PortaBeer tackles the keg problem, wheels up

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When Albert Ciuksza, Todd Barnett and a couple of friends took a beer keg on a camping trip in 2009, they quickly realized the challenge of keeping beer cold and pourable.

After discovering that $50 of ice wasn’t nearly up to the task, the team sat down at a picnic table and drew up the blueprints for the PortaDraft, a fully mobile beer dispensing device. The initial idea involved a trash can strapped to a dolly.

“We wanted something that was more attractive and more portable, that would work indoors and out,” said Mr. Barnett. While friends and family were enthusiastic with the results, Bellevue-based PortaBeer needed some external validation that their project could be viable.

They got it in 2010, when the PortaDraft concept became a finalist in not one but two business school competitions — at the University of Pittsburgh and Point Park University. The two competitions only netted them $600, but it got them started. Both still work day jobs — Mr. Ciuksza as manager of water innovations at Oakland-based Idea Foundry and Mr. Barnett as patron services manager for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

As with any small business, the challenge of raising money to bring the product to market was significant. Their first foray into fundraising proved humbling. An attempt to raise $50,000 via crowdfunding fell short. The fans tossed in less than $2,000, which PortaBeer was not ultimately able to keep under the terms of the campaign.

The experience wasn’t a total loss, Mr. Ciuksza said, since it created some social media buzz about their product. “To this day, we have people searching for us who buy our product that tell us they found us from those early blog posts,” he said.

Eventually, they scraped together the money from their own resources and from family and friends to build the first PortaDraft dispenser.

“We thought we knew everything we needed to know, but eventually we realized 45 different parts go into the construction,” said Mr. Ciuzkza. They had to find suppliers that could get them the components in a cost-effective way. The units are currently made in Ohio City, Ohio, about four hours from Pittsburgh.

More lessons came when they thought originally their target market would be sporting tailgates and other similar events, but quickly discovered the benefits of seeking a more upscale clientele with opportunities in the hospitality industry. While they’ve kept a careful watch out for competing products, Mr. Ciuksza said, they haven’t found any so far.

“You really have no clue how the market is going to react,” Mr. Ciuksza said. “Some companies — hotels, casinos, caterers — that we never thought we would get into have become repeat customers.”

The two have sought exposure wherever they can get it. Mr. Ciuksza was determined to get the PortaDraft on the Spike network television show “Bar Rescue.” Under the show’s premise, consultant Jon Taffer works with a struggling bar to help the owners revive their business.

Mr. Ciuksza contacted everyone he could find associated with the show starting in late 2013. Once he hit on the right email address, he got a pretty quick reply. The PortaDraft was featured on an episode that aired April 14.

There are currently about 80 PortaDraft units in the field — at local places like Common Plea catering, as well as international locations like Cancun and Belize. Sales have accelerated to the point that the company is approaching the break-even point. A basic PortaDraft unit — which includes the cooler, CO2 system and a regulator — costs around $699.

The next step is adapting the PortaDraft technology for a smaller draft beer size. The company is also working on a version of the system for wine, which it plans to launch in the fourth quarter. Of their five employees, one is a mechanical engineer, who is working on the final designs for the newer products.

Beyond the fundraising challenges, Mr. Barnett said the biggest lesson the PortaBeer guys learned was the importance of identifying the right customers.

“Everyone has an opinion about who we should sell to,” he said. “They’ll say, ‘You should sell to frats! To tailgaters!’

“That might be good for a couple of sales, but you have to think about where you can provide value, and who will get the most out of your product.”

Kim Lyons: klyons@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1241. Twitter: @SocialKimly.

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