Robert Lehrman, Attorney

Need Label and Formula Approval? Better Call Robert.

Robert C. Lehrman is a lawyer at Lehrman Beverage Law, PLLC in metro Washington, DC. Since 1988 he has specialized in the federal law surrounding beer, wine and spirits, such as TTB permits, labels, and formulas.

He has helped hundreds of companies formulate beverages to ensure that they are taxed and labeled in an advantageous manner while in compliance with relevant laws and regulations. These companies produce beverages in dozens of countries around the world and range from the largest to the smallest in the beverage industry.

Robert has efficiently reviewed thousands of food and beverage labels over the years. He has also helped to design the labels and get them promptly approved.

When a client calls about a new product they would like to launch, among the first things I tell them is to contact Robert. Neither of us can recall under what circumstances we met, but have some interesting “war stories” about collaborative efforts.

So, I thought it might be fun and informative to interview Robert and for you to learn more about him and his practice.

BB: You are considered among the leading experts in federal regulatory law for alcohol beverages (wine, spirits, and beer). How did you get into this area of specialization?

RL: I stumbled in, like a graduate student into a college bar. I am glad I did. To be honest, it was not a good fit for me in the early years, and I was not wild about the job. It involved a lot of digging through old, tissue-paper pages of dusty old rules, in the CCH Liquor Control Law Reporter. But as I spent more time at it, and got more autonomy, I could change the shape of the job a bit. I think the job changed more than I did. The dusty old pages morphed into up-to-date computer screens. I feel lucky to have been there as law turned from its old, paper ways, toward email and the web.

Anyway, I graduated from law school in Buffalo in the late 1980s. I looked around in DC and the first job offer was from the leading alcohol beverage law firm of the time, Buchman & O’Brien. On that we have something in common because the second of those named partners made his name as general counsel, at a young age, for the leading spirits company of the 20th century — Seagram.

I stayed at Buchman and toiled away in the DC office for a total of about 13 years. At the dawn of the Blackberry age, I decided to embrace the new possibilities and work from anywhere. I started my own little firm in the suburbs, with only a couple of clients. But it really does seem like we have added at least a few clients every week, since that point almost 16 years ago now.

So, getting back to your question, it’s largely happenstance that put me in this position. The internet helped a lot. The rise of small producers helped. Heck, even Arthur Shapiro helped. I am not sure I would enjoy being, for example, a contracts lawyer in a big firm. But, in my current role, what I enjoy most is being at the intersections of law, business, food, branding, and technology. If there is another job that so beautifully blends all these things I like, I can’t think of it.

BB: What are some of the more noteworthy accomplishments you’ve had over the years?

RL: I think the work we did on behalf of absinthe is interesting. It’s a long story so you can find all the details here. The short version is that I worked on absinthe legalization, from 2004-2007, when everyone thought it was impossible. We got the law changed after a 100-year ban. It taught me that there is lots of junk science and junk law out there, and our predecessors didn’t always know better.

Another interesting recollection is about an older man who wanted to put the American flag on his beer cans. Not only that, he wanted Iwo Jima, and In God We Trust on the can to complete the patriotic theming. I patiently explained that TTB would not normally allow American flags on beer cans, turns it down regularly, and has at least a few rules directly banning it.

He was unimpressed and showed me another can and asked why our government will allow Russian flags but not the good old American flag. As we encountered various roadblocks, he would intermittently ask if he should go on the Rush Limbaugh program, or send some cash, to get this thing moving. I assured him there was no need to send extra cash, and assumed he was exaggerating, when he threatened to air it out on talk radio. No. A few months later, I picked up the phone and it was Fox News. “Your client is on the way into the studio and we want to verify a few things about his beer label.” A few hours later, TTB called to say the label is approved, flags and all. I would have liked to believe it was dazzling legal skills but in truth, it was good teamwork with a good client. I was sort of hoping he would go on to make a lot of money with this beer, but in short order Budweiser took the idea and ran with it, and I did not see too much action on my client’s product.

BB: Thinking about the label and formula approval process—both at the TTB and the predecessor ATF— in what ways has the process changed over the years? What’s gotten better and what still could use some improvement?

The main changes are that everything has moved from a paper-based to an internet-based system. When I started, in the late 1980s, I would actually walk over to TTB/ATF’s offices, at least five times a week, and talk directly with the decision-makers/reviewers, at their desk. It was a great way to learn. If they said no, they explained why, on the spot.

The old system was a bonanza for Beltway types. It didn’t make sense to mail the labels to Washington. It took a long time, and the government was quite picky in those days. So, you would be just as likely to get a sheaf of rejections, a month after sending your papers to DC, as approvals. And, the rejections might be as trivial and maddening as, there is a comma missing, or one letter is too small. On the other hand, if you sent the labels to a DC law firm, it could be expensive.

The internet gradually changed all that. The processing times were pretty quick, during that old-fashioned setup. You would show up, wait your turn, meet with the reviewer, and walk out with some label approvals, on the same day. Then, as COLAs Online (Certificate of Label Approval) rolled out, things got very slow for many years. Things are good right now. TTB has eased up on the trivialities and is processing most labels quite rapidly.

Another big change is that the system is quite a bit less personal than it used to be. In the olden days, you might sit with a Pamela Jamieson and go over some labels. These days, the rejections are fairly anonymous, you rarely meet with the reviewer, and even if you go in to TTB’s offices, there are many who work from remote locations.

BB: You’ve been front and center in the craft distillers movement. How is this burgeoning business changing? Is it here to stay? Are the entrepreneurs entering the business better equipped to succeed than in the past?

I am a little embarrassed to say, the craft boom was happening all around me, but I did not really notice it. Maybe I was too busy working.

When I started, I suppose there were several dozen busy distilleries in the US and now there are thousands. I remember when Sam Adams was a scrappy little upstart. It may be a lame comparison, but let me try comparing it to the iPhone phenomenon. First you saw it and wondered if it was overhyped, and whether the phenomenon would persist. Cut to ten years later and you can’t really imagine life without it, and it seems firmly entrenched almost to the point where it should have been obvious from day one.

Just like I think the free-for-all among Android, Apple and others is leading to an embarrassment of riches, for consumers, I do think the craft movement is having a similar effect in the libations space. All the fervor and ferment will lead to lots of great new ideas, and even the big stodgy companies to get on their toes, all to the benefit of consumers. It is certainly good for glass companies and liquor lawyers.

Are the barriers to entry too high? Well, they are certainly there, and alcohol beverages remain encrusted in old and new, important and dubious rules. Recent history shows that thousands of scrappy young companies have been able to form and thrive amidst all the barriers and competition.

BB: Finally, it seems to me that your practice has grown over the years in terms of people and expertise. What areas of legal advice/needs do you handle today that you didn’t in the past?

This is true. We are moving up the food chain so to speak. In my early years, I handled mostly labels and formulas, because that’s what I was handling at Buchman. Other lawyers handled things like trademark, for example. We did not really set out to diversify. My first 10 years on my own, confirmed that I could stay busy even within a fairly narrow niche (just federal, just TTB, just alcohol beverages).

But as time passed, I met talented lawyers and their skills drove the diversification. I met Dan (Daniel J. Christopherson), about five years ago and he adds IP law and beer law to our skill set. Lindsey (Lindsey A. Zahn) had a strong interest in appellation law, and wine law nuances, and later developed her skills as an FDA lawyer. Mike (Michael E. Volz) came along and wanted to see what he could do with retail law in the mid-Atlantic states.

At this point, I am pleased to say that we can handle most federal issues that arise for alcohol beverage companies. While we can handle all this in-house, we still reach out to other experts, to supplement our capabilities. In the past, we have reached out to EPA experts (pesticides) and former TTB experts. Just last week I collaborated with one of the top lawyers in the cannabis space, related to CBD-infused spirits. We have federal well covered, for beer, wine and spirits. We also have good coverage in NY, DC, Colorado, Virginia and Maryland. For the other states, we like working with in-state experts.

My goal is to provide excellent service to alcohol beverage companies; I am much less interested in getting bigger, especially if we can keep getting better without adding more people.

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There are a number of outstanding law firms that specialize in alcohol in general and government approvals in particular. Abelman Frayne & Schwab, for example, is a leading full-service firm who I’ve used in a number of areas including intellectual property matters. They do outstanding work. But, Robert Lehrman’s expertise in the approval process leads me to often say, “Better Call Robert.”

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Dorothy Parker, Gin, and the Center Bar

Drinks with Stories to Tell

Allow me to set the stage for you.

Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) was a writer (short stories, poetry, screenplays), one of the founders of the Algonquin Round Table, and a wisecracking, witty critic of 20th-century idiosyncrasies. Dorothy Parker’s quirky remarks and crass opinions were her hallmark. Here are two samples:

“I like to have a martini,
Two at the very most.
After three I’m under the table,
after four I’m under my host.”

The other player is the gin by the same name—Dorothy Parker Gin, produced by New York Distilling Co., an outstanding craft distiller in Brooklyn. (I will write more about NYDC specifically, in an upcoming post. For now, suffice to say that these folks make outstanding gins and rye whiskies. You can find them here.)

Last but by no means least, there is Center Bar, an elegant restaurant, wine bar, and cocktail lounge located on the 4th floor of the Time Warner Center. Under the direction of Chef Michael Lomonaco, whose neighboring Porter House Bar and Grill has established itself as one of the city’s leading modern steakhouses. Porter House is far and away my favorite NYC restaurant and arguably the best steak house in town. Drinks at Center Bar and dinner 50 paces away at Porter House—well, in my opinion, it doesn’t get better than that.

By the way, Porter House was judged to be the Absolute Best Steakhouse in New York and Michael Lomonaco’s creativity is an important element in the story.

The Center Bar
Porter House Bar and Grill
Michael Lomonaco

Here’s to Dorothy

August 22nd is Dorothy Parker’s birthday. So, in 2015, Allen Katz, one of the founders of NYDC and Michael Lomonaco, chef and partner at Porter House and Center Bar decided to pay tribute to her and create drinks and a fun experience in her honor. They’ve been running the event every year since.

This year they lined up some of the foremost bar chefs and mixologist and had them create a “Here’s to Dorothy” drink menu. The cocktails were spectacular from the name to the ingredients to the luscious taste.

Be sure to look for the event next year. I’m told Michael has something special planned.

Oh, and if you stop by Porter House, try the Wagyu New York Strip Steak. Unbelievable.

Here are the drinks and their creators:

Honey, I’m under the Host
Jena Ellenwood, The Sparrow Tavern
A Walk in the Parker
Lucinda Sterling, Middle Branch
A Certain Lady
Alissa Atkinson, Precious Metal
Know-it-all
Estelle Bossy, Del Posto
The Mighty Tux
Tonia Geffy, Highland Park
Love Dot
Brooke Baker, Dead Rabbit

The Menu

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Word of Mouth Marketing

The Key to Brand Building in the Booze Business

If you’ve been following this blog (or read my book) you know that, with some exceptions, I’m not a big fan of paid or mass advertising to build brands. In my view, it’s all about point of sale communications, the role of the ‘gatekeeper’ (bar, server, or store people) and consumer conversations.

Call it face-to-face marketing

In fact, there’s a terrific book on the subject called The Face-to-Face Book: Why Real Relationships Rule in a Digital Marketplace. It was written by a longtime friend of mine, Ed Keller and his partner, Brad Fay when they ran the Keller Fay Group. The company is now part of Engagement Labs and Ed Keller is the CEO.

Ed Keller CEO Engagement Labs

The Keller Fay Group’s mission was to provide market research and consulting services based on consumer conversations. In 2015, the company merged with Engagement Labs and now offers a “total social”​ measurement solutions that integrates offline conversation with social media analytics. They bill themselves as “the world’s first TotalSocial® company.” They track, measure, and advise brands on how to understand and apply the insights they gain from consumer conversations.

Here’s a short YouTube video that will explain more.

Word of mouth and alcohol marketing

I’ve long felt that in this marketing environment, the key to a successful brand can be described as follows:

Discovery→ DISCUSSION→ Discernment→ Dissemination

Actually, before talking about this with Ed Keller, I hadn’t paid as much attention to the discussion aspect, when, in fact, consumer conversations can predict sales and marketers need to understand the dynamics. As Ed put it in a recent article on LinkedIn,

“Every brand needs to learn its unique social architecture to realize its full potential, and measuring and modeling is the best way to identify the drivers that will have the most significant impact on sales and other KPIs (Key Performance Indicators).”

Speaking of drivers, Engagement Labs focuses on four key drivers to create a single brand performance score that combine online social media data and offline conversations into their TotalSocial®.

  1. Volume—How much conversation a brand is building both on and offline.
  2. Sentiment—The extent to which that conversation is positive.
  3. Brand Sharing—How much content is being shared.
  4. Influence—In what way are consumer influencers engaged with the brand

In applying this, Engagement Labs ranked leading alcohol brands and learned, as a whole, the alcohol category is made up of so-called whisper brands, which are performing below average both on and offline. When comparing online to offline, these brands perform slightly better offline, in face-to-face conversations.

According to Keller:

“The alcohol beverage industry as a whole is built around a culture of sharing and encourages its customers to engage with others in a social environment—which presents a clear opportunity for brands to engage with its fans and facilitate more meaningful conversations that result in improved sales and brand recognition.”

Think about the winning spirits brands over the years and the role of influencers and consumer conversations in contributing to their success. Brands like Tito’s, Fireball, Rumchata and others. In his Face-to-Face book, Keller tells the story of Blue Moon Beer, served in a branded glass and garnished with an orange, which is in the product ingredients. The question that followed (“Hey, what is that?”) grabbed attention and sparked conversations. And, by the way, rituals related to a brand have always played an important role in their consumer acceptance.

As I write this I’m reminded of Gaz (Gary) Regan’s story of a consumer “expert” and the pains he took to alert his colleagues to his “discoveries” of single malt whiskies. You’ll find the story here, but I’ll save you the trouble:

It seems that when he was bartending in the 1980s on South Street in NYC, a particular Scottish gentleman would come in for lunch every day, order a hamburger and ask for the “book.” It was a guide to single malt scotches and differences in brands, regions, water, grain and distillation styles. After work, the gentleman would meet with friends and colleagues and hold forth on the verities of various malts. While he sounded like an authority on the subject, the information he provided was less than 5 hours old.

Don’t laugh, it helped to build some brands, The Glenlivet included.

About Ed Keller

I have known and worked with Ed when I was in the market research and consulting business at Yankelovich, Roper, and we were partners in our own venture called ASK Associates—all back in the day. So, I can unequivocally say he is among the top marketing research and communications people I know. He’s been a pioneer in word of mouth; a member of the Word of Mouth Marketing Hall of Fame; a past president of the association; and, a prolific writer on the subject. The Engagement Labs company has recently won two awards from the industry.

Whether you’re working on launching a new brand or looking for increased traction for a current brand, you ought to look into the Engagement Labs and their work. In fact, go to their website and download their material.

Tell Ed I sent you.

“Nothing influences people more than a recommendation from a trusted friend,” Mark Zuckerberg once famously said. “A trusted referral is the Holy Grail of advertising.”  

          
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