Levin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and (212) 307-6760.