New Helvetia Brewing’s business ‘painfully slow.’ One reason: Broadway’s homeless, owner says

New Helvetia Brewing Co. was one of the Sacramento area’s first craft breweries. Now its future could be in question.

Owner Dave Gull beseeched Land Park residents to support his brewery on a private neighborhood Facebook page Aug. 31, asking for them to look past Broadway’s sporadic unsightliness and homeless encampments to patronize New Helvetia.

“Business has been painfully slow these past few months due to several factors,” Gull wrote. “Some things are our own fault like a lack of compelling storytelling, inadequate marketing and community engagement. Other things are out of our control like how neighboring owners maintain their businesses and properties, nearby vacancies and of course the most challenging issue facing our community, homelessness.”

“I’m not here to start a debate about the homeless issue or to assign blame, but I have to acknowledge a simple truth ... if you fear coming to Broadway, or perceive Broadway (and by default, New Helvetia Brewery) to be unsafe or sketchy or scary, then I need to do something to calm that fear.”

In an interview with The Sacramento Bee, Gull said that while the bulk of New Helvetia’s shortcomings have been self-perpetuated, online discussion has convinced him the relatively high homeless population under the Interstate 80 overpass frightens some customers off. He’s instructed staff to prevent people from panhandling outside New Helvetia, and to directly confront homeless people or call police when necessary, according to the Facebook post.

Mayor Darrell Steinberg hopes to assuage Gull and other Broadway business owners’ concerns about the homeless over an upcoming meeting, said spokeswoman Mary Lynne Vellinga. A 100-bed homeless shelter approved last Tuesday will open a mile from New Helvetia in spring 2020, and the city recently sued to ban seven men with histories of property and drug crimes from Broadway and its surrounding area.

“We want to assure them that some sort of relief is coming on that front,” Vellinga said.

New Helvetia produced 28,792 gallons of beer in 2017 but just 23,334 gallons in 2018, a 19 percent decline, according to state data. After several slow months this year as well, Gull brought in Knee Deep Brewing Co. ex-pat Alex Tonello as the new head brewer in early August, replacing current BigStump Brewing Co. head brewer Iver Johnson.

Gull plans to let Tonello run wild, as indicated by some of his first few beers currently in production: a banana flambé hefeweizen, a kettle sour and a hazy double IPA. The owner maintains that New Helvetia’s beer hasn’t been the problem, though, and points to two Great American Beer Festival gold medals and one silver over six years as evidence.

Gull and his wife Amy founded New Helvetia in an old tortilla factory at 1730 Broadway in late 2012, before now well-established competitors such as Device and New Glory had opened. The McClatchy High alumni effectively branded their brewery as a local by adopting Sacramento’s John Sutter-era name and releasing the flagship Buffalo Craft Lager in 2013, modeled after the Buffalo Brewing Co. beer served at 21st and Q streets from the 1890s through the 1940s and then again for a short stint in the 1970s.

But New Helvetia today lacks the buzz of the Sacramento-area fresher additions; Gull admitted as much to The Bee. Nearby competitors such as Bike Dog, which opened a Broadway taproom in 2017, and Urban Roots, which won gold at the U.S. Open Beer Championship a month after opening last year, have cut into the market share as well.

Gull doesn’t need New Helvetia to dominate the local beer scene, he said. He posted in the private Facebook group to remind Land Park residents that New Helvetia donates beer and staff time to Fairytale Town, the Sacramento Zoo and the neighborhood’s schools foundation, community association and Little League, among others.

“I’m admitting weakness and asking for help from our neighbors and anyone else who would like to support us,” said Gull, a fourth-generation Sacramento resident. “We really want to elevate not just the brewery scene, but all the things that make Sacramento shine.”

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Benjy Egel covers local restaurants and bars for The Sacramento Bee as well as general breaking news and investigative projects. A Sacramento native, he previously covered business for the Amarillo Globe-News in Texas.