By GREGORY ZELLER // Brad Darrohn likes beer.
Specifically, the partner at Bohemia-based online marketing firm Fishbat enjoys craft beers, those brewed in small batches by local beer lovers like himself. Long Island has a thriving microbrew culture, but its geographical sprawl presents a problem for those who would enjoy their suds responsibly. But also an opportunity.
Lamenting that a single-day tour of the Island’s widespread breweries using conventional transportation was virtually impossible, Darrohn determined to make all those hops accessible by a skip and a jump. At least, by bus.
Behold: The LI Brew Bus, a guided tour of the Island’s microbrew scene, departing weekly from Ronkonkoma aboard a retrofitted 1998 Blue Bird school bus that once transported senior citizens.
Darrohn’s wheels started turning in 2012, when the avid home-brewer came across other beer hobbyists at a party. Together, they counted 16 microbreweries across Long Island, a total that “blew my mind,” said Darrohn, a former bartender who “grew up at the Blue Point brewery” and prefers tasting rooms to the traditional bar scene.
“There’s a totally different standard in a microbrewery,” he noted. “No loud music. No people smashing into each other. Everyone is very friendly. I feel like I’m in a friend’s basement, and that really chimes with me.”
Inspired by the conversation, Darrohn decided to tour all of the Island’s microbreweries, and about 10 friends and various spouses and girlfriends decided to join him. Renting a bus for the day seemed the way to go, but the gang quickly determined that chartering a bus would run a not-too-cool $2,500 – and even if they could pool the money, there was no bus available on demand.
“There was no way to do it,” Darrohn said.
Undaunted, he started crunching numbers. He wasn’t even thinking about a business at first – his goal was to rent a bus and squeeze in as many stops as possible – but the more he crunched, the more he sensed a big opportunity.
Fishbat cofounder and serial entrepreneur John Monderine actually provided the vital ingredient to Darrohn’s slowly brewing plan. “I wasn’t trying to get money out of him,” Darrohn noted, “but he was like, ‘Why don’t we just buy a bus?’”
“It was one of those things where I thought, ‘I can’t believe this doesn’t exist already,’” said Monderine, who is also president and CEO of debt-collection agency Rapid Recovery Solution. “Brad is more of a creative guy, where I have a business background, and as soon as I heard his idea, I was like, ‘This is a moneymaker, let’s do it.’”
With Monderine on board, the entrepreneur hit the gas. First up was finding the right bus. It “couldn’t be a regular Coach bus,” noted Darrohn. “I wanted this to be a tour company, an attraction, a complete experience. Not a limo service.”
As a college student, Darrohn had gone through an apprentice program at Disney, where he learned about the essentials of a successful attraction, including sights, sounds and smells – “all these tactile experiences, with multiple senses being stimulated at the same time,” he said. “I wanted to do that, on wheels.”
The partners found their vessel in New Jersey: a Blue Bird with perimeter seating (instead of row seating, all seatbacks face the walls, so passengers face each other). That creates an onboard atmosphere akin to “a private party on wheels,” according to Darrohn, and an opportunity for tour guides to educate passengers about the Island’s brewing culture.
They’ve spent the last two years and over $100,000 getting the rechristened “Brew Bird” in order, including inspections, laborious permitting and licensing and a small fortune spent on liability coverage.
“More than 80 percent of our overhead has gone to insurance,” Darrohn noted.
Now, at last, the Brew Bird is ready to roll. When it makes its inaugural run June 6, it will hit just four microbreweries – Blue Point Brewing Co., BrickHouse Brewery in Patchogue, Great South Bay Brewery in Bay Shore and Spider Bite Brewing Co. in Holbrook – but the plan is to eventually hit every brewpub in Suffolk County, and then slowly expand into Nassau and points west. Unofficially, Darrohn & Co. now count 35 Long Island microbreweries, including pubs in Brooklyn and Queens.
Tours will launch Saturdays and Sundays from the Long Island Rail Road’s Ronkonkoma station – “We figure using an artery to the city is the best way to get more people exposed to breweries on Long Island,” Darrohn noted – with he and Monderine behind the wheel. The partners have “a five- to eight-month plan” to purchase a second bus, according to Darrohn, and are shooting for a fleet of five buses within three years.
To start, though, the tours will hit different four-brewery combinations each Saturday and Sunday. The partners – including Darrohn, Monderine, school bus company veteran Sean Martin and a “silent investor” – are marketing the tours via word-of-mouth and a social media campaign, including a Facebook page (the company has an under-construction website at www.librewbus.com featuring a link to the Facebook account).
Passengers can only buy a tour ticket after they agree to the terms and conditions, which state clearly that intoxicated individuals or other bad seeds will be booted off the bus.
“This is an adult attraction,” Darrohn noted. “We expect everyone to behave like adults and take responsibility for their actions, and we want everyone to be safe on the bus. If one person is ruining it for everybody, they’re off the bus.”
Worst case, he added: The company will arrange for a taxi to take someone back to their car “at their own expense.” But with the Brew Bird preparing for its maiden voyage, Darrohn and his partners aren’t focusing on worst-case scenarios.
“It’s either going to be a huge success or a huge failure,” the entrepreneur said. “But we’re expecting the best.”
LI Brew Bus
What’s It? Weekend bus tours of Long Island microbreweries
Brought To You By: Creator Brad Darrohn, partner John Monderine and friends
All In: $100,000 in personal investments, mostly to cover insurance and state permits and licenses
Status: Ready to roll