BJ’s Restaurants: Casual Dining and Craft Brews

BJ’s Restaurants (BJ’s) got its start in the late ’70s as a small chain of pizza restaurants in Southern California. Formerly BJ’s Chicago Pizzeria, the restaurants were bought by Paul Motenko and Jerry Hennessy in the ’90s. “They had a vision to move the concept beyond just pizza and mass-produced beer,” says Alex Puchner, senior vice president of brewing operations at BJ’s.

At that time the concept of a pub brewery was relatively new, as microbreweries and craft beer were just starting to take off in Southern California. The two owners met for lunch one day at Huntington Beach Beer Company, a brewpub across the street from a new BJ’s location. The idea really struck a chord with the pair. “They looked at each other after tasting handcrafted beer and they just knew this was what they wanted to do with the concept: Pair craft beer with their gourmet deep-dish pizza,” explains Puchner.

Puchner had been working with several different partners building and running brewpub restaurants, including Huntington Beach Beer Company, when the owners hired him as a consultant in 1995.

Once joining the team Puchner concentrated on improving the beer list at existing BJ’s restaurants. “We put some good craft beer on tap,” he explains. “We added some interesting Belgian ales to the bottle list.” Expanding craft offerings was the first step toward devising a strategic plan to open the first BJ’s Restaurant & Brewery in Brea, Calif. The first brewery was designed to produce beer for its in-house dining, as well as for distribution to the other existing BJ’s locations.

Building a Better Brewpub

Puchner came on to work full-time for BJ’s with the first brewery’s success. “The more I worked with Paul and Jerry, the more I believed in the BJ’s concept,” says Puchner. The brewery restaurant was what Puchner calls “a very different BJ’s.” The restaurant was the largest yet with an expanded menu with beer brewed right on the premises. “It’s been a success from the day we opened the doors,” says Puchner. “That restaurant really defined the BJ’s concept going forward. That brewery defined our strategy of centralizing our beer production.”

The team soon began opening more locations and producing a variety of craft beers specifically for the chain. BJ’s replicated the model built in Brea by opening several brewery restaurants on the West Coast, and eventually the company broke into Arizona.

“Our Chandler-based brewery was our first restaurant in the state,” Puchner recalls. “At the time we didn’t know a whole lot about the Arizona beer market. We were surprised by the sophisticated tastes of Arizona beer drinkers, particularly how much pale ale we were selling.”

Arizona continues to exist as a hot spot for craft brewing today, and BJ’s is a member of the Arizona Craft Brewers Guild. While Arizona-based brewers are more directly involved with the guild, Puchner has been quite impressed with the organization. The organization works to advance the sale of craft beers in the state from lobbying for laws that favor small brewers to promotion through festivals and cooperative advertising. “They sponsor a very impressive number of festivals,” Puchner says. “Probably more than any other organization I’m aware of.”

Back to the Flavor Laboratory

The distinguished market in Arizona has been a great creative inspiration for the company. “We’re more focused on new beer development than ever,” Puchner says. “In fact, today our restaurants feature at least 30 beers on tap, including 10 BJ’s signature flavors created by the BJ’s brewery department, as well as many other excellent craft beers.”

Puchner’s main focus at BJ’s is bringing guests a good selection of signature beers and rotating seasonal beers, which he has achieved by releasing a new beer yearly for almost a decade. “I’d like to think my job is getting easier with the market for craft beer growing,” Puchner says. “We’re brewing great beer, and we’re always adding more draft lines and variety.”

New competition comes with the industry’s growth, and Puchner admits it has become more difficult for independent brewers to really stand out. “Craft beer drinkers like a variety,” he explains. “They want to try something new and experience flavors in beer that they haven’t before.”

BJ’s has responded to the challenge by ramping up its research-and-development department. “We’re creating and testing more beers than we ever have before,” says Puchner. “In 2011 we featured seven seasonal, limited-time-only beers, including our first-ever collaboration beer with a very well-respected Belgian brewery.”

Making new beer isn’t just about playing with flavor. Puchner and the team are seasoned in beer sales trends, which vary regionally across the United States. “This year we rolled out our HopStorm IPA,” he says. India Pale Ales have been noticeably more popular in the west, but HopStorm IPA is now available on tap at BJ’s locations in all of the 14 states where the chain can be found.

The company introduced a white beer in 2004, which turned out to be a big seller across the board. BJ’s Nit Wit employs all the refreshing characteristics of a classic Belgian-style wit bier. The light-bodied yet flavorful brew comes unfiltered and is spiced with coriander and orange peel for a sweet, citrusy undertone. BJ’s Nit Wit has earned several gold medals at national and international beer competitions.

BJ’s has 123 locations nationwide. The uncommon combination of family-friendly dining and craft brewing succeeds in BJ’s business goal to create and keep fans of the brand. The company continues to put stock in an innovative research and development department that is bringing new flavors and experiences to guests at the best value. “There are still a lot of Bud drinkers left to convert,” laughs Puchner, and with sustained growth and the drive to wow its guests, BJ’s Restaurants are making the transition an easy one.