Steering Dogfish Head Alehouse into marketing's fast lane
ROCKVILLE, MD - (Nov. 5, 2013) - Like many teenagers who worked in restaurants, Sam Petrella didn’t think much of his stints as a server or line cook. Those were jobs, not the beginning of a career in the multibillion dollar restaurant industry.
Then Petrella enrolled in UMES’ Hotel and Restaurant Management program at the Universities at Shady Grove in Montgomery County, embarking on a journey that landed him in the driver’s seat of a local restaurant’s head-turning “AleBus” venture.
“I’m indebted to UMES and USG for the opportunity this has given me,” Petrella said. “Everything we did in the classroom was real life. The fact it worked out for me the way it did is something I am thankful for. It’s turned out to be great story.”
His story starts with a senior-year project. The assignment presented him with a challenge to develop a marketing plan for a restaurateur seeking a way to grow his business, Dogfish Head Alehouse, without investing in bricks and mortar. If “Dogfish Head” sounds familiar, it’s because the Washington-area restaurant owners have a license agreement with the Milton, Del. brewery of the same name.
With two classmates, Petrella researched the restaurant’s business philosophy to understand its goals and to develop a proposal they would present to a panel of judges recruited by USG.
“This program asks for more than good grades,” Petrella said. “We had to prove that we were ready and able for some real-life application.”
His proposal, which built on Dogfish Head Alehouse’s unfulfilled vision of combining a food truck with a bold dollop of tourism, scored him high marks with judges.
Shortly after receiving his degree in 2012, a call came from Dogfish Head Alehouse with a job offer. The company hired Petrella, 25, to serve as a restaurant manager and a full-time contractor to launch the Dogfish Head AleBus.
“We’re taking the Dogfish brand mobile,” Petrella said.
It took three months to find a bus (retired from the District of Columbia schools’ fleet), retrofit it and develop the business model. Petrella also earned a Commercial Driver License to drive it for events he books.
“Sam’s experience and knowledge, gleaned from the UMES program, combined with his business skills and entrepreneurial passion allowed him to spearhead the bus project successfully,” said Joe Hospital, an owner of Dogfish Head Alehouse.
“Sam took an idea that didn’t have any model -- there’s no precedent for what he was doing – and built the bus out of our and his imagination,” Hospital said. “He has done a great job in making this a great, viable business enterprise.”
Experienced faculty and industry experts prepare UMES students like Petrella for careers in lodging, restaurant, travel, attractions, meeting and convention and food service industries.
UMES’ HRM students aspire to move up the ranks of major companies while others have plans for entrepreneurial ventures, according to Susan Callahan, chef and a USG faculty member.
“Our challenge … is to help students figure out what they want to do and groom them with the skills and provide the experiences that will help them reach their goals,” Callahan said. “That’s the beauty of our program. Because of our size and structure, we get to know our students … and we can identify what they need to succeed.”
The bright green AleBus’ exterior conjures up memories of iconic woody wagons made popular by the California surfing culture of the 1950s and 1960s. Inside, the interior resembles the three Washington-area restaurants with seating for up to 16 people.
With Petrella behind the wheel, the bus visits festivals and football game tailgating events and even takes patrons on field trips to the brewery in eastern Sussex County. Customers who book the bus are picked up and dropped off at their homes.
“It’s non-negotiable. We’re very safety oriented,” Petrella said. “It’s about responsible beer appreciation.”
The marketing novelty caught the eye of The Washington Post, which assigned a reporter to interview Petrella for an article.
Throughout his experience at USG, Petrella said he gained a rich understanding of the complexities of owning a business and what takes to succeed with his long-term plans to open his own restaurant.
“In the restaurant industry, you have to be a paralegal, an accountant and a chef, which all are three things that I didn’t think I was going to be doing,” he said. “On top of that, you have to manage the day-to-day of a restaurant. It demands a lot, but I know that’s what I want to do.”
This article was inspired by an earlier version originally produced and published by the Universities at Shady Grove. Photos by Andy Butterman.