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Lee Chapman and Curtis Lewis survey the crowd gathered at the bar in B. Smith’s and see customersjust the sort of folks they’d like to do business with. The restaurant, which has a sister location in Harlem, features pricey Southern cuisine gussied up to match a space that once served as Union Station’s presidential waiting area. Chapman and Lewis, both of whom are African-American, classify B. Smith’s clientele as “urban,” a designation that they say has little to do with race or geography.
The two young businessmen have recently launched a brewing company, Mojo Highway. Their target demographic will also be “urban.” That sounds like the crew generations of schlocky malt liquor merchants have made bundles on, but Chapman and Lewis use it to mean something far higher up the class ladder. Chapman tells me that the typical Mojo drinker is, above all, “educated.” When I drop by the bar to see Lewis, he’s sipping a glass of Courvoisier.
There was a time when Chapman and Lewis thought that beer alone was the point. It took the partners four years to transform their idea for Mojo Highway from grad school business project into the crisp “Golden Ale” that has been available since early fall 1998 in close to 50 upscale bars throughout the D.C. area. They spent a lot of those years drinking, traveling, drinking, selling. Try enough brews, they figured, and some untapped micro-flavor would make itself plain.
The aspiring brewers have since come to their senses. “We came out of a meeting with Seagram’s,” Chapman explains, “and I’m walking down the street, and something said, ‘Put it in a green bottle.’ At that point you saw a massive shift in exactly what Mojo became.”
Chapman’s notion that a product’s image means more than the product itself isn’t going to land him on the cover of Forbes; you don’t even need to pass Marketing 101 to understand that image is everything when it comes to any of the seven deadly sins. But the partners now believe that they’re onto something. Mojo Highway is not like other microbrews. Despite the size of the companythe partners have only one employee, and their corporate headquarters is located in the basement of Lewis’ home in upper 16th Street’s tony Gold Coast neighborhoodthe upstart beer barons don’t even consider Mojo to be a microbrew. That market’s played out, they say, overrun by dark, hoppy, hypermarketed beers from the Northwest.
Though Chapman and Lewis’ pop-culture box might be labeled “buppie,” members of their “urban” target demographic, they say, come from all kinds of ethnic backgrounds. It’s just that Mojo’s variety of “urban” consumers don’t drink their brews from a brown paper bagor, for that matter, live in the same neighborhood with anybody who does.
“When you look at the urban mentality, it’s more of a function of how you live your life as opposed to your social economic background,” Chapman explains, marketing himself frantically. Currently, you can buy Mojo Highway in several Georgetown bars because “Georgetown has an element that’s urban,” Chapman explains. “But you will not see our beers in some of the southeastern parts of Washington. We only want to place our brand where it’s going to get us the most value for our dollar. At a certain point, it becomes an economic equation.”
Both entrepreneurs contend that “urban” is not a euphemism for African-American, despite what larger beer companies might lead you to believe. “They look at urban culture and they automatically assume rap music, black folks,” Lewis says, in reference to the Colt 45s of the world. “That’s pretty much where they stop. What they neglect to realize is that that demographic is represented in an age range; it’s not reflected by race whatsoever….They go out and they get large black PR firms to target black folks. Which is just very myopic in scope when you consider that the market is not defined in that way.”
Or, at least, Mojo’s market isn’t defined in that way. Chapman and Lewis may be more sensitive than the bulk of the predominantly white beer industry when it comes to the topic of targeting inner-city blacks. But it’s for business reasons, not socioeconomic sensitivity, that they don’t covet Colt 45’s market share. Their plan is to get Mojo in the hands of a stratum of consumers who, as Lewis puts it, “are VPs by day, hiphop, extreme-sports junkies by night.” Or, as someone else might put it, less charitably, they want customers who are rich by day and rich by night.
Growing up, the Mojo guys pretty much escaped the image of Billy Dee Williams hawking malt liquor on billboards. Chapman grew up in Philadelphia and New York, and comes from a family of investment bankers; D.C. native Lewis’ relatives are entrepreneurs. When the two men met in 1988, both were finance majors at Morehouse College in Atlanta. In the summer of 1994, when the two set out to make Mojo Highway one of the first black-owned brewing companies in the country (Oakland-based Brothers Brewing Co., which has been around longer, is the only other), neither knew jack about making beer. “We’re businessmen,” jokes Lewis. “We took shortcuts.” That’s why Mojo is contract-brewed by the Frederick Brewing Co.
The brand is currently available only in D.C., but its owners aim to ride their upper-income market to national prominence.The businessmen wear their socioeconomic status in a manner common among the corporate-casual generation: Sitting in B. Smiths’ bar, both are dressed in form-fitting ribbed sweaters and nice shoes. A closely cropped goatee frames Chapman’s mouth. They know one of the managers, Alfie Magby; he buys Mojo and sells, he estimates, three to four cases a monthan amount that falls in line with just about all of the other brands the restaurant stocks.
They’re not Budweiser numbers, but they’re nothing to scoff at, either. Chapman and Lewis figure they already missed out on one good opportunity to strike it big. In the mid-90s, the microbrew craze gripping the rest of the nation had yet to take hold of Atlanta. Given the size of that city’s African-American population, the entrepreneurs reasoned that they could establish a beachhead in the New South and market their brew as a status symbol for its swelling black middle class.
The problem was that no one would give them any money. Four years is a long time for a business plan to be in limbo; Chapman, who is still a full-time investment bankerhe works out of New York four days a weekcan’t think of a major beer or liquor concern that hasn’t turned down the opportunity to finance Mojo.
The green bottle changed all of that. The revelation that few other domestic brewers were presenting their beers in green bottles helped the businessmen land a contract with Frederick, which has been brewing Mojo since the fall. In order to push the product, they spend their nights in bars, pushing their Golden Ale on customers, commenting on its faint sweetness, buying bottles for customers who don’t believe that it’s a superior brew.
“When people see a green bottle, they think import,” Chapman explains. “Our market likes importsit’s in their price range, it’s not too heavy, it looks good.”
Their small sliver of a market makes it possible for Chapman and Lewis to push Mojo one beer at a time. By spring, they hope to have started selling in New York City, with the rest of the East Coast to follow. After that, according to Chapman, they’ll concentrate on the “15 largest radio markets in the country….We want to be a national brand.”
The fact that the business is black-owned has its benefitsMagby concedes that it played a part in getting Mojo into B. Smith’s, which is also black-owned. But playing the race card isn’t going to help the company if it ever goes head to head with Heineken. Anyhow, race doesn’t really factor into the entrepreneurs’ worldview. Blackness has yet to become a part of the Mojo sales pitch, and neither Lewis nor Chapman sees that the pitch will change any time soon.
“Our customers don’t care,” Chapman insists. He uses a pop-culture reference to illustrate: “I was listening to the Dave Matthews Band, one of the hottest groups of ’97 to’98. They got music that’s based from India. Our generation extracts from all cultures. We don’t see race. A lot of things have changed since 1968; we’re not defined by race and culture anymore. The world is a much smaller place.”CP