Written by Anna Raddatz | Photos by Anthony Harden
On a sunny September morning in 2012, brothers Luke and Walt Dickinson were driving kegs of homebrew to the Brewgrass Festival being held at Martin Luther King, Jr. Park in downtown Asheville.
Luke remembers telling Walt how nervous he was. “What if people don’t like our beer?” he asked. Walt’s response? “This is some of the best beer in Asheville in the back of our van right now, I guarantee it.”
As the festival began, Luke’s fears quickly dissipated. Pouring samples from their tent, the brothers watched as the line of people wanting a taste of their product snaked across the park’s baseball field.
“We had the longest line at the festival by probably ten times,” recalls Luke. “We had 167 people in line at one point to get a sample of Wicked Weed beer. And we hadn’t even opened the brewery yet.”
After this blow-out day, and taking home the People’s Choice award to boot, the Dickinsons and their business partners, the Guthy family, saw the stars align. While they had been working on the business for almost a year and were only a few months away from opening its doors, it was a serious vote of confidence to gain such powerful public approval.
“Before that, we knew we were doing the right thing,” says Walt, “but at that moment, we all looked at each other and said, ‘Wow, I think we’re about to do something special.’”
A Mysterious Newcomer
The Wicked Weed brewery and restaurant at 91 Biltmore Avenue in downtown Asheville definitely makes a statement. The wide, white stucco facade has rounded Spanish-style corners and a large, welcoming patio with plenty of seating and a metal firepit. Located next door to the popular Orange Peel music venue, the building is known to locals as the “old Asheville Hardware building” (a business that relocated to Buxton Avenue in 2010).
Inside, rough red brick, dark wood, and high ceilings with exposed beams give the expansive bar and dining area a hip, industrial vibe. But warm lighting and a casual layout make guests feel at home. The style is similar, if a bit more cave-like, downstairs at the tasting bar next to the brewing area. From here, a glass garage door opens onto a back patio, this one with biergarten style tables and benches shaded by umbrellas and awnings.
For many craft beer enthusiasts, accustomed to visiting small start-up breweries in cramped, makeshift spaces, stepping foot into this new business when it opened at the end of December, 2012, was a bit of a shock. The interior was large and impeccable, the beer selection unique and overwhelming, the food delicious, and the customers lining up outside, in the cold dead of winter, just to get a seat.
Where did this place come from? Some locals thought it was so slick it must be part of a chain. Others conjectured that it might have been bankrolled by investors from Charlotte or Atlanta who wanted to cash in on the Asheville beer scene. While there’s no question that substantial capital was involved, the reality is actually more locally grown than many would expect.
Brothers & Beer
The Dickinson family moved to Asheville from California in 1996; Luke and Walt both attended T.C. Roberson High School. Walt, the older brother who is now 32, briefly attended UNC Asheville for basketball, transferred to the forestry program at Haywood Community College, and then decided he “didn’t really want to measure logs.” Realizing school wasn’t for him, he got into rock climbing and spent five years traveling around the country, living in national parks and guiding for private clients, a time he describes as a “meager existence.” After an injury, he returned to Asheville. Here, he started a gutter cleaning company called Higher Ground in 2005.
Meanwhile, Luke, who is three years younger, had attended A-B Tech, transferred to UNC Greensboro, and also decided that the academic life wasn’t for him. On Luke’s twenty-first birthday, Walt gifted him a homebrewing kit, thinking his brother could share a hobby he himself had discovered in college. Around this time, Luke found himself living in Delaware, becoming more and more enchanted with brewing beer. To see if he could make a career of it, he landed a volunteer gig at Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, where he says he went from volunteer to part-time to full-time within a month. He worked there for three years, and then did a six-week brewing apprenticeship in Germany at Brauerei zum Rossknecht.
After that, brewing took over Luke’s life. “I spent all the money I had on home brewing equipment, and wanted to do it professionally,” he says. He was exploring the idea of starting a “nanobrewery,” basically a one-person home brewery that is licensed to sell the small quantities of beer it produces. But he realized that with that model, he would still have to maintain a separate full-time job.
When Luke discussed his ideas with his brother, Walt’s reaction was to go bigger. With several years of business ownership under his belt, Walt brought an entrepreneur’s ambition to the table. “Walt started doing a business plan that made sense and showed some positive numbers,” says Luke. “So over the next year, we worked together to develop an idea of what a dream brew pub would be.”
As the brothers dreamed and planned, a major consideration was where to locate their business. They both loved Asheville, but were worried the area was already saturated with breweries. Walt was in the process of opening a branch of Higher Ground in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and saw it as a city with a lot of potential. “In Asheville there were already twelve breweries,” Walt says. “I thought Chattanooga was an up and coming city, and I also had business associates there and a potential investing partner.”
The Dickinsons were well on their way to opening their brew pub there; they just needed a little more capital. For that, they turned to family friends, Rick and Denise Guthy.
Rick Guthy had been boyhood friends with Luke and Walt’s father back in California. The two met in 1969 and played basketball together from middle school through college. The families had grown up together; to the Dickinson brothers, Rick was known as “Uncle Rick.”
Rick had gone on to be a very successful businessman. In the 1980s, he was involved with his brother, Bill, at Guthy Renker, an infomercial business that sold motivational and self help products, including the popular “Think & Grow Rich” series. (Today, Guthy Renker focuses on the direct marketing of beauty products like Proactiv.) Rick oversaw the manufacturing side of the business, which was comprised of 700-800 employees and had distribution centers in both Asheville (where the Guthys have lived since 1989) and Southern California. After 32 years in the business, Rick retired in 2012.
Around this time, Rick and his wife, Denise, were thinking about starting a local business in Asheville. “We decided to take our money out of the stock market,” says Denise. “We wanted to be in control of our money and do something different as a family.”
In timing that all the partners describe as kismet, the Dickinson brothers approached them with a pitch. Walt and Luke invited Rick, Denise, and their son, Ryan, to come to Chattanooga to see their plans and taste their beer. “We put together a bunch of beers for them and had a chef do a paired dinner,” says Walt. “They were fairly blown away by the concept.”
The Guthy’s agree that they were impressed. Denise says the beer was “exceptional” and different from any beer she had ever tasted. Rick was amazed by the brothers’ deep, technical knowledge of brewing: “They are savants when it comes to knowing craft beer,” he says. And knowing the brothers for many years, they trusted them.
But on the drive back to Asheville, the Guthy family defined their terms: they would have to be active partners, not silent investors; and the business would have to be in Asheville. As Denise puts it, “We live in Asheville, and we love Asheville. So we wanted to put our money, time, and energy into something in Asheville.”
The brothers accepted. “It was the easiest sell for us,” says Walt, “because Asheville is where we learned to love craft beer.”
Over a year and two million dollars later, Wicked Weed opened on December 28th, 2012. While a mid-winter launch might have seemed counterintuitive, its timing is just one example of what Denise means when she says that “doors kept opening.” Wicked Weed was the first brewery to open in Asheville after the announcements that big-time craft brewers Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, and Oskar Blues would be opening production facilities in Asheville.
“The craft beer world was primed and ready to focus on something,” says Luke, “and those announcements gave that world a town to focus on.” And that attention only helped boost Wicked Weed’s exposure.
Building a Team
Having access to the kinds of capital the Guthys could offer changed everything for the Dickinsons. Instead of planning for a 2,000-square-foot brew pub, the partners went after the two-story, 7,000-square-foot building at 91 Biltmore, which can accommodate 500 customers at a time. Instead of opening with a few brews on tap, Wicked Weed launched with an astounding 17 options, all made in-house. Instead of offering passable pub food, they brought in Cardiff Creasey, the chef from the Red Stag Grill in Biltmore Village.
Since none of the partners had ever run a brewery or restaurant before, they knew they needed to import expertise. Their first hire was Eric Leypoldt, a brewer from Dogfish Head Brewery, where Luke had held his first brewery job. Another key was placing Dave Herrington, who had decades of experience opening Outback Steakhouses, in the role of general manager. And they only hired experienced servers and bartenders to fill out the rest of the 145 person staff.
“We were the only inexperienced people,” says Rick. “We didn’t teach them, they taught us.”
But it’s clear that Rick’s vigorous work ethic and leadership style have been essential elements of the business’ success. In addition to decades of experience in building teams and managing people during his previous career, he has extremely high standards and a perfectionist’s eye for detail. Rick is one of the first people to get to Wicked Weed every day, arriving around 5am, when he takes an early morning stroll around the place to check for any anomalies.
“I want to make sure that every light bulb works, that every nook and cranny of this place is spotless, that every window is clean,” he says. “We paint every day. If there’s a scratch on the wall, it gets fixed that day, not two weeks from now.”
The Dickinsons say they have learned a lot from Rick’s example. As kids they thought of Rick as a fun and funny guy; working with him now has opened their eyes to his deeper traits. “Rick is always willing to scrape gum or pick up cigarette butts, never above doing any job at the restaurant. I have never met a man who is so dedicated to the day-to-day details. It’s inspiring,” explains Walt. Luke gives an example of Rick spontaneously jumping up during a meeting to break down cardboard boxes. “Rick shows us how to always be focused on the here and now,” he says.
Denise and Ryan have hands-on roles, too. Denise played a major role in guiding the design of the interior—not an easy task, considering it meant combining the aesthetics of multiple partners. Walt says she has “great taste” for the decor and other details that contribute to the overall ambiance. Rick and Denise’s son Ryan, 28, helps Rick manage the upstairs while Luke and Walt manage the brewery operation. Ryan, who did sales and marketing for the PGA Tour prior to becoming a Wicked Weed partner, says he loves working in an industry “where people are so passionate about what they do.”
While the brothers may have originally seen their business as a Dickinson undertaking, they quickly learned to appreciate the dynamic that having multiple partners brings. When it comes to guiding the business strategy, they say that it can be easy for a single owner to become fixated on one idea or problem, but that with multiple partners (which also includes Luke, Walt, and Ryan’s wives), they don’t lose track of the big picture goals. In addition, because this group of partners vary quite a bit in age and background, a happy result is a business that appeals to all types.
“Wicked Weed has become something that is a very palatable experience for all generations,” says Luke. “At one time, you can see people who are 21 and having their first beer, people who are going to a death metal show at the Orange Peel next door, and a group of retirees enjoying good times with old friends.”
Wicked Weed has made a big name for itself in a very short period of time. So short, in fact, that the partners refer to the age of their business in months, as you would an infant. Wicked Weed Brewing is now 21 months old—and this bouncing baby brewery is quickly outgrowing its crib.
Walt has more quickly adapted to the idea that their new role is in seeing the bigger picture and executing the vision, not throwing yeast in a vat.
“Two guys can’t make 50,000 barrels of beer,” says Walt. Wicked Weed serves 500,000 customers a year. Anyone strolling down Biltmore Avenue on a weekend evening is likely to see a line out the door—a line that has been a regular occurrence since the business’ opening weeks. Rick projects that Wicked Weed will serve one million pints in 2014, which is 40% higher than 2013, their first full year in business.
In short, Wicked Weed is maxed out. The partners didn’t expect the business to grow so rapidly, but as Walt says, “We’re brewing nine times a week with nine brewers, and we can barely keep enough beer on tap.”
Part of the challenge is that Wicked Weed defines itself by its wide variety of options. They keep 27 to 29 different house-made beers on tap at all times (a plan that Leypoldt, the brewer who came on board from Dogfish Head, initially called “f—ing crazy”). “It’s no easy task to keep that board full,” says Rick. “Having our large variety of beers on tap every day is what sets us apart from other breweries” The demand at the Asheville location is compounded by the fact that Wicked Weed distributes to about 100 other accounts across North Carolina.
As a result, Wicked Weed is in the process of expanding their operation. In October, they will open The Funkatorium, a tasting room and barrel house on Coxe Avenue, a few short blocks from the Biltmore Avenue location. This 12,000-square-foot space will accommodate the storage of 1,000 wooden casks of barrel-aged sour beer, a line of brews for which Wicked Weed is becoming increasingly well-known. (For example, Draft Magazine recently named Wicked Weed’s Serenity brew the publication’s first ever 100 point rated wild ale.)
In addition, the company is in the process of renovating a 40,000-square-foot facility on a 6.8-acre lot in Candler—which happens to be right next door to New Belgium’s distribution center. This will act as Wicked Weed’s new production facility, enabling them to brew twenty times more beer, or up to 50,000 barrels annually. (For comparison, the downtown location is expected to produce 5,000 barrels in 2014.) The partners hope to be shipping beer from the new facility by summer of next year. Walt says that bankers were “competing over the opportunity to lend us the money” for the $5 million project.
With this growth comes a larger staff—Rick says they expect to hire an additional 80 employees over the next year—and shifting responsibilities for the partners. Ryan will move more heavily into sales, increasing distribution within North Carolina (whose breweries are allowed to self-distribute within the state) and then working with a distributor to land select accounts in other parts of the country. Luke and Walt, who until this point have been hands on in the day-to-day brewing operations, will remain intimately involved with recipe development and quality control while taking on more managerial roles.
For the brothers, these shifting roles are taking some getting used to—especially for Luke. “It’s been tough for me, because I want to be a brewer,” he says. “In making this jump from a brew pub to production, I don’t get to clean as many tanks or mash in as many beers.” Where he used to spend seven days a week in the brew house, he now spends only two.
Walt, too, reveled in the manual labor of beer making. But he says he remembers something their father, who was also an entrepreneur, used to say: “If you’re working with your hands, you’re not planning for expansion.” He has more quickly adapted to the idea that their new role is in seeing the bigger picture and executing the vision, not throwing yeast in a vat. “Two guys can’t make 50,000 barrels of beer,” says Walt.
For anyone with siblings, a natural question for the Dickinsons is: How do you do it? How do you run a stressful, growing business with the person who has a lifetime of experience in pushing your buttons?
It turns out that it takes some practice. Like many siblings, Walt and Luke have very different temperaments. Walt is a confident, optimistic, risk-taker. Luke is more cautious, reserved, and grounded. As Luke says, “He does rock climbing; I play golf.”
As the business was getting underway, these differences in personality manifested as differences in execution. While they agreed on the vision for the product, they did not agree on how to get there. Luke pictured a simple brew pub; Walt envisioned a giant brand. They eventually settled on a middle ground, which was solidified by the Guthys’ involvement.
But for the Dickinsons, the bigger challenge has been learning how to communicate with one another in a new way. Walt says it took over a year for them to stop “fighting like brothers and start arguing like business partners.”
Now they say they feel lock-stepped, pushing together toward the same goal and knowing how to get through to each other when need be.
On the plus side, being brothers means the successes are all the sweeter. Luke says there are moments every week when he has to pinch himself. “It’s a cliché,” he says, “but my life is my passion and my passion is my life.”
Walt, who is generally unwaveringly optimistic, says Wicked Weed’s success has surprised even him. “It’s not surprising to me that people really like our beer, and we’re making a decent living at it,” he says. “But the scope and level and reach… however I would have quantified that when we started, now it’s like 100 times that.”
In fact, he says, what he, his brother, and the Guthys have accomplished in under two years is more than he expected from his entire career. “We’ve been flown to New Belgium to collaborate, we’ve won medals,” he says. “But those moments when you go, ‘Wow,’ are short-lived, because it’s coming at you so fast you’re basically functioning on instinct.”
Instincts that are obviously serving the Wicked Weed crew and customers quite well.