Back when I was a corporate drone, slogging away in my office with nothing but a spectacular 37th floor view and my misery to keep me company, the Midtown Heartland Brewery became a favorite after work (or sometimes mid-work) stop for a beer and a fried pickle. Little did I know that founder Jon Bloostein was also once a corporate drone who gave up a life in finance to open a pub.
The man behind Heartland’s four locations (besides my old Midtown West spot, there are also outlets in Union Square, Times Square, and the Empire State Building) was never formally trained to be a restaurateur. After earning his B.A. at Ithaca College, he got an MBA at Fordham and embarked on a colorful professional life that has included owning and managing his own Ben & Jerry’s dispensing vending machines, investment banking on Wall Street, and consulting in consumer products and retail. On a business trip to the Pacific Northwest, Bloostein was introduced to the idea of the almighty brewpub: a bar that brews its own beer. Seeing the untapped market that was New York City, the entrepreneur inside of him couldn’t pass up the opportunity. Soon, Heartland Brewery was born.
Over the next ten years, Bloostein built an impressive urban brewery business and made Heartland the only employee-owned restaurant group in New York City. Making the jump from a few restaurants into a mini-conglomerate, though, wasn’t easy, even for this seasoned businessman. “When I had three Heartlands, I could visit every one every single day and fix any problems I saw,” he says. “After opening the fourth, that became impossible, and we had to institute lots of systems, train these systems, and monitor these systems, which turned us into a different kind of business.”
Bloostein doesn’t regret his decision to skip out on the banking scene, though. When asked what the biggest difference is between making beer and making dollars for investors, he responds, “The difference is I didn’t like working on Wall Street.”
So what does a tireless entrepreneur do once he has already built his dream up from scratch and added a few more restaurants to his portfolio (he operates a total of eight restaurants and is also the managing partner of Guy’s American Kitchen + Bar with Guy Fieri of Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives)? He goes back to the land. Since buying 90 acres outside of New Paltz, New York, he started working with hops experts in an attempt to re-energize an area once considered the hop-growing capital of the world.
So why, in New York City, name a brewery “Heartland”? This isn’t Iowa, after all. A few reasons: One, Bloostein says, “I wanted the restaurant to appeal to the sophisticated yet down-to-earth clientele” that had started to show up at the Union Square Farmers Market back in 1994 when the business was just getting started. Second, the name is meant to evoke principles of “democracy and free market economies.” Finally, says the entrepreneur, “the name Union Square Brewery seemed way too pedestrian for an exciting upstart.”
Check out Heartland’s brews, along with over a hundred others, at Brooklyn Pour, The Village Voice Craft Beer Festival on October 12 in Fort Greene.