UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School

Thriving in Tumultuous Times: LoneRider brews winning formula for its draft beer business


LoneRider Brewing Co. in Raleigh was one of the first brewing companies to actively engage its customers on Get Satisfaction, a new online exchange for customers to provide feedback to companies about their products.

Some see the site as the next-generation of customer service. It’s just one example of how LoneRider, led by CEO Sumit Vohra (MBA Evening ’07), has tapped into a variety of viral social media tools on the Web to promote the fledgling brew business. While consumers have bought more alcohol during the recession as sales slumped for other products, LoneRider is still breaking into a new market.

The company officially launched in January with its brewery in the Brier Creek area of Raleigh. But propelled by an insistence not to waver from its business model and an innovative marketing plan, the company already has snagged two key distribution contracts. As a result, its two draft beers – Shotgun Betty and DeadEye Jack – are now available in about 40 restaurants and bars in the Triangle.

Vohra and his two partners are all home brewers who came up with the idea for the company after the three software engineers met while all working at Cisco Systems. He now works at Quintiles Transnational full-time while running the brewery.

Vohra created a business plan in UNC Kenan-Flagler professor Ted Zoller’s Launching the Venture class. The course provides lectures, functional workshops, lab sessions and hand-on experts coaching to help undergraduate and graduate students, staff and faculty across the UNC campus.

To get the buy-in of Triangle distributors Harris Wholesale and Harris Inc., Vohra had to pitch the company to the distributors’ board of advisors. That meeting, he added, was very similar to pitching to potential investors.

“We were able to convince Harris to distribute our beers by showing them that we have a plan, a vision and the marketing knowhow to reach the customers,” he added. “We also have the knowledge of viral networking, which really hasn’t been tried in breweries much. We have helped Harris also. We have helped them get into accounts they are not traditionally in.”

In addition, he added that partnering with Harris has helped LoneRider understand the distribution network and the accounts where Harris has a strong presence.

“Our distribution knowledge would have been incomplete without Harris' help,” he added.

While the entire strategy to use online viral marketing is not completely in place now, LoneRider already has used various Web 2.0 tools to promote its beers. For example, in March the company organized a “Tweetup,” an in person meeting between people who have met on the microblogging site Twitter. The event was designed to promote LoneRider’s DeadEye Jack seasonal porter. There, the company launched a contest to allow people to create YouTube commercials for its brews. The event allowed attendees to vote for their favorite pairing of food served and the brewery’s two beers via a Twitter poll.

While its social media strategy has helped the company, Vohra said that the company also has thrived in the current economic climate by keeping a tight focus on the local Triangle market and on draft beers versus bottled beer.

“We want to be very clear in terms of our local market, and we are going to stay in draft for awhile,” he noted. “If we don’t succeed here, we don’t succeed anywhere else. We definitely want to concentrate on the local market and then slowly expand into other markets.”

Every decision the trio makes about LoneRider operations is judged against the overarching vision for the business, he added.

For example, the partners played around with the idea of starting a taproom, but that plan would have thrust the company into a new business model: operating a restaurant.

“We just weren’t ready for that, and it didn’t support our vision,” he added. “We are really honed in on what our strengths are and focusing on those. Focus is key here. If we lose focus and start wavering then that will hurt us.”