Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Not Your Father's Fraser's: Old-School Ann Arbor Pub Boosts Sales with Craft Beer

SO INTO IT: Longtime Fraser's food and beverage manager Timmy Donahue
has recently discovered the joy of craft beer — and massively increased sales.
There's a saying about how none are so zealous in the faith as the recently converted. Timothy "Timmy" Donahue has been the food and beverage manager at Ann Arbor mainstay (est. 1962) Fraser's Pub for, well, a long time. Only within the past year or so has he discovered the joy of craft beer, but as a result of his discovery, Fraser's has been transformed from just another neighborhood sports bar into a place where a bloke can find some seriously good brew. And Timmy means business: Sales are way up, he's doubled the number of taps to 16, and he has plans to add a few more as well as a cask system for serving hand-pulled beer. And on June 22, Fraser's will host Mad Hatter Day, an event featuring craft beers and spirits from New Holland.

Back in March, your correspondent had a chance to sit down with Timmy (over a beer, naturally) and talk about Fraser's new status as a bona fide East Side beer destination.

So let's talk about your and Fraser's odyssey with craft beer.

This is how it got started. I went downtown with some distributors and they took me around and I came back to work one day and I just said exactly this: "We're missing the boat." We are not programmed for what's going on in our town. Period. We're so far off the page and we need to collect these beers and give these beers a chance to grow in our bar. We need to have these, we need to try them, because they're working everyplace else, they're gonna work here.

And now?

I'm always interested into looking into other breweries, Arcadia, New Holland, Bell's, Dogfish Head, I like Short's, they brew great beers. These are beers I'm just looking to try. I'm not in a position to add too many more taps, because this is what we are. I mean, I'd like to have 24 taps; I think that's a perfect number. But it's not going to happen.

You're not going to be Ashley's.

No, we're not. But that's a lot of maintenance to keep the quality of these craft beers where you're getting to really, really taste them. Our lines are short, really short. I don't believe that bars that run their lines 30 or 40 ft. that are not moving their beers like that [snapping fingers] can offer you that. I think that's something that we do here. We run through these beers quickly. They don't sit there. I mean, I went through three barrels of Bell's Hopslam in a few weeks. At $7 a glass.

That's a big one. People look for that beer.

Here's a funny story. The first time I bought some really expensive beer, I said to [co-owner] Ron Sartori, I'm gonna sell this beer for $7 a glass. He looked at me like I was crazy. He said, "Timmy, this is never going to work." The next day I went and lifted that barrel. I said, this works. Because this is what people want. To have these craft beers available has surely helped us.

Your beer sales are up?

Oh, definitely: 258% over the last year. 258%. I mean, that's a lot of growth.

That is a lot of growth.

Now I was down like 1.5% with Budweiser. I was down — I had a little problem with Miller — so I was probably down about 6%, I took Miller offline for a little bit. To lose a tap handle is a huge thing; you don't want to lose a tap handle in Ann Arbor.

Somebody will come out and talk to you about it.

Oh, they did. And you know, it worked out. But we're loving the craft beer. Our customers enjoy it very, very much. And I like to try new stuff. Though you know, it doesn't matter if I like it that much; everybody has different tastes. You know [Dark Horse] Crooked Tree? I love that beer; it's a good beer. It's consistent. I've had that one since we've started. I keep it on tap. It works. I've got Sam Adams deals, I've got Blue Moon. You know.
Do you find people come in and ask about Michigan beer?

Most of the major Michigan breweries, I'm going to carry something from every one of  them at one time this year. I tried to do a lot of it last year, but I was just getting started; I wasn't very knowledgeable. But time goes on, and I go to these beer events and trade shows and things and try to learn something about these beers. It's cool, and to sit there and talk beer with people is fun. This beer thing is very much on the move.

I heard your plan at some point is to devote 10 taps to Michigan beer.

Yes, the major breweries, like Bell's, Founders, New Holland, because that's what people know. But I would love to catch a beer from a guy who was just brewing something and be able to help him start out, if he had something I tasted I thought was good or somebody recommended it to me. I'd love to do that; I think that's cool to introduce a beer to people and help a little guy out.  I don't care what it is, if it's good; just because he's not a big shot or something, it doesn't matter. If it's good beer, it sells.

You sell a lot of it then, because—

Look, if you came in and said to me, listen, there's a little guy over here in Walled Lake and he's brewing some shit that, hey, you might be able to get just a little bit of it, you know, I wanna see this guy. I wanna try his beer. You know if I can sell some of it for him, I want to. You never know what's gonna be the next big thing. I'm not scared to try anybody's stuff because I dont know who's gonna be the next Dogfish Head or Bell's. Because they're there. They're coming.

It's like the romantic Hollywood story, where someone who becomes a big star is first discovered busing tables or something.

Right, you never know. These guys are good. They are brewing some great, great beers.

And we're lucky to have so many good brewers here in Michigan.

We are. We're very fortunate. I think we have some of the best brewers in the country, by far. I've tried a lot of other stuff from other places, Washington beers and other beers, I try as much as I can. And other than a few, like Dogfish... there's a couple good ones out there, but the majority of them are brewed here. And I mean that. We brew the best.

Also right here in our own area, too.

That's what I'm saying. Within 50 miles all the way around, we're strong, really strong. Shoot, just within 20 miles of here, we're strong. It's just amazing that this is all falling into place.

I think people are more open minded about beer now than they've ever been.

I agree with that. The thing that I've done wrong is I have all these great craft beers and they sell so well I don't put them on special or anything. And I need to start working these beers so much harder than I have, to introduce more customers to them. Say to them, you wouldn't try this before, but try it at this price. I need to do that to get more people interested in drinking these beers. It's gonna be a big thing, so I'm gonna get really crazy with this.

What do you have planned? 

I think we're gonna set up a monthly thing, and just have some crazy beer specials all the time. Another thing I'd like to get into, when I get set up a little better, I'm gonna have a map made up of my really cool beers and at the bottom of it it tells a little story about each beer and then I want to get into that sampler thing. That's what I really need to do. This is a mistake that I've made. But I've learned from my mistakes. I keep notes. As this last year's gone by and I'm looking back, I know I'm gonna do some things differently. But I really, really wanna be involved in this, and I'm so into it and I think our customers are so into it. I think our customers really appreciate having these beers. And even though I might have gotten a bad writeup one time on our Facebook or something where our servers weren't that knowledgeable, sure. I'm sorry for that. That's my fault. But I'm still selling a ton of craft beer.

A lot of people who buy it already know about it.

Right, that's true. But still, I'm trying to create the new beer drinker. That's something that Jeff [More of Ashley's] has done downtown and especially in Westland. He's done very well with this.

Because it's about growth?

Listen, I can sit there and say that that beer is very good, but am I going to drink it? Maybe not. But is it good, are the ingredients good? That's what I'm saying. See, this is where I've grown, myself, in beer. Not necessarily that I'm going to drink that beer, because I don't drink every beer that I have.  Hell, I drink Budweiser. Because I grew up drinking it. I'm always going to drink Budweiser. But I'm going to drink craft beers, too. They're different. Budweiser is something I could sit and drink all day long. I'm not gonna drink craft beers all day long. But I can drink Bud like that, and there's nothing wrong with Budweiser. We're gonna have to have those big beers, too. They're mainstays. They're not going away. But there's room for everybody.

Fraser's Pub, 2045 Packard St., Ann Arbor; hours: M-F 11am - 2am, Sat 8:30am - 2am, Sun 8:30 - midnight; phone: 734-665-1955; Facebook. On tap now: Short's Huma Lupa Licious, Sam Adams East-West Kolsch and Boston Lager, Arcadia Hop Rocket, New Holland Imperial Mad Hatter, Bell's Oberon and Two Hearted Ale, Founders Dirty Bastard, and Magic Hat No. 9. Coming soon: Great Lakes Lake Erie Monster.


  1. Like I said over on, I am delighted to see a "neighborhood" bar (and one within walking distance :)) embrace craft beer. And Timmy seems like such a cool guy :)

  2. Fraiser's has always had a couple of good beers on tap - I noticed last time I was in there that - thing were improving!

    Just to the west Dan's Downtown Tavern in Saline has 'caught the bug too' and now has 20 new taps bringing their total to 32 lines!