Dogfish Head turns student’s beer bus idea into reality


The Dogfish Head Ale Bus put in an appearance at the Epic Mountain Bike Rides & Festival in Boyd last month. (Evy Mages/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Just don’t call it a party bus.

The Dogfish Head Ale Bus, which made its debut in August, is about beer appreciation, not binge drinking, says 25-year-old Sam Petrella.

In the past three months, the rolling pub has hosted events for local companies. But its origins are in the classroom: Petrella came up with the idea and perfected its business plan as a senior in a restaurant design course at the Universities at Shady Grove, a consortium of nine Maryland universities.

As part of the school’s capstone program, groups of students team with local developers, such as the Peterson Cos., and restaurants, including Bold Bite in Bethesda and the 4 Corners Pub in Silver Spring, to create real business plans. In the case of Dogfish Head Alehouse, that meant finding a way to expand the company’s brand beyond the walls of the company’s three area restaurants.

Dogfish Head, the Delaware-based company known for its specialty brews, has amassed something of a cult following since its opening in 1995. In addition to its brewery in Milton, Del., the company has a liquor distillery in Rehoboth Beach. Locally, three restaurants serve brews with names such as Midas Touch and Namaste, along with upscale pub fare. But there was something missing.

“We wanted to expand, but since we are primarily a brick-and-mortar business, we are very restricted in what we can fit inside the restaurant,” said Joe Hospital, a founder of Dogfish Ale House. “We needed something new that also stayed true to the Dogfish brand.”

Enter the Ale Bus. Petrella and two classmates spent 12 weeks putting together a business plan. They created budgets, sourced materials, researched local laws, created menus and came up with a plan for staffing the bus.

“We try to make the project as real as possible,” said Susan Callahan, Petrella’s instructor. “It encompasses food, it encompasses business. It really shows the students that what they’ve been learning in the classroom for the past four years is real.”

At the end, Petrella and his group pitched their idea to Hospital and a board of university officials.

“A few minutes before the presentation, [Hospital] pulled me aside and said, ‘By the way, this is real. If you sell me on this, we’re going to do it one day,’ ” Petrella recalled. “I went to the bathroom and tried not to throw up,” he added. “I was so nervous.”

The presentation went well. Petrella received an A. After graduating in May, he started working at Matchbox in Rockville, where he was revising the restaurant’s training manuals. Then one day he got a phone call from Hospital.

“I said, ‘How would you like to work with us?’” Hospital recalled. “The bus was a viable project. He made the numbers work.”

Inside the bus

It took Petrella three months and tens of thousands of dollars to transform a former D.C. school bus into a mini pub. He had it painted green and added oak and birch paneling to the front. The inside was also made over, with wooden walls, benches and booth seating. Petrella’s brother installed a sound system.

“I wanted it to look like the inside of the restaurants,” said Petrella, now a manager at the Dogfish Head Alehouse in Gaithersburg. “The tables inside the bus are from the restaurant, the paint color is the same. We really wanted it to reflect the company.”

These days, Petrella spends his weekends driving the bus he created. He picks up customers at their homes and drives them to Washington Nationals games or to brewery tours. Sometimes he takes the bus to weddings and office parties, where it becomes a vessel for catering large events.

Petrella would not discuss financials, but he said a typical bus ride with stops at all three Dogfish Head Ale houses, appetizers and five beers, costs $75 per person. There is a $700 minimum to rent the bus.

“It’s a good way to kick back socially,” said Matt Suthard, a University of Maryland police officer who recently rented the bus for an outing with fellow union members. “We were looking to have a good time, but not in a wild, crazy party kind of way.”

Abha Bhattarai covers local banking, retail and hospitality for The Washington Post’s Capital Business section. She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times.
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