When Rob Burns started Night Shift Distributing in 2016, it was for practical reasons: following several years of self-distribution, he wanted to exercise more control over the process of moving products from the Boston-based craft brewery that he co-founded, Night Shift Brewing, from cold storage and onto store shelves.
In the roughly 18 months since then, Burns has found he’s not alone in looking for a new approach to distribution. Night Shift now distributes products, in cans, bottles and sometimes on draft, from 18 craft breweries from Massachusetts and further beyond, servicing over 1,000 accounts of varying size across the state.
Now, as Night Shift prepares to expand its portfolio to include products from seven non-beer beverage brands, Burns is still thinking practically, but also about the broader long term prospects for a secondary business that has developed into a substantial operation.
“As we evolved the distribution company, we kept hearing from other beverage segments that they had similar challenges to the beer world,” Burns said in a phone call with BevNET earlier this week. “That got us thinking: what would we need if we brought in a wine brand, what type of people and skills would we need to be able to execute that? What would that look like under the same lens that we originally launched the distribution company — with a focus on independent beverage producers that share a similar mindset and are looking for another way to get access to the marketplace?”
With the new additions to Night Shift’s portfolio, Burns is betting that the company’s experience in beer will translate into a wide range of non-beer categories. The brands include plant-based water company Drink Simple (formerly Drink Maple); New Orleans-style coffee drink MOJO; organic nut milk maker Nutty Life; STOUT, producers of a ready-to-drink bloody mary; and family-owned kombucha maker APIS Honey Kombucha.
Two alcoholic drink brands — Backpack Wine Co., which makes canned wine, and local craft spirits maker Short Path Distillery — are also now being distributed through Night Shift.
The diversified portfolio reflects different price points, formats, categories and packaging types that Burns said can help Night Shift unlock new accounts, as well as bolster existing ones. Using four refrigerated trucks operating out of 30,000 sq. ft. cold storage facility, the company services independent specialty and gourmet retailers throughout Massachusetts, and will begin distributing to accounts in Cape Cod starting this summer.
Leveraging Night Shift’s local roots and its own experience as a startup, Burns said the company is seeking to provide brands with a focus and understanding of emerging non-beer brands that larger distributors may lack.
“It’s about sharing a similar philosophy and story and vision [with partner brands], and that translates into somebody that feels like a real partner, that understands the complexity of being a business owner and who cares about the product just like it’s their own,” said Burns. “We don’t talk about it but as part of our value add to our partners, we’re looking to add marketing support to these brands and provide them with more than just sales and logistics — to give them feedback on branding and design and ads and social media and really helping grow their presence in the market in more ways than just physical on store shelves.”
Even as it grows, COO Jeff Glennon acknowledged that the company is still developing as a distributor.
“With each of the conversations, we were looking for a completely open dialogue between us, because we are still learning and we’ll be learning for a while,” he said. “We’re still a young company and most of these companies are in the same boat as we are. We just want to make sure in all the conversations we have that we are up front; if you are open to tweaking the approach and maybe making some mistakes, we’ll do this together.”
Night Shift carries 25 brands — 18 beer and seven non-beer — and Burns said he’s still in the process of figuring out the right balance for its portfolio.
“On the beer side, we always talked about having 30 partners that we are regularly out there selling for,” he said, calling it the “theoretical maximum that our sales team could be knowledgeable about.”
To help service the new business, the company is currently expanding its sales team and has hired a non-alcoholic brand manager to guide the process of choosing what brands to work with and how to best position them with retailers. Night Shift is also adding two refrigerated trucks in the coming weeks.
“I don’t want to say we are at that marketing and branding phase yet, but that’s the evolution we are hoping to head down,” said Burns. “It will benefit us if we can refine the branding [of products] and it can benefit the supplier because we aren’t going in to every market they are in, so it should be a mutual win.”