Two guys familiar with the local food and wine scene have switched their focus to the emerging world of craft beer.
Patrick Lombardi, a former wine distributor, has founded 17th Star Distributing Co. and brought along partner Greg May, a former partner in three local Buffalo Wild Wings franchises.
Their business model calls for the representation of small microbrews, both from Columbus and beyond, and to Columbus and beyond.
They began selling in early March and now represent seven breweries -- three in Columbus, one in Millersburg, one in Dayton and one each in California, New Mexico and New Hampshire.
"We're now moving into Dayton and hopefully by the end of the year, we will be moving into Cincinnati," May said. "Our plan does not include going into northern Ohio right now. We'll see how it goes."
They're filling a niche, given that there's a paucity of mid-tier distributors in the area, May said.
"What that means is that for both the customer and the brewer, they don't have many options in getting their beers out there," he said.
Lombardi, a former product manager for a small distributor, said he watched as his company disregarded a growing industry.
"I saw the movement in the craft beer industry and the company I worked for wasn't catching on," he said. "And I stepped out on my own and started my own craft beer distributorship."
The company is located in a cold-storage facility on Valleyview Drive on the West Side.
Lombardi and May met through a mutual friend. May said when he first heard the idea, he was a bit skeptical.
"But as a restaurateur, I was seeing this huge change in customer demand," he said. "I saw it with my own eyes. They wanted local beers, craft beers. Young beer-drinkers don't have the brand loyalty the way their parents did. If they find a beer, that doesn't mean they'll be drinking it the rest of their lives."
The two joined forces and now have 75 retail accounts, such as Crafty Pint, the Daily Growler, House Beer and Crafted Drafts.
May said basically what happens is that craft brewers start out small. As they build their inventory, they also have to market it and deliver. If business grows, craft brewers then have two options: hire staff and more trucks or hire a distributor.
"The experience of self-distribution certainly takes a toll on business and it takes a toll on them," he said. "That's kind of why we exist."
They won't accept just any beer, May said, adding he's pleased with the quality and customer response to beers in 17th Star's portfolio.
"We're not going to recruit beers just to have them," he said.
Mary Martineau, executive director of the Ohio Craft Brewers Association, said 17th Star definitely fills a void for small beer producers, which total about a dozen locally.
"I think it depends on your business plan and your operation," she said. "I like the 17th Star guys. I like that they're focusing on craft beers. There's certainly a need for it."
Fred Lee, who founded Actual Brewing with his wife, Mira, said 17th Star will give a voice to small breweries that don't have the staff to constantly pitch to bars and restaurants.
"It's a big deal," said Lee, who has hired 17th Star as a distributor. "There's a rule of thumb that you should have your distributor be as big as your brewery. That's because you have to know the same things about the beer, you have to know the same customers."
For more information, call 614-527-7610.