I read this article on Fortune.com today and am appalled. I would hope that you also would consider dropping Sam Adams beer from your menu. I know it's probably a big seller, but people come to Murphy's because of the atmosphere and not because you offer a certain kind of beer over another.
Maybe we expect too much from our business leaders. Certainly they have plenty to worry about -- an edgy economy, a woeful Wall Street, a snooping SEC -- without everybody jumping down their throats whenever they let off a little steam. A guy like Jim Koch, who founded and is chairman of a respectable $200 million business, should be entitled to indulge himself once in a while. What he does to let off steam is nobody's stinking business. So why, then, is the brewer of Samuel Adams Boston Lager suddenly under attack? "I don't think his beer is going to darken this doorstep again," declares Jerry Foley, proprietor of J.J. Foley's, a 92-year-old bar in Boston. "We're only a mom-and-pop store, and he's a multimillionaire, so he's not going to feel it. But I'm trying to make a point here."
And just what is the point that Foley, among other bar owners, hopes to make? It's a subtle one -- and maybe a wee bit old-fashioned -- so pay close attention: He thinks it was misguided of Koch (pronounced "cook") to participate in a New York City radio broadcast in which couples competed for points by fornicating at assorted public locations in the naked city. Actually, that's not quite right; Koch had participated in this form of spectator sport before, after all, and Foley hadn't paid it any heed. What got to him this time -- and, hey, let's allow the man his say -- was that one couple apparently took on the challenge of getting, uh, cozy in the vestibule of Saint Patrick's Cathedral. That would be New York City's most majestic church, the Gothic one with the beautiful spires -- and no shortage of parishioners, given that the stunt happened on a holy day for Catholics, namely the Feast of the Assumption. "That's holy ground, that's where all those firemen were put to rest," Foley notes. "And there was Jim Koch, on the radio, laughing and enjoying the show. This guy ought to be ashamed of himself."
And he very well may be, for all we know. Koch, through spokeswoman Sally Jackson, declined to talk about his in-studio participation in the "Sex for Sam" radio promotion, which aired on the syndicated Opie and Anthony Show in August. "It's the first big mistake we've made," Jackson adds. The offending couple was arrested, and Viacom's Infinity Broadcasting quickly canceled the afternoon drive-time program. Koch eventually issued a public apology for his behavior, characterizing his presence as a "lapse in judgment" and a "serious mistake" but also noting that "we were not in control of the program, and it was never our intention to be part of a radio station promotion that crossed the line."
Tough to believe? In a word -- or two -- yes, sirree. First there's the fact that Koch has shown himself to be unusually savvy at PR, acting as the nasal pitchman for the Boston-based company he started in 1984. By Jackson's estimate, he's appeared on Opie and Anthony alone about a dozen times, not to mention his carousing with countless others of that ilk. Such shows tend to attract in droves just the kind of listeners Koch wants to tap -- twentysomething males. Then there's this: He'd actually been what the hosts termed the grand marshal of the contest last year, and this year's contestants were competing for a free weekend trip to Boston to attend a concert Koch's company was co-sponsoring. Besides the cathedral (25 points), spots on the list included toy store F.A.O. Schwarz (15 points) -- as well as at the feet of Koch himself (30 points), who deemed the competitors "awesome," adding that "the quality gets better every year."
He's entitled to his view (which apparently he appreciated). But as the guardian of the craft brewer's image, he might well have asked himself, What would Colonel Sanders do? After all, those who serve as the human personification of a brand -- relax, nobody's going to mention Martha Stewart here -- simply cannot lose sight of the fact that their behavior reflects on the company they represent and its employees, suppliers, and investors.
"He didn't say, 'Sex in Saint Patrick's? I'm out of here.' It was only afterward that he felt that way," observes marketing guru Al Ries. Of Koch's participation in the broadcast, Ries says, "He shouldn't have been in the whorehouse in the first place, even if he was just there to tune the piano."
Koch's subsequent mea culpas haven't quite hit the right note. Michael Sheehan, who owns Boston bar Jimmy O'Keefe's, says he heard from Koch as soon as he had notified his distributor that he would no longer be carrying the beer. "I asked him for an apology in the newspaper, and he told me he'd have to think about it," Sheehan recalls. "A few days later he realized it would be in his best interest to do it. If I was the only person who had complained, there wouldn't have been any apology at all."
The fact that those apologies appeared in three newspapers about two weeks after the incident didn't help Koch's case. For the record, Koch's appearance was on Aug. 15, while the published apologies began appearing on Aug. 30. "He got forced into it," says Foley. "It was a slick media apology. It didn't mention Saint Patrick's or Sam Adams; it just mentioned Boston Beer. It wasn't even a full-page ad, as he had told me it would be."
Several bar owners say that Koch's calls included invitations for them to come to the company's brewery and settle their differences over a cold microbrew, perhaps in the soothing presence of a few news photographers. "I told him that I was too old to drink now," recalls Jim McGettrick, who has run the Beachcomber in Quincy, Mass., since 1959. "He said, 'You can have a root beer.' He was funny. But that doesn't mean I have to sell his beer. I'm not sure if he's sorry he did what he did or if he's just sorry he got caught."
Then again, maybe it doesn't matter. Like so many bar owners who have heard from Koch -- and Sheehan estimates that 25 have dumped the beer -- Patrick Withers doesn't doubt for a moment the sincerity of Koch's regret. "I could hear it in his voice," attests Withers, a former New York City cop who runs Ireland's 32, a pub in Suffern, N.Y. But while Koch was doing his off-color commentating on the radio, Withers was promoting Sam Adams, giving out polo shirts adorned with the logos of both the company and the pub. That's when he heard about the brew-ha-ha at Saint Patrick's, where the 31-year-old had proposed to his wife.
"I'm not saying Jim Koch is on the level of Enron or any of those, but what happened shows again how cocky these CEOs in America have become," says Withers, whose father started the bar. "They figure, 'I'll do what I want, and the peasants will keep buying it anyway.' You have to draw the line somewhere. I could pack this place every night with wet T-shirt contests, but I don't do it." Nor is he offering Sam Adams among the 38 kinds of beer he sells. Not now, maybe not ever again. Withers says Koch simply "hadn't made enough of an effort for me," and he would like to see the beer brewer "shaking hands and being forgiven by Cardinal Eagan," New York's archbishop.
The entrepreneur who harnessed publicity so effectively to create not just a business but an industry -- the humble but high-quality microbrewery -- is now engaged in a battle to see whether consumers will demand Sam Adams. That's another contest he shouldn't have gotten himself into.