Millvale beer distributor toasts to 85 years in business
Behind Vecenie Distributing Co.'s gold brick and red neon lights sits an 85-year-old company that persevered during difficult times and took risks to market itself as Western Pennsylvania's top craft beer wholesaler.
According to president and third-generation worker Ken Vecenie, employees now deliver beer to almost one-third of the state.
In 1933, brothers John and Frank Vecenie opened their beer distribution company at 140 N. Ave., Millvale. Vecenie said that the business was one of Pennsylvania's first distributors following prohibition. Initially, employees delivered local beer throughout the North Hills.
But those early years were full of challenges.
Only a few years after Vecenie's opened, the St. Patrick's Day Flood of 1936 struck when almost 2 inches of rain fell. The heavy rains combined with 63 inches of snow accumulated from the winter. Abnormally warm temperatures melted the snow, causing flooding from the Allegheny River that severely damaged the building as well as many other Millvale homes and businesses.
It took hard work, but the brothers recovered from that only to find more trouble. A fire in the late 1940s destroyed the establishment.
The Vecenie brothers would not be beaten and the company rebuilt to what is now its current building.
Shortly after erecting the new building, the distributor secured an exclusive relationship with Erie Brewing Co. to distribute the brand's Koehler Beer throughout the North Hills and North Side.
“Originally distributors bought beers locally and delivered them locally to the taverns, but once they (the Vecenie owners) built the new building, it set up their relationship with the brewery as an exclusive wholesaler, which is kind of how the business is done today,” Vecenie, of Kilbuck Township, said.
Afterward, Pittsburgh Brewing Co. hired the distributor to deliver its beer throughout the area. He said the Iron City Beer producer remains one of his company's “important distributing partners.”
Vecenie took a chance partnering with Lancaster County-based, Stoudts Brewing Co. in 1987.
“Craft beer in general was something very new … we met some folks that were promoting their craft beers as small business owners and developing some of the small breweries and their business models were similar to ours,” he said. “We never represented any national brands or big brewery conglomerates, so we shared that in common.”
He said that the Stoudts relationship has led to collaborations with additional craft breweries: Brewers promoting their brands at events would refer others to Vecenie, especially because larger distributors weren't interested in craft breweries at the time.
“We developed a lot of long-term relationships in those early years and we've been fortunate that a lot of those craft breweries are still with our company.”
Notable brands Vecenie's carries include Victory Brewing Co., Troeg's Independent Brewing, Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, Stone Brewing Co., Bell's Brewery, Oskar Blues Brewery and Glutenberg Craft Brewery. In April, they will start selling Tampa, Fla.-based Cigar City Brewing Co. selections.
The distributor is active in the community as the Millvale Music Festival's naming sponsor for the second year. Likewise, Vecenie's donates a majority of the brews for the annual Millvale Brew Fest benefitting the Millvale Community Development Corp.
Vecenie continues to find pleasure in his career and hopes that his family's legacy will endure. “The beer business is a people business. … People really enjoy what beer has evolved into.”
Erica Cebzanov is a Tribune-Review contributor.
Editor's note: In the original version of this story, we incorrectly stated that Erie Brewing Co. was no longer in business. That is false. Erie Brewing Co. is indeed still a thriving company. We regret the error.