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Anchor Brewing’s New Billionaire Owner Claims He’ll Bring Back Its Workers. Hold Him To It.

We’ve all had a week to celebrate the resurrection of Anchor Brewing Company under the aegis of the billionaire founder of Chobani. It’s good news! The company formerly known as Sapporo USA steered America’s oldest craft brewery, a San Francisco icon nonpareil, onto the shoals after less than half a dozen years at the helm. Now, after almost a year of agonizingly opaque liquidation limbo, Anchor’s future is finally coming into view on the horizon, and it’s brighter than it could have been.

Hamdi Ulukaya, the wealthy yogurt impresario who emerged at the eleventh hour to buy Anchor for an undisclosed grand total late last month, is saying all the right things right now. “It’s a competitive landscape — a lot of beers out there,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle last Friday in a story timed to the announcement of the acquisition. “But who cares? From the other perspective you have the people behind it, the history, the recipe, the name and the tradition aligned with this magical San Francisco. There is no value you can put into that.” (The liquidator’s realtor apparently had no problem putting a value on Anchor’s prime real estate, though: The San Francisco Business Times reported Tuesday that its two prime parcels had cost the dairy magnate $9.9 million, a steal compared to the initial $40-million asking price.)

In a video released on social media heralding the deal (for which “[m]uch of the details [sic] remain to be worked out, per the Chronicle), the billionaire laid it on Greek-yogurt thick about the steam-beer brewery’s indelible century-and-a-half old legacy. “It was embedded in San Francisco’s fabric,” he intoned. “It’s the essence of San Francisco, it’s the essence of this country that we can always bring it back stronger.”

That Ulukaya acquired all of Anchor, keeping the Potrero Hill brewhouse, the recipes, and the branding under one roof, bodes well for the company’s next chapter. As I wrote in a brief reaction for VP Pro last week, “[k]eeping the physical brewery coupled to its intellectual property is a more dignified outcome for San Francisco’s (and American brewing’s) ‘grand jewel,’ as the foodstuff mogul himself called it in that video. It also shortens the runway on the thing casual drinkers care about the most: the return of fresh Anchor beer to tap handles and coolers around the Bay Area after a 10-month hiatus. Patrick Machel, a former production worker and Anchor Union shop steward, estimates that the plant on Potrero Hill could be back up and running in a month if Ulukaya were to bring back the majority of the firm’s pre-shutdown workforce.

Whether he does, and under what terms, remains to be seen. “I don’t want to sit around,” Ulukaya told the Chronicle, which reported that he plans to rehire as much of Anchor’s old staff as possible. It’s not clear how much action he’s taken in that direction. Beyond a lunch meeting with four unnamed former Anchor employees prior to his purchase, he and his team have had no reported contact with the brewery’s erstwhile staff. “We haven’t been reached out to yet,” Machel told me last Friday. “I’m sure we will at some point, and when that does happen, I’m hoping it’s a good positive light.” At publication, no such call had yet come.

If Ulukaya wants Anchor to put out a 2024 edition of Our Special Ale — the beloved Christmas seasonal that, until last year, had been produced annually since 1975 — like he’s claimed, he needs to get as much institutional knowledge back on the brewhouse floor, as fast as possible. Not only is that the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. When I broke the news last June that Sapporo USA had canceled Christmas (a harbinger for the brewery’s abrupt closure, which I scooped a month later), workers found the move especially bizarre because they’d already purchased ingredients for the holiday beer’s first batches. There’s no time to sit around.

Both the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 6 (which has represented Anchor Union for collective bargaining since its formation in 2019, when membership stood around 70 employees; that number was closer to 40 by the time Sapporo USA was through) and Anchor SF Cooperative (which some of those workers formed in the fall of 2023 to mount a quixotic, now-aborted bid to acquire Anchor themselves) say they stand ready to talk turkey with Chobani’s head honcho. Neither Ulukaya nor the president of his family-office investment vehicle, Shepherd Future, responded to requests for comment. San Francisco’s mayor, London Breed, issued a jubilant statement about the deal and met with Ulukaya prior to its announcement; her office declined to tell Hop Take whether she addressed the union’s status in that meeting, or whether the city’s offer of “full support to Hamdi” was contingent on restoring Anchor’s union jobs.

Just because he hasn’t called yet doesn’t mean he won’t, of course, but billionaires don’t get the benefit of the doubt here at Hop Take. Ulukaya made no mention of Anchor Union in his video or its corresponding caption, and beyond a vague, noncommittal aside in the Chronicle, there’s little public indication of his plans for the organized workforce that had been running the place right up until the end. If the guy worth a reported $2.4 billion really wants to do right by Anchor’s singular American brewing heritage and august Bay Area bona fides, this is a no-brainer. Recognize Anchor Union under the terms of its existing collective bargaining agreement (CBA), or agree to bargain a new one. It’d be one of those win-win-wins of capitalism that I’m always hearing about: Ulukaya locks in all this goodwill for a small premium that’s laughably insignificant to his vast and viscous fortune; Anchor workers get their union salaries and benefits back, and the opportunity to go back to work at what, for many of them, is a nearly vocational endeavor; and San Franciscans (and the rest of us) all get to go back to enjoying Anchor Steam without another thought.

Maybe that’s how it’ll go. Ulukaya has gotten some favorable ink over the years for reviving an old yogurt factory in upstate New York and investing in its workers and the surrounding communities. He certainly speaks floridly about that effort when given the chance: as Jeff Alworth noted for Beervana last week, the billionaire “seems like a genuinely great guy” in his 2019 Ted Talk, entitled “The Anti-CEO Playbook.” His critics are less impressed, noting how Ulukaya’s progressive aura distracts casual observers from the inherent shortcomings of Chobani’s employee stock program, end-around on independent fair-trade certifications, and reluctance to support organized labor in the dairy industry on which it relies.

Ulukaya — whose personal investment fund bought Anchor, unlike La Colombe, which Chobani acquired last year for $900 million — could decide not to bring back Anchor’s old workers after all, or not to recognize its union, or some combination thereof. Given his public statements so far, that would be slimier than out-of-code yogurt, and could put a bad taste in everyone’s mouth like it, too. But billionaires are not renowned for their integrity or grasp of public opinion.

It’s not clear what legal remedies Anchor Union would have if Ulukaya opts for hardball. As I reported in my newsletter, Fingers, this past Sunday, the union’s existing contract is only for a single year (rather than the customary three), expires on June 20, 2024, and does not contain a successor clause binding Anchor’s new owner to the terms of its existing CBA. That may not matter, because “general labor law assumes that if you’ve got a collective bargaining agreement that’s active and the company is sold, so long as there’s not a major revolution in what the company is doing,” the new owner must bargain a new one, says Michael Oswalt, an associate dean and professor of law who focuses on labor and employment law at Wayne State University. Or it might. There’s all sorts of nuance here — Anchor’s liquidation being a big one — and besides, a billionaire boss with an anti-labor bent has virtually limitless resources to fight it out.

Last week, the fact that Anchor had been saved was the story. This week, and for every week until that call comes, the story is whether Ulukaya has hired back the brewery’s workers and recognized its union. A happy ending for Anchor that doesn’t include its workers is no happy ending at all.

🤯 Hop-ocalypse Now

You can debate the pros and cons of corporate brewery ownership until you’re blue in the face (not with me, please and thank you), but one thing it certainly does not guarantee is stability for workers in shifting markets. By my count, the month of May 2024 alone saw conglomerates throw 111 livelihoods up in the air at their acquired craft breweries — 86 at Lagunitas’ Chicago plant, the August closure of which Heineken announced midway through last month, and another 25 at Deep Ellum Brewing’s taproom in Dallas, which Monster Brewing Co. recently shuttered. Zoom out, and the pull-back only gets bigger and uglier. Shit be gnarly out there, reader, and deep pockets are no panacea — especially not when they belong to publicly traded firms.

📈 Ups…

The Sheehan Family Companies lawsuit is finally over, and the long-contended intrafamily sale is going through. Congrats, I guess… Molson Coors is now the biggest corporate owner in craft brewing by volume, even though its portfolio was down 10 percent last year… Goldman Sachs’ Bonnie Herzog clocked slightly positive (!) year-over-year sales data coming outta Memorial Day Weekend

📉 …and downs

A few days after the Wall Street Journal reported that Suntory Global Spirits was angling to acquire Boston Beer Co., Suntory was like “lolwut?”… Earlier this week, WSJ also reported cannabis firm Green Thumb was sniffing around Sam Adams’ parent co.… It’s been 50 years since the Major League mayhem of 10-cent beer night, and all we get is Tilray Brands’ extremely tame recreation to celebrate…

The article Anchor Brewing’s New Billionaire Owner Claims He’ll Bring Back Its Workers. Hold Him To It. appeared first on VinePair.

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