Skip to main contentSkip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.

How Stone Brewing was sold on Richmond

  • 0

Steve Edenbo packed up his Revolutionary-era garb and flew to California a day early. As the surprise guest at an important business lunch the next day, he didn’t want to tempt fate.

When he arrived in Escondido on June 24, the Philadelphia-based actor discretely scoped out the site for his upcoming performance, a restaurant and brewery that could be mistaken for an office building. The next day, he waited out of sight for most of the lunch. On cue from Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and other state officials, he entered. As Thomas Jefferson.

Speaking to the leaders of Stone Brewing Co., Jefferson extolled the virtues of Virginia agriculture, talked about the beer cellar at Monticello and told stories about his own brewing efforts. From a wooden crate, he pulled little jars of Virginia water, wheat, hops and molasses. For a toast, Stone beer was poured into Jefferson cups from what he called a “historically correct Jeffersonian growler.”

“May you find prosperity in Virginia, and join me as a member of our country’s oldest and most enduring brewing heritage,” Jefferson said in his toast. “And may you always succeed in the pursuit of your happiness!”

He then helped McAuliffe present not a key to the state, but an oversized bottle opener, engraved with the Stone gargoyle and the goddess on Virginia’s state seal.


The California lunch came in the middle of an eight-month courtship by state and local officials to land Stone, the 10th-largest craft brewer in the country, in a competition that involved more than 200 proposals across 20 states. Most of that process occurred out of public view. But in recent interviews with the Richmond Times-Dispatch, nearly a dozen people shared new insight into how Stone was sold on Richmond, which survived several rounds of cuts on the way to winning the $74 million project and the 288 jobs that come with it.

The city is picking up the tab to build a brewery on Williamsburg Avenue and a restaurant at the old Intermediate Terminal site, but officials have touted the project as a game-changer for Greater Fulton and Virginia’s craft beer industry.

The intense interest in the Stone project was due in part to the company’s decision to openly declare its desire to expand and cast a wide net for potential cities. Early this year, the company issued a request for proposals with a deadline of March 15.

The Virginia Economic Development Partnership was the first state-level suitor in the door, sending a representative to meet with the company March 17.

“I guarantee you every community in the mix was putting their best foot forward fighting very hard for this deal, because of the multiple aspects of growth,” said Martin J. Briley, president and CEO of VEDP. “It’s jobs. It’s taxable investments. It’s tourism.”

Throughout the process, VEDP served as a central coordinator, gathering information Stone needed from various state agencies and working with Virginia localities, including Richmond, which sent Stone a copy of a book on the city’s beer history — signed by Mayor Dwight C. Jones and the governor — as well as an old Richmond cobblestone engraved with the RVA logo.

State officials say they weren’t promoting any one particular site, but promoted Virginia as a place with lean regulation, a low corporate tax rate and a talented workforce.

“We were very aggressive in getting the Virginia story in front of them,” said Secretary of Commerce and Trade Maurice A. Jones.

The Virginia delegation that included McAuliffe, Jones and Briley paid its visit to Stone’s brewery while in San Diego for a biotech conference.

With the help of Elevation, a Richmond-based advertising agency, it was VEDP that orchestrated the Jefferson appearance at the lunch with Stone. The total cost for the marketing help, the actor and the historical brewing kit was $8,700.

As Stone’s decision grew nearer, Virginia had three of the five finalists for the project: Richmond, Norfolk and Roanoke. Though state officials were quick to get their foot in the door, it fell to the city to close the deal.


About 9,000 people gathered in Denver in April for the Craft Brewers Conference. Jane Ferrara was on a mission to find just one, and it wasn’t going well.

Her assignment originated a few weeks before the conference, when an email landed in the Richmond Office of Economic and Community Development.

Lee Downey, then the city’s economic development director, was about to leave the office for several days. He considered shrugging it off, but it was color-coded blue. That meant it was addressed only to him, and if he didn’t deal with whatever it was, nobody would. He thought it could be spam but decided to take a look. It was Stone, reaching out to say Richmond was on the company’s radar.

The city wasn’t caught off guard . Having just missed out in 2012 on a chance to land New Belgium Brewing Co., which instead chose Asheville, N.C., Richmond had a playbook of sorts for dealing with craft breweries. Downey and Ferrara, deputy director of economic development, dusted off the New Belgium file and went to work.

“This one was much bigger in terms of their requirement,” Ferrara said.

They pulled together an initial proposal, including a video, and submitted it. Then, they looked ahead to Denver.

On her final day there, Ferrara was facing the prospect of changing her travel plans to buy more time. At 10 p.m. the night before she was supposed to fly back, she received good news. Stone was in town and wanted to meet.

Ferrara and Steve Wagner, Stone’s president and brewmaster, grabbed a table at the Colorado Convention Center and talked about Richmond for an hour and a half.

Ferrara suggested Stone talk to New Belgium to get a feel for what Richmond and its craft beer scene had to offer. Wagner said he already had, and had heard good things.

“After that meeting, I said, ‘Just please come up and visit us. If you would just come and visit us, you’ll understand,’ ” Ferrara said.

By May, Stone had narrowed its short list to 10. Downey and Ferrara traveled to Escondido to meet with the company. While there, they learned that Stone was planning to visit all 10 potential locations, and Richmond would be one of the first.

Knowing they had only a short time to prepare, Downey and Ferrara went out on a patio to contact the home office. With smoke in the air from wildfires tearing through San Diego County, the duo snapped pictures of Stone’s briefing report and started sending them back to Richmond.


The biblical weather events continued on Stone’s first visit to Richmond on May 22.

City officials were taking the Stone delegation on a tour of the floodwall on the Manchester side of the James River when the sky started to darken. Soon, their phones were lighting with a severe thunderstorm warning, which then turned into a tornado warning. By the time the group returned downtown, golfball-size hail was falling.

But that evening, a rainbow appeared during a reception for Stone at the Virginia War Memorial, casting a charming light over the Richmond skyline as Stone heard another pitch for the city from a group convened by the economic development office to talk about doing business in Richmond.

A representative from the Washington Redskins spoke about why the team chose Richmond for its training camp, then presented Stone officials with a jersey signed by Robert Griffin III.

Stephen Fong, a biological engineering professor at Virginia Commonwealth University whose research group studies microbial fermentation and yeast fermentation, talked about possibilities for collaboration with the university.

“They had interest in being able to develop one or two courses or a suite of courses that could potentially be something like a master brewer’s program or certificate or something like that,” said Fong, a TEDxRVA speaker who has previously floated the idea of a glowing beer using organisms that cause bioluminescent ocean tides.

During the same visit, Stone had dinner at Capital Ale House with the founders of Hardywood Park Craft Brewery. That led to another discussion at Hardywood with other local craft brewers such as Strangeways Brewing, Lickinghole Creek Craft Brewery and Triple Crossing Brewing Co.

Stone asked the locals why they chose to open breweries in Richmond.

Hardywood co-founder Patrick Murtaugh talked about the river rapids and miles of bike trails.

“A lot of the same kind of stuff you see in these craft beer-heavy Pacific Northwest towns,” Murtaugh said.

The large number of independent restaurants also was a factor, Murtaugh said. They appeal to the same demographic that patronizes craft breweries.

“It’s the same kind of people that are willing to be a little more adventurous,” Murtaugh said.

When grass-roots rallies and PR campaigns started to appear in the other finalist cities of Norfolk and Columbus, Ohio, the Richmond economic development team took some heat from people asking why that didn’t seem to be happening in Richmond. Downey said the city felt bound by the confidentiality rules it had agreed to that prevented the city from mounting a more public campaign.

“We had made a commitment to the company that we would not do that,” Downey said.


After another visit to potential Richmond sites in late July, city officials started to get the sense that Stone was intrigued by the Greater Fulton area and the promise of an industrial area close to the riverfront.

“We had a very, very unique site because if all they wanted to do was make beer, they could just find a warehouse building in an industrial park somewhere and make beer,” Ferrara said. “But their business model is different. A very important component of that business model is the beer garden and the bistro and the whole customer experience.”

In addition to looking at specific sites for their brewery, the Stone team took steps to feel out the rest of the city.

After a dinner at The Cask Cafe on South Robinson Street, Stone officials said they wanted to walk back to their downtown hotel. City officials learned the next morning that the group didn’t do it in a straight shot, but made stops at Joe’s Inn and other local spots to talk to regular Richmonders about beer.

After four trips to the city, the Stone team told state and local officials in September that they wanted to start talking specifics about setting up shop in Richmond. Upon hearing the news, McAuliffe invited the group to an unrelated event at the Executive Mansion for a celebratory drink.

On Oct. 9, glasses of Stone beer were raised again at the governor’s mansion for the official announcement.


With everything Stone found appealing about Virginia and Richmond, Stone officials have said the deal wouldn’t have happened without a significant incentive package. Between the state and the city, Stone is in line to receive at least $7 million in grants and incentives.

Not everyone is enamored with the idea of governments offering funds to help a private enterprise.

Lagunitas Brewing Co., another California-based brewery that is the fifth-largest in the craft beer market, recently opened a facility in Chicago without public assistance.

Tony Magee, the outspoken founder of Lagunitas, said he’s not comfortable with the idea of public money being used to give one business an advantage that’s not available to others.

“That does sort of tip the playing field,” Magee said. “I think everybody should chew their own food.”

Richmond has the added financial risk of issuing $31 million in bonds to build the brewery and restaurant.

But growth is the reason Stone is looking to open a new brewery to begin with, and City Hall has made assurances that as long as the company’s financial health holds up, the city should have no trouble paying off the debt through lease payments on the facilities, which will be built and owned by the Richmond Economic Development Authority.

“Businesses make decisions based on the bottom line,” said Briley, the head of VEDP. “But with that, you must have trustworthy and predictable relationships. Because they know this is going to be home for decades to come.”

“The incentives were a component of our decision-making process, one of many determining factors,” Stone Chief Operating Officer Pat Tiernan said. “The ability to meet our requirements, the unique offerings of the city and site, as well as the ability to execute our vision of the Stone experience were some of the key factors used in making the decision.”

Because of Stone’s reputation as a creative company, the people trying to capture Stone’s attention felt the need to be similarly creative.

In addition to pitching Stone on hop-production research at Virginia Tech and Virginia State University, Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Todd P. Haymore pitched Stone’s leaders on the music scene, including the rise of The National as a solid music venue just a few blocks from the Capitol.

In the grand scheme, Haymore said, that probably wasn’t a major factor. “But I know it didn’t hurt,” he said.

Conjuring the second governor of Virginia to assist the 72nd governor with the luncheon sales pitch was perhaps the most detailed creative touch. But Edenbo admits he was a little perplexed when first approached for the Stone gig, which was unlike any Jefferson appearance he had done before.

He refuses to endorse political candidates or products while in character as Jefferson, which gave him some pause when considering helping a governor pitch a brewery. But upon further reflection, he realized he was being asked to endorse Virginia.

“It makes sense for me to say Virginia is the best place in the world,” he said. “Because Jefferson said it over and over and over again.”

The two ordinances approved Monday were a performance agreement laying out what Stone must do to qualify for roughly $2 million in city incentives and a measure to reduce wastewater fees for breweries, cideries and distilleries.



Related to this story

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


Breaking News