By GREGORY ZELLER //
Running the LI Brew Bus has been an education – and that, according to founder Brad Darrohn, is kind of an important point.
Among the primary lessons learned since the retrofitted 1998 Blue Bird school bus started its weekend runs one year ago: Insurance ain’t cheap, a lesson hammered home so hard that Darrohn and his crew almost parked the bus permanently at the end of last summer.
Based at the Long Island Rail Road’s Ronkonkoma station, the LI Brew Bus started carrying day-trippers to microbreweries in Bay Shore, Holbrook and Patchogue in June 2015. Sales bubbled up but the bottom line was flat; by September, the numbers were sour enough to hit the brakes for good, according to Darrohn.
The culprit: “Way high” insurance premiums, he said, quadruple what Team Brew Bus had anticipated.
“When we started, we talked to a lot of insurance reps and were told our insurance rates would be in a certain range,” he told Innovate LI. “Then we opened and it was four times that.
“We were also told that three months after we got into it, we should get a break on the insurance,” Darrohn added. “But then three months came and we got an email saying we owed another eight grand. It was unexpected, and very poorly handled by our past insurance rep.”
The problem, he noted, is how insurers categorize the LI Brew Bus. While passengers do drink on board – “We make no effort to hide that,” Darrohn noted – the tours are educational in nature, with videos and special-guest brewmasters diving into beer-making techniques, the agriculture of brewing and Long Island’s craft-beverage history.
Insurers, alas, don’t see it that way.
“They think we’re a party bus,” Darrohn said. “Or a pub crawl.”
Not only is the focus more on education than inebriation, but the LI Bew Bus actually provides a community service, according to Darrohn, who estimates the weekly tours have so far removed 800 or more potential drunk drivers from Island roads.
That’s one of the biggest reasons Darrohn and his partners, John Monderine and Sean Martin, decided not to bust the bus last fall. With more breweries opening across the Island and more day-trippers checking them out – and imbibing craft brews with significantly higher alcohol content than typical brands – “the market really needs something like this,” Darrohn said.
“In every brewery, I run into a group of people who decided to visit a couple of breweries, and they’re on their third one and they’re intoxicated,” he noted. “It’s not what they’re used to.”
The company has already changed insurance carriers a few times. While the premiums “still aren’t at the price point we want,” they’re getting better – and Darrohn has a strategy to lower them further, primarily by improving the LI Brew Bus’ street cred.
“We’re hoping that over time, being in business without any accidents, we’ll be able to build a strong reputation,” the founder said, noting plans to recruit Mothers Against Drunk Driving and local officeholders to the cause.
“We’re definitely looking to get endorsements from organizations like MADD and the various municipalities,” Darrohn added. “Hopefully, more political backing will get the insurance costs where we need them to be.
“We bring customers to these breweries and these towns, and we take the liability with us.”
Meanwhile, other changes are afoot. With the busy summer season rolling around, Darrohn and Co. have reinstituted their Friday-through-Sunday schedule – over the winter, they sold out their Saturday-only trips, Darrohn said – and will keep it in effect through the fall, or “until sales tell us otherwise.”
They’re planning more themed events akin to last fall’s successful Search For the Great Pumpkin Ale, and have finally uncorked a long-cultivated agreement with the LIRR: LI Brew Bus customers can now buy combo tickets at any LIRR station that get them to Ronkonkoma and get them on the bus.
“Definitely cool,” Darrohn noted.
The LI Brew Bus has even become a business-networking hub. In addition to running the bus tours, Darrohn has taken over general manager duties at Holstville-based Imagination at Work (dba Vamp Graphics), a custom-signage and vehicle-wrap specialist that decorated the Brew Bus and created most of its merchandising materials – and is now landing graphics gigs through Darrohn’s microbrewery connections.
And of course, the LI Brew Bus continues to add new destinations to its sudsy itinerary, including regular stops at Northport’s Sand City Brewing Co. (21 and over to enter website) and Greenport Harbor Brewing Co.
The company is planning to announce a new partnership later this year that not only adds another tour stop, but brings on board a host of new craft-brewing tour guides – and even shifts bus-maintenance duties to the new brewery partner. Darrohn is keeping the details bottled up for now, but said the multifaceted deal is a good example of the excitement that’s allowed the company to grow despite the insurance costs.
Including seasonal sales staff, LI Brew Bus now boasts 16 employees and is shopping around for a full-time assistant GM and additional drivers. The ultimate goal – 10 Brew Buses making hourly stops at breweries across Long Island – is still in play, according to Darrohn, but how fast the company can expand depends on those nasty insurance rates.
“Yes, we’re doing better than expected (sales-wise),” Darrohn said. “And if it keeps up at this rate, we’ll have more buses running soon. But insurance-wise, just traveling into Nassau is another 20 grand a year. So really, it’s all about the insurance.”