Last updated on May 20th, 2022 at 04:15 am
Brew City Beer Gear Inc.
240 N. Milwaukee St., Suite 201, Milwaukee
Industry: T-shirts and branded merchandise
Walk through the Milwaukee Public Market and it’s hard to miss Brew City Beer Gear’s Brew City Brand retail operation with T-shirts touting Milwaukee as “The Good Land” and others celebrating the city’s and the state’s culture. It would be much easier, however, to walk by Brew City Brand’s production facility just a few blocks away, at 240 N. Milwaukee St., without noticing it.
From the Historic Third Ward facility, Brew City turns out shirts not just for its three retail stores, but also for a wholesale operation supplying customers like Nordstrom, Gap, Disney, Universal Studios, and gift shops at the Statue of Liberty and the Space Needle.
“The cool thing about Brew City is the retail is only like 20 percent of their business,” said Todd Kavemeier, who recently joined the company as its first chief operating officer and has an eye on growing the wholesale business.
Having retail locations also helps create opportunities for the wholesale business, said George Keppler, Brew City owner. It provides a shared experience when Brew City is talking with other small retail outlets and it also offers a testing ground for clothing concepts.
“This is Milwaukee. I think this is a tough market – if it sells here, more than likely it has viability elsewhere,” Keppler said, suggesting if a product can overcome the city’s conservative Midwestern nature, it probably isn’t too outrageous to do well on the coasts.
Brew City got its start from a Milwaukee tradition. George’s father, Rick Keppler, designed an illustration to help promote the Great Circus Parade in the 1980s, and before long was selling T-shirts and other merchandise from a kiosk in the Shops of Grand Avenue. Circus-related products proved to be a seasonal business, so he branched out into Milwaukee-branded products, as well.
The company eventually expanded to selling shirts at Summerfest and the Wisconsin State Fair, which it still does. George Keppler said Brew City continued to grow and was forced to contemplate how it would expand in a changing retail environment.
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“We were sort of struggling with our retail identity for a while,” he said, noting the debate centered on expanding to suburban malls like Brookfield Square or Mayfair.
That’s when the Public Market came along and Keppler saw an opportunity.
“Our guts told us it was right and it was nice that the market was visionary enough to say ‘I see what you’re doing here,’” he said. The location has since grown to the point where inventory has to be restocked on a daily basis.
Production hasn’t always been an in-house endeavor. It originally started as part of a consumer program for Miller Brewing Co., and an opportunity for sampling and experimenting with different techniques.
“We literally had one little press in the back and we said, ‘We’re never going to get anything more than this one press,’ but then we liked the control of it and being able to print in ways that we like,” Keppler said.
Brew City now has two automatic and five manual presses printing 36,000 shirts each week. Having the capability is one thing, but something has to be printed on the shirts. Keppler said the company has always prided itself on being creative.
“We didn’t just put out T-shirts that just said ‘Milwaukee;’ we were always looking for a fun angle,” Keppler said.
Ideas have historically come from members of the Keppler family and creativity now has extended beyond the graphics and images to the garment itself, with a beer pouch and now a bottle opener sewn into the shirt.
“As we’ve been growing, we’re getting a lot of ideas from other people and staff,” Keppler said. “Although I’d say my dad, closing in on 80, still has the zingers. He drives me nuts; he’s like the Johnny Cash of the T-shirt world, constantly coming up with the hit songs.”