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Aug 2011

In The News: The Feast Interviews Mark

Talking Shop with Narragansett CEO Mark Hellendrung
By. Katy Kelleher

In the past six years, Narragansett Beer, once seen as a dive bar staple, has moved up in the world. The 120-year-old company has undergone a pretty significant transformation, which CEO Mark Hellendrung says was all sparked by the idea of bringing a beverage back to its roots, while increasing its visibility as a beer for discerning drinkers. “It used to be part of the fabric of New England culture,” he told us. “I wanted to bring this back.” In 2005, he began a lengthy process of doing just that: turning the beer-in-a-can back into a classic, one to rival beer heavyweights like Budweiser and Anheuser-Busch.

Though much of this can be couched in business jargon, Mark is dedicated to making Narragansett back into a household name, and tonight they’re going about it in a rather interesting way with the kickoff of their Neighbor Day Celebration Series. For the next month, Narragansett will be throwing parties at venues across New England, all leading up to the actual Neighbor Day on September 26. It’s something of a throwback to their once-famous slogan—”Hi Neighbor! Have a ‘Gansett”—but on an even larger scale than ever before.

But before you run out and order a brew or two (one for your neighbor, maybe?) check out our Q&A with Mark, below.

I know you worked with Nantucket Nectars and Magic Hat before signing on with Narragansett. How was that different from working at Narragansett?
The thing about small companies is that you’re always in a classic David and Goliath scenario. At Nantucket Nectars, it was us against bigger companies like Coke and Pepsi, and at Magic Hat, it was us against Budweiser and the other big name beer companies. These huge franchises have so many more resources.

What is your strategy competing with companies like Budweiser?
A lot of it is relationship-driven. It sounds like a cliche, but it’s important to develop relationships with local business people. Sometimes it’s more difficult with national chains. For instance, we were trying to talk to a chain out in Minnesota, and they’ve never even heard of Narragansett.

Was it strange to come into a company with such a long history?
It’s good and bad in some ways. It’s good because we’ve got these icons, references, and language to work with. But that history also came with some baggage. A whole generation of New Englanders lived through the demise of Narragansett Beer, where they cheapened the recipe and cheapened the price. The quality just wasn’t there. A lot of people still remember that. On the one hand, they remember having a ‘Gansett, but on the other, they remember that cheap beer that they drank in the 80’s. We have both great things to work with, but we also have to work against some of the negative stigmas.

Can you tell us a bit about the company’s “rebirth” back in 2005? How did you get involved?

Narragansett Beer was this great company that was founded back in 1890. We used to have a 65% market share, and Narragansett was the official beer of the Red Sox. It was really part of the fabric of New England for a long time. A few years back, I was sitting at a bar one night and I realized that I wasn’t very excited about the choices that I had. I started talking about Narragansett, and before I knew it the whole bar was talking about it. I saw that there was still a really emotional connection.

Why do you think it’s such a classic New England beverage?
I think it became part of the culture here. Whether it was fishing trips, or the first beer that you had with dad, or what you always drank at a Red Sox game, it was just always there. For a long time, it was ingrained. It was kind of like the Red Sox—that’s the team that you rooted for and that’s the beer that you drank.

What is your favorite brew out of the ones you make?
You know what, it’s funny you ask that, because I was out drinking a lot of different ones last night. But generally, my choice is seasonal. Not to dodge your question, but the Porter is fabulous. It’s heavy and thick, but there is no way I want to drink that on a hot summer day in August. I was drinking the Light Beer last night, which I hadn’t had in awhile, and it’s a damn good beer. It’s all in the moment, I guess for me. But that’s being said, the Lager is the Lager. It’s my go-to beer, and I always go back to that one.