On July 27, the last day of bottling beer at Anchor Brewing’s historic Potrero Hill plant, shop steward and packaging lead Patrick Mochal cried as he and his co-workers signed their names on the final bottle headed into the final case of steam beer. They’d worked the plant to the bone, until the packaging floor ran out of glass, even overturning old boxes to scrounge bits of material to feed into the machine at the end. Once supplies finally ran out, everyone got together and celebrated the finale, toasting to all that went before — and all they hoped for ahead. Mochal says phones were out, archiving the terminus. “These were our last moments together,” Mochal says. “It’s the end — for now.”
Anchor Brewing had announced its closure just over two weeks prior, on July 12. The pioneering company, founded in 1896, invented the California common beer — widely known as steam beer — and has weathered a string of close calls with closure during the past century. The company was dragging financially in 1965 when dryer scion Fritz Maytag bought the business; a similar scenario played out when Maytag sold it in 2010 to beverage company Griffin Group who, in turn, sold it to multinational beverage company Sapporo in 2017.
Now, Anchor Brewing staff, led by the Anchor Brewing union, aim to purchase the company for the first time in its long and storied history. But turning a business into a worker-owned collective isn’t always easy. Doing so will require pulling together a successful bid during a complex liquidation process, gathering the financial muscle to back it, and rallying the support of enough workers for the cause.
Still, Mochal says resolve and morale among the approximately 40 unionized Anchor workers remain high. In the weeks before July 27, he says there hadn’t been a manager on the packaging floor, and workers ran the show on their lonesome until the end. That’s just one of the reasons workers are confident they should be the ones running the company going forward. To that end, on July 19, the union sent a letter to Sapporo USA president Mike Minami announcing its formal aspiration to purchase the company. Now, with support from law firm Tuttle Group; the union at the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 6 (ILWU); and Project Equity, an organization that helps businesses determine if they’re right for a broad-based ownership model and initiates restructurings, staff are preparing to submit a formal bid to buy Anchor. “People upstairs didn’t think we were serious about it,” Mochal says. “But we weren’t playing around.”
Alison Lingane, Project Equity co-founder, says the workers have a real shot at taking the reins. She’s seen many instances where workers step in during times of crisis, especially during the pandemic. Anchor’s survival through numerous recessions, the Great Depression, and the pandemic gives her reason to think workers can steer the business to success. “We see it every day,” Lingane says. “An outsider might be surprised. But the reality is it puts a fire under people when they realize their work and money is on the line.”
Lingane recognizes employee ownership may not be the first thing that comes to mind when a company looks to dissolve, but she hopes that can change; it’s a meaningful opportunity for workers. She points out that workers, unlike an investment bank, may not have upfront capital, but Anchor workers seem to have backing from the community. If the liquidators take their bid seriously, it would be a big win for both workers and the company, she says. “If I could roll back the clock, I’d have Sapporo bring in the workers six months ago,” Lingane says.
Unfortunately, the ILWU and Anchor workers not only missed that window but also claim Sapporo denied them relevant financial information ahead of starting the liquidation process. The Anchor Union hoped to work directly with the company before Sapporo opened up the process to other possible buyers and launched a petition to ask Sapporo to give the workers more time to prepare documents. But Evan McLaughlin, a representative for ILWU, says Sapporo sent workers an email indicating it was “too close” to the August 1 date when the liquidation process began.
Sam Singer, legal counsel retained by Anchor Brewing during its liquidation, says the company is pleased workers are excited to purchase. “The workers can make their bid with the liquidator,” Singer says. “The liquidator should be in place by [August 1]. Then the workers can gain access to the information like other possible buyers to place their bids.”
With the liquidation process underway, Anchor workers join a fray of would-be buyers. Still, Lingane says the workers would make the best owners of the company in the long term. She says in those last few weeks Anchor Brewing workers regularly produced 25 or more extra cases of beer a day. Furthermore, an Anchor Brewing manager shared with the San Francisco Mayor’s Office the company’s bar revenue, or sales made in taprooms and pubs, from the past couple of weeks; by the third week of July, Anchor beer sales had hit the company’s 2023 annual target. Plus, capital providers, lawyers, members of the craft brewing community, and well-wishing San Franciscans have all reached out to the nonprofit to offer support for the workers’ bid. “This isn’t just a group of employees with wishful thinking,” Lingane says.
If the workers get the reins, Mochal says they’ll zoom in on the business’s core identity and fan base. He says workers think the company overextended, corporatizing a brand that was never meant to go corporate and expanding product offerings that went nowhere. That said, getting allies upstairs who have decades of experience in machinery and distribution is high on Mochal’s and workers’ list of priorities. “We just got this going,” Lingane says. “We want to keep this going for the next generation.”