John Gozigian has had his fair share of experience opening breweries and restaurants. That still does not mean he finds it particularly easy, even when it came to opening his current endeavor, La Reforma Brewery, at 8900 San Mateo Blvd. NE.
“There’s an evolutionary trait in women where they forget the pain of childbirth,” John said. “Because if you didn’t, you’d never have a second child. I think that applies to opening breweries, too, and restaurants. I forgot how much work it was, how stressful it is. It was like, oh my god. I did Marble, Chama (River), and Blue Corn, and other restaurants, (and) somehow I started thinking, oh, that wasn’t that hard. Maybe because I’m older now, too, but this was hard. Like, 70-hour weeks, no days off. It was hard.”
Well, we can say that we have never heard a comparison between opening a brewery and childbirth, but that was how our latest Look Back/Look Ahead Series interview started out last week.
John and his longtime business partner, Jeff Jinnett, opened La Reforma last summer to some rave reviews for the food and beer. Though the opening was clearly an uphill battle, things have settled down since then.
“Now we’re past that,” John said. “That’s the good news. Now our business patterns are stable and steady. Now it’s nice. We know what we’re doing. I lost like 20 pounds in the first few months we were open. Now I got it back.”
The food at La Reforma will do that. Rather than being a more standardized Mexican or New Mexican restaurant, La Reforma takes its food menu from the taquerias and cantinas of Mexico City.
“Surprisingly, I thought there would be a lot more education involved with the customers,” John said. “We thought they would come in and ask about where’s the red and green chile, New Mexico-style. People know tacos now, it’s definitely a thing, and they get it. I’ve had one or two people since we’ve been open who don’t get it and wonder where the red and green chile are. The carnitas and the el pastor are made the traditional way. If you’ve been to San Diego or Mexico and had real authentic tacos, it’s immediately recognizable.”
John said there not a many huge obstacles to getting La Reforma open. It took over the space that formerly housed the original Bosque Brewing taproom. The brewery next door was even shared with Bosque, whose owners also invested in La Reforma, up until November 1. Now it solely belongs to La Reforma.
Well in advance of that change, La Reforma did secure its own licensing, which presented a bit of a challenge.
“Getting three licenses was kind of tough,” John said. “We got a winegrower permit, a small brewer permit, and a craft distiller permit. Getting those three was a little complicated, but luckily for us Kyla (Stoker) did 90 percent of the work on that. The requirements for permitting a distillery are much more stringent than for a brewery, and the ongoing reporting is a lot more stringent, too. That was definitely a big learning curve. But, now that’s all done.”
La Reforma now has its own team of former Bosque brewers led by Robert Buskirk-Lechner, who have developed the four core beers and several seasonal offerings.
“For sure, I figured that the La Ref Lager would be our top seller and it is,” John said. “I think it’s a really good light lager. The Maximilian is a dark lager, so it definitely has a cult following. Our specialty stuff, like the Mexican Chocolate Stout, has been popular. Our hazy IPA, the Turbia, we don’t have hop contracts. It changes. People got used to the first batch, and then it changed. It was just as good, but different. It’s a work in progress.
“The one I would say I thought we would sell more of is the Hi-Wit, which is a good, Belgian wit. It sells fine, but not as much as I would have expected.”
So far, business has been good, but John said he believes there is definitely room for growth.
“We’re definitely at the top end of our projections for sales, so I’m happy with that,” he said. “There’s room to grow. We’re not doing as much business as Bosque was doing toward the end. The next goal is to get to their level. We’re doing well, not great.”
La Reforma has a current sales breakdown of roughly 60-percent food, 30-percent beer, and 10-percent spirits. Because of that, La Reforma is viewed as more of a restaurant that brews, rather than a brewery that serves food. John said he is fine with that, and so far reviews on platforms such as Yelp have been strong.
“I think as a restaurant you have to keep the food at a real consistent, high level,” he said. “It’s a lot of word of mouth.”
As things have stabilized on the beer and food fronts, John said there is a renewed focus on the spirits program at La Reforma. He let me try a potent piloncillo rum that was checking in somewhere between 140 and 160 proof. Fear not, it will be distilled down to something that will not knock customers flat.
“We are going to expand our spirits program,” John said. “We’re going to be doing more aging on wood, different fermentables for our products. We’re not going to go outside rum, vodka, and agave spirits yet, but there’s more room within those styles (to play around). We (also) have a collaboration coming up with Hollow Spirits.”
For the beers, look for La Reforma to settle on a consistent rotation of about 10 styles total, with a few year-round and others moving in and out seasonally.
“When we opened we had four of our own styles on tap, the rest were Bosque taps,” John said. “Now we’re up to eight of our own beers and two Bosque guest taps. In the next few months, it will be all of our own beers.”
Beyond that in-house focus, John did say that he and Jeff are open to the possibility of another location, though it is not at the top of their to-do list. A second place makes more sense than becoming a packaging brewery, for instance.
“If we were to expand it would be another location,” John said. “We’re better known for our food. Our beer is fantastic, but we’re better known for our food. If we did another location it would have to be a restaurant.
“We’d be flexible in where we’d put it, but we’d want a location that was a former restaurant. Just a cosmetic refit like we did here. That’s not really in the back of our minds right now, although I’m always looking at real estate. It’s (just) not imminent.”
Fans of La Reforma who do not live close by can always dream. In the meantime, business should remain strong at the current location.
A big thanks to John for the interview and the beer flight. The Mexican Chocolate Stout lived up to the hype, and the Bomba Scotch Ale was also quite good.