The Restaurant Chain That Gets Craft Beer Right
During Jeff Iverson’s college years in the 1980s, he witnessed a rapid change at college-town bars. While names like Budweiser, Coors, and Miller dominated the taps early on, about half the handles gave way to craft beer labels by the time he graduated in 1988.
The craft beer movement was booming in the American Northwest at the same time Iverson’s father was building a family restaurant empire. In 1971, his father had opened the first RAM Restaurant in Lakewood, Washington. The full-service restaurant was built around the still-emerging “deluxe tavern” concept, which Iverson explains as a pub serving hot food rather than one simply peddling chips and pretzels.
The chain added its first brewery in 1995—well before brewpubs and craft beer became the national norm. “Our thought has always been to sell our own products,” says Iverson, who has run the business since 2000 and now serves as COO. “We can make a better product ourselves. That was kind of the motivation to get into the brewery business. We cook our own food, and beer is our largest consumable item.”
Between 1996 and 2000, Iverson watched other restaurant concepts that attempted to brew their own beer commit two fatal errors: They neglected the food—which Iverson credits as the main driver in customers’ decisions to eat out—or they aspired to make award-winning beer rather than drinkable brews. RAM Restaurant & Brewery doubled down on its edibles while also going after drinkable beer.
The menu has all the trappings of tavern fare but with notable flair. In addition to wings and fried pickle chips, appetizers include Ahi Poke Nachos, Truffle Parmesan Ram Chips, and Armadillo Eggs—chicken, jalapeño, pepper jack, cream cheese, saltines, and secret sauce rolled into balls and cooked golden. Hearty options like Big Red’s IPA Baby Back Ribs and Chicken Pot Pie are balanced by lighter fare including a Kale and Quinoa Salad and the Kodiak Alaska Salmon Burger, which the restaurant proudly traces back to a fisherman in Alaska.
The proprietary brews range from blond and pale ales to Hefeweizens and amber ales to porters and IPAs, as well as seasonal specialties like spring’s Rabbit Punch, which mingles toasty malt sweetness with citrusy hop flavor. And while RAM may be dedicated to accessible brews, those house-made beers have clinched a number of awards from the likes of the Great American Beer Festival, the North American Brewers Association, and the World Beer Cup.
With craft beer flourishing, the 34-unit concept finds itself fighting against more competition than ever. Iverson believes craft beer will continue expanding market share, but that the market is saturated with too many options now.
“Any time you have competition, you basically have two choices: You get better or you get worse. And we choose to get better,” he says. “I think the more boats in the water, the higher the lake becomes, but there is certainly too much right now. Craft beer as percent of market will continue to grow, but it will be consolidated into fewer hands. There’s simply no way that so many can survive.”
The brand, rooted in the Northwest and Midwest, continues to expand and now has locations in Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Oregon, and Washington. Yet RAM’s approach to growth has been measured. Iverson says management is comfortable opening a couple of new stores each year.
In 2016, the brand debuted three new locations, which created more internal pressure than he’d prefer. He’s most comfortable placing restaurants in suburban settings but generally avoids malls because they are saturated with competitors. “My vision is to be a great company. Whether that’s big or small, I don’t know and I don’t care,” Iverson says. “We’re pretty adept at growing and expanding. I think we do it well, and we tend to have fairly good success at picking new locations.”
In 2014, Iverson and his brother Dave—the other second-generation family member operating the company—announced they would offer some 2,000 employees shares of the company through an employee stock ownership program, or ESOP. Eligible employees receive shares of the company, which accumulate in retirement accounts, though the Iverson family still maintains a majority stake of the company.
It’s one of RAM’s major differentiators, says marketing and advertising leader Mark Schermerhorn. “That story just never gets old to me,” he adds. “We’re such a unique, great company. There just aren’t a lot of people that have accomplished what we have.” After more than four decades, the company is employee-owned and still family-operated.
A 20-year veteran of the brand, Schermerhorn says RAM has unusually high retention of employees across the company. “That’s very much a brand differentiator for how we proceed and how we think. It’s so much fun to be a part of,” he says. “We have people who have been with us for years, and it’s because we love our company. There’s a lot of other opportunities out there, but we have something really special here.”
For Iverson, the company culture is as much about personal fulfillment as it is savvy business strategy.
“Many of us are going to spend a third of our lives in our professional careers. And, with that in mind, I just want that part of my life to be fun,” he says. “I want it to be challenging, and I want it to be invigorating. I want to spend it with people I enjoy, with people I can have fun with and have a beer with.”
The CEO says his journey with the company has followed a familiar pattern: At first, he was intimately involved in the products and service at the restaurant level. But growth and added responsibility removed him from the day-to-day operations to broader management issues. Now, at 51 and after 25 years at RAM, he’s started to ponder a change at the helm.
“I think because of the energy level that the restaurant business requires, you have to be real cognizant of your effectiveness and your mortality,” Iverson says, adding it’s something he considers periodically. He can see a transition becoming more necessary in the coming years—not just for him, but for RAM, too. After all, he says, change is great.
As of now, Iverson is unsure whether any members of the third generation will show interest in the family business. At the moment, they’re too young. For now, though, things will stay in the family.
“The RAM kind of became a fourth child to me,” he says. “Now I can see my dad felt the same way about the company.”