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Anaheim wants to be the Disneyland of beer

·West Coast Correspondent
Leisuretown, a new commercial development in downtown Anaheim, California, will include a brewery, coffee shop and swimming pool. The city hopes it will draw tourists and locals alike. (Studio One Eleven)
Leisuretown, a new commercial development in downtown Anaheim, California, will include a brewery, coffee shop and swimming pool. The city hopes it will draw tourists and locals alike. (Studio One Eleven)

Napa is known for wine, Kentucky is synonymous with bourbon and Anaheim is celebrated for Disneyland. But the California city is investing heavily into its brewery culture, hoping beer will serve as a complementary attraction to Mickey and Minnie Mouse.

“People constantly ask us, ‘We’ve done the Disney thing, what do you have that’s unique to Anaheim?’ Until now, we haven’t been able to point to anything. You can go to a chain like Bubba Gump’s but there was nothing special,” Anaheim’s Director of Community and Economic Development John Woodhead told Yahoo Finance.

The city currently has 15 breweries in operation and another nine in development. Its latest and most ambitious project is called Leisuretown, a 32,000-square foot complex with a coffee roaster, Mexican-inspired restaurant, gardens and swimming pool. San Diego-based brewery Modern Times Beer will be the centerpiece.

Why beer?

The brewery boom in Anaheim closely mirrors the trend across America. Employment in the industry remained flat from 2001 to 2008 then increased 135% between 2010 and 2016. Breweries accounted for 53% of the jobs gained in beverage manufacturing from 2006 to 2016. By 2016, employment hit 58,580 jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

California, in particular, is a hot spot for breweries. In 2016 there were 8,113 people employed in the industry across the state. Colorado came in second with 5,173 people working at breweries.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Anaheim was founded in 1857 and is the oldest city in Orange County, Calif. According to Woodhead, the city center was neglected for the past half-century. In the 1970s, the redevelopment agency started to strategize ways to energize the city. Since then, residential and office buildings were added, but something was still missing.

“There was a lot of commercial retail, but at 5 p.m. everyone picked up, closed up and the place was left deserted. We had to give people a compelling reason to live here. The answer was craft beer,” he said.

Anaheim Brewery was the city’s first craft brewer to open to the public. Greg Gerovac and his wife, Barbara, first approached city officials in early 2008, prior to the recession.

“The economy was still OK, things weren’t too bad. Our initial idea was to build a brew pub with a full restaurant. But as the economy changed we realized that investors and access to capital were going to be a problem,” said Gerovac. “We scaled things way down — we embraced the brewery with tasting room without the restaurant component. We weathered the storm.”

Anaheim Brewery bottled beer (Ryan Giron)
Anaheim Brewery bottled beer (Ryan Giron)

Steve Miles of craft brewery Noble Ale Works first obtained a liquor license in 2009 and opened its doors in 2012. He said the initial entitlement process was “relatively smooth.” Miles is now in the middle of organizing the Anaheim Brewers Guild, which will serve as a representative body for established and forthcoming breweries alike, as they become more of a contingent.

Given Anaheim Brewery and Noble Ale Works’ popularity, the city decided to double down on the brewery concept. In 2013, the City Council passed the “Brew City Initiative,” which is designed to help people like Gerovac and Miles cut through the red tape for alcohol beverage manufacturing in industrial and commercial locations. The loosened regulations reduced the city’s permitting costs (which could reach up to $100,000 in nearby cities) to approximately $10,000.

‘Making the old new again’

Set to open this fall, Leisuretown is the brainchild of LAB Holding creator Shaheen Sadeghi. LAB, which stands for “Little American Business” has 42 commercial properties across southern California. The developer’s mission is to create innovative platforms for smaller operators.

“Our focus is always on the locals. I am convinced that these breweries are the new community centers, where people gather after work,” he said. “Places like Anaheim have lots of good culture, but people are getting tired of getting on the 405 or 605 to go to the beach. So we’re starting to build these neighborhoods.”

Leisuretown is taking over a site that was home to a plumbing store turned piñata shop, transmission shop and one of Anaheim’s first homes. A big barrel-vault building will be transformed into the brewery and restaurant. The house will be renovated into a coffee roaster.

A rendering of Leisuretown, a new commercial development in downtown Anaheim, California, at night. (Studio One Eleven)
A rendering of Leisuretown, a new commercial development in downtown Anaheim, California, at night. (Studio One Eleven)

Sadeghi specifically cited the ease with which Leisuretown was approved by the city. While he did not disclose how much he has invested into the project, he said it is refreshing to work with individuals like Woodhead who see the value in preserving the history of the city.

“They have a historical significance in the context of the city, not Rome or Florence per se. I am convinced that much of the success of the project is renewing these old structures,” he said.

Woodhead echoed this idea of unlocking the value of something historic, something that seems to permeate architectural trends today.

“Part of the deal was to preserve whatever’s left and weave anything new back into the historic fabric. He’s been very meticulously restoring all of these things so that the general public can enjoy some of those historical artifacts that they haven’t been able to enjoy,” he said.

“In appealing to our local community, [Sadeghi] really appealed to a much larger community that’s going ‘Aha! That’s the Anaheim experience.’ That’s what’s unique to this area… a history of artisans and makers and Disney imagineers sprinkled throughout the community,” said Woodhead.

‘The whole country has become cool now’

Anaheim already attracts 30 million annual visitors. For the city, the appeal is twofold — it attracts both tourists and it is a walkable neighborhood for locals.

“For those who have the spirit of adventure and want to try something new, we have breweries a mile and a half from the Disney resort — it’s a huge amenity for 30 million annual resort visitors. And residents can walk out of their neighborhood into all of this eating, entertainment and recreation, with an emphasis on breweries,” said Woodhead.

Sadeghi is bullish on the possibility for Anaheim to become a trendy new mecca for beer lovers.

“The whole country has become cool now. I’m consistently and pleasantly surprised by how amazing and interesting all these cities besides New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco are. Look at Aspen, Minneapolis, Kansas City… now it seems that size is the enemy of cool. Everybody, especially the next generation, wants authenticity,” said Sadeghi.

Anaheim Brewing’s Gerovac said that’s precisely why he likes operating in Anaheim.

“It’s been a nice, slow steady growth from the day we opened. We’ve been very careful about managing that growth. Our vision is to stay small, grow slowly in a manageable way — and watch our horizons,” he said.

The Gerovacs currently sell about half of their beer across the bar in pints and the other half to about 85 bars and restaurants within 10 miles of Anaheim Brewery.

“Some of us don’t want to be big. Right now we’re doing exactly what we want to do, at the rate that we want to grow, doing things that we enjoy,” said Gerovac. If we grew too big too fast we wouldn’t be doing the fun parts anymore — not interacting with guests and not making the beer.”

The city hopes to lure in craft brewers with seemingly contrasting offerings: the promise of existing foot traffic and a small town feel.

Melody Hahm is a senior writer at Yahoo Finance, covering entrepreneurship, technology and real estate. Follow her on Twitter @melodyhahm.

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