The unstoppable entrepreneur: Paul Hadfield

Paul Hadfield’s entrepreneurial drive has lead to a career of turning challenges into opportunities. The founder of Spinnakers Gastro Brewpub talks to Douglas about everything from the early days of micro brewing to what it means to be a pub owner in contemporary society.

Paul Hadfield at the Spinnakers brewing facility
“Being small has enabled us to celebrate many events and collaborate with many community initiatives over the years. This includes the Commonwealth Ale (1994), King Tut’s Tipple in support of the RBCM’s Tutankhamun Exhibit (2018), TOUR DE VICTORIA ALE TO CELEBRATE Ryder Hesjedal’s win at the Giro d’Italia (2012), Swiftsure Ale for the Royal Victoria Yacht Club and private labels for events like Golf for Kids.” — Paul Hadfield. Photo by Jeffrey Bosdet.

There’s little that can crush Paul Hadfield’s entrepreneurial spirit — not even a pandemic and a fire. A week after COVID-19 forced this craft brewing pioneer to temporarily turn off the taps at Spinnakers Gastro Brewpub last March, Hadfield was faced with another challenge: an accidental fire. The blaze caused extensive fire and water damage to his iconic pub on the shores of Lime Bay and next to the Songhees Walkway.

But just as the real estate crash of the early 1980s prompted Hadfield to pivot from his career as a residential architect into the perilous waters of small batch beer brewing, he took the cup-half-full approach and saw the challenges as an opportunity. Hadfield put his pub under the microscope, branched out into new products, and doubled down on what he saw as the community-building, job-creating and good times-generating benefits of a craft brew revolution he helped launch nearly four decades ago.

“Just after we shut down last March, we [Hadfield and his wife] moved to our cabin in Sooke, and I started pruning fruit trees,” says Hadfield. “Then I had an epiphany, that the pandemic was an opportunity to reimagine what we do.”

The COVID pause allowed time for a deep dive into two aspects of hospitality that Hadfield says had bothered him; the pushback from many restaurant owners against minimum wage requirements and the long-standing tradition in the sector of under the table tip wages. So Hadfield took some unilateral action on these issues and made Spinnakers’ “minimum wage a few percentage points above the living wage.” (The Living Wage for Families Campaign calculated Greater Victoria’s living wage at $19.39 as of 2019.)

He also took aim at gratuities, which are shared by the front end and kitchen staff, and enacted a new policy of adding all tips to the staff’s taxable income. Given that the majority of the pub’s transactions are now debit and credit, Hadfield felt it was a long overdue change, but also one not without controversy.

“Some staff weren’t happy and they left, but I think most are happy that they won’t have any lingering tax liability,” Hadfield says. “We want people to look at hospitality as more of a career, rather than just something you do along the way to something else. It should be an honourable job that you can take to the bank.”

In addition to prompting a payroll overhaul, the pandemic got Spinnakers management thinking about resilience, diversification and creating some new revenue streams.

“We started producing a line of mineral waters and sodas,” Hadfield says.

Worker in the Spinnakers brewing facility.
Hadfield’s growing business also includes the barrel room at Spinnakers’ Viewfield Road site which holds 200 barrels nearly ready to release. Lieve Peeters (pictured) is from Brussels where she worked as a gueuze blender, an old world technique whereby aged beers are blended with young beers containing residual sugar, which enables a secondary fermentation for bottle conditioning. Photo by Jeffrey Bosdet.

Innovation and creativity have been hallmarks of Spinnakers since its doors opened in 1984. For fans of flavour and variety, that was the dark age of beer brewing. The taps were dominated by the majors like Labatt’s and Molson’s, and a pub was a dark room at the back of a hotel where jugs of draft sloshed onto red terry-cloth-covered tables.

In 1982 Hadfield had a blossoming architecture firm with a small staff and an office on Vancouver’s west side. He was an amateur home brewer and winemaker at best, but was far too busy to get serious about it.

“Construction was booming; we had a cabin in Whistler. Life was good. Then the housing crash hit, and we suddenly had no work,” Hadfield recalls.

While grappling with the collapse of his firm, a friend of Hadfield’s urged him to venture to the North Shore and see what John Mitchell was doing with the upstart, recently-opened Horseshoe Bay Brewery. Mitchell is considered the godfather of Canadian micro brewing, and his brewery was the first in Canada to knock at the door of mainstream corporate beermakers whose stranglehold on the industry had long been protected by favourable excise taxes.

“It was a completely new industry, but they ran into logistical and consistency problems and it didn’t last long. John got frustrated,” Hadfield recalls.

Though the business failed, a rough template had been forged as well as a friendship between Hadfield and Mitchell. Soon after, Mitchell, who was born in Singapore and raised in England, went back to the U.K. and returned several months later with a suitcase full of beer for a tasting.

“I remember sitting in a speakeasy on Dunbar in September 1982 with Mitchell and a bunch of other beer aficionados,” says Hadfield. “Two things happened. First, I experienced a whole range of flavours that were completely unfamiliar to me. Second, some of the best beers were made by home brewers. I wanted to replicate what John set out to do in Horseshoe Bay, but with an in-house, purpose-built brewery from the ground up.

”However, there was more to it than just barley, hops, yeast and water; he says he also “wanted to gather a different kind of clientele in a place where great beer and great food have equal weight.”

It hardly seems like a revolutionary idea, but back then it was novel, especially given the archaic liquor laws that prevented brewing and selling beer under the same roof. Furthermore, Hadfield wanted to do it on a prime waterfront location in his home city of Victoria where he felt his local boy cred coupled with his out-of-the-box UBC architecture school training would be an asset in navigating uncharted waters with a conservative city planning department that had no line item for brewpubs.

Mitchell signed on as a partner and head brewer, and that was the genesis of Spinnakers. (The partnership was short-lived and Mitchell passed away in 2019 at age 89 after a long career in the beer biz, which saw him launching Squamish’s Howe Sound Inn & Brewing after moving on from Spinnakers).

“We were incorporated as a ‘cottage brewery,’” Hadfield says, noting that the term craft beer had not yet become part of the brewing lexicon.

With the departure of Mitchell just two years after opening, and being new to the hospitality business, Hadfield was so focused on getting the sails aloft at Spinnakers that it was inconceivable for him to imagine that North America would become the epicentre of craft beer. At the time, Hadfield estimates there were less than 20 of what could be classified as craft breweries on the whole continent. The owner of one of them, Fritz Maytag of Anchor Brewing Company in San Francisco, was so intrigued that he flew up to Victoria specifically to pull up a stool at Spinnakers to see what Hadfield was up to. That’s the kind of small world it was.“

We were amazed by the attention we got,” Hadfield recalls.

Victoria-based restaurant consultant Peter De Bruyn has known Hadfield for more than a decade. Besides having a big hand in opening Canada’s first modern brewpub, De Bruyn says Hadfield was championing local ingredients long before the slow food movement became vogue.

“Paul has great insight, knowledge and history in hospitality, and he’s well connected in a way that really helps make the food scene happen,” De Bruyn says.

He says Hadfield has played industry leading roles, including helping to develop the BC Ale Trail concept, and, more recently working with the BC Restaurant and Food services Association to develop COVID health and safety protocols so restaurants could reopen as quickly as possible last spring.

Nearly 40 years later, the beer and pub landscape has undergone a tectonic transformation. Victoria is home to more than 15 craft breweries, and it’s hard to find a B.C. town of more than 10,000 citizens without one. Today there are over 40 craft breweries on the Island. According to Hadfield, the brewery taproom has become a community gathering place, a fact that became even more obvious to him over the past year of the pandemic.

“It was really apparent to me how important it is for people to socialize and get together for a beer and some food in a place where they feel comfortable,” he says. “Craft breweries have become engines of our local economies — we create jobs, investment and we also give people another reason to travel.”

On the Spinnakers website, Hadfield’s position is labeled as “publican.” It’s a rarely spoken term in Canada, hearkening back to old England and means, simply, someone who owns a pub. But it also hints at what pubs originally were, and have since returned to, thanks to the craft beer revolution. They have become social gathering places, conduits for conversation rather than venues full of anonymous people with eyes glued to pervasive widescreen TVs. In fact, one of the things that still gets Hadfield excited about coming to work is what he calls “the opportunity for social interactions.”

“I could spend my whole day talking to people in our parking lot,” he says.

And Hadfield has been at it long enough to witness the birth of a whole new generation of customers born long after he and John Mitchell first primed the shiny, brand-new taps at Spinnakers; those millennials and generation Z’ers who have come of age in a world awash with double-hopped IPAs, hazy pales, crisp pilsners, stouts, porters, hefeweizens, and all manner of craft beers to stretch the palettes of customers and the talents of brewers.

“They have grown up with craft beer and are motivated by innovation, whether with beer, cider or wine,” Hadfield says.

Spinnakers has also spawned entrepreneurs and innovators who have staked out their own turf in the world of beer. Former employee Lon Ladell went onto launch Big Rig Brewery in Ottawa, before selling in 2019 to Montreal-based franchiser Foodtastic Inc. Mike Tymchuk’s stint as sous chef and then brewer during the early years at Spinnakers was a launching pad for a successful career that saw him starting Calgary’s Wild Rose Brewery and consulting for the startup of more than 15 breweries scattered across several continents, before founding Cumberland Brewing Company in his adopted Vancouver Island hometown. He says his true inspiration was working with John Mitchell during the legendary beer entrepreneur’s brief tenure as co-owner of Spinnakers.

And the pub is also a family affair. Among the nine staff making beer, spirits, sodas and mineral water, is his daughter Kala, brewery operations manager and cider-maker. His other daughter Carly owns the Lion’s Head Smoke & Brewpub with her husband in Castlegar.

When it comes to the million-dollar question — is there room for more breweries in an increasingly crowded craft beer market? — well the answer is yes and no, according to Hadfield. He believes the market will hit capacity “if everyone has a desire to get bigger.” But Hadfield also says the more the multinationals like Interbrew pick off craft breweries, “the more opportunities will open up at the bottom end.”

And when he says bottom end, he means brewpubs like Spinnakers, those places where when you walk in the door, everybody knows your name, to lift a line from the popular 80s sitcom “Cheers.” “Staying small has this real magic to it and consequently craft breweries have done quite well during COVID,” Hadfield says.

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