Three friends who turned their love of beer into an oasis of fun in the North End

To succeed in Nova Scotia’s crowded craft beer market – filled with incredibly good, award winning-beer – differentiating yourself is key. Good Robot’s success can be credited to smart branding and marketing that embraces the hipster elements of craft beer. The three owners – Josh Counsil, Doug Kehoe, and Angus Campbell – created a brand that is young, playful, and fun, which makes total sense once you know their origin story.

The three met as engineering students at Queen’s University, and Counsil says that they immediately clicked because they were, “weirdos compared to some of the other student groups, which tended to be a lot of private school well-to-do kids.” After living together for four years, the friends graduated and moved on to real jobs, in engineering as they’d always planned. Once a year the group got together to do something “childish and silly,” such as go to a music festival or Disney World where they could let loose. Life as engineers in stifling office environments wasn’t all they’d hoped, and after years of talking about businesses they might start (a party boat rental company! A music festival!), they settled on trying their hand at craft beer.

“We all happened to be into craft beer at the time so this sort of made sense,” says Counsil. “The scene was booming, we really like beer, we met via beer, we continue to hang out via beer, so why not beer?” They chose Halifax as their home base because Campbell is from Cape Breton and worked in the city after graduation. He convinced the others there was a market in Halifax for craft beer – people here are fiercely loyal to locally-produced everything. Counsil had never even visited before moving to start the brewery, but he trusted his friends. Happily, the move paid off.

Something Different

From the outside, it seems Good Robot was successful from the start. And it was, for a couple of months at least. They opened the brewery and store in May 2015 and had what Counsil refers to a two-month honeymoon. “You open and everybody’s singing your praises, and you’re developing plenty of media attention and then it goes away.,” he says. “Meanwhile you’re still paying for construction of your new bar that was supposed to open in September, but now it’s November, so you’re pinching pennies, and you just hired on 14 new staff to work that bar.” But once the bar finally opened in December things started to take off, and that’s still the most profitable part of their operation – 70% of all sales come through the bar.

The guys at Good Robot didn’t want to create just another sterile tasting room and instead turned their small space into a cozy pub that feels unique in Halifax, more like a bar you would find in Western Europe. The vibe is friendly, and that carries into the beer garden (which opened on the bar’s one-year anniversary). The tap room has a cap of 69 people and the beer garden seats 110, so when the place is full, that’s a lot of happy revellers flooding into a dreary commercial part of the North End.

Emphasis on their bar sales is one reason you don’t see Good Robot in many other places – most of their beer is sold in-house. They like to have eight varieties in their tap room at all times because customers always want what’s new. Good Robot only has a five fermenter system, which means that at any given time they can only make five different varieties and store them, so they don’t have a consistent supply of any one type of beer. “It’s hard to supply accounts for other bars and restaurants because, for the most part, they want the same thing. If Goseface Killah becomes the top seller they want Goseface week after week,” says Counsil. To make more beer, and eventually supply the NSLC, they need more capacity than they have currently. “We haven’t installed new equipment in the past three years but we have to become more efficient. Our biggest holdup is kegs, which are prohibitively expensive.”

Although a success, Good Robot has changed significantly from how it was sketched out initially. “Angus, Doug, and I had ourselves down as working the bar after all day brewing and maybe employing a few people. Now we have 40 staff and a bar that does most of the revenue,” he says. “It’s funny because when all these craft breweries set up you think, ‘I’m not going to do this and I’m not going to do that,’ and then you realize that all of those things are necessities to survive and grow. People like convenience. A small number of people will drive to your spot to get your beer, but most people are going to walk to wherever is closest, or stop on the way home from work.” (Hence the plan to get their product into the NSLC now that they’ve started canning.)

Branding at Good Robot is a big deal, so not surprisingly the team puts a lot of their time and attention into making the brand super cool. They have a marketing team of 12, a three-person events team, four people doing design, a goodwill ambassador – even a glee club president who looks after their best customers. Counsil admits Good Robot spends “a boatload” on marketing, but says they’ve been lucky to pick up creative talent that had been struggling to find work after the demise of the film industry tax credit. “Everyone starts out here filling Growlers, but we tell them we will fully take advantage of their talents if they’re interested in moving beyond that.”

When you bring up the idea that Good Robot is Halifax’s hipster craft brewery, Counsil says that he considers that a compliment. “I used to consider an insult, but you know what? I like locally made things, and there’s nothing wrong with a plaid flannel,” he says, “I started to realize oh yeah, I’m a hipster. I might not be in skinny jeans or have a huge beard but I realize that attitude-wise I fit the mould. I embrace my hipster crowd and my hipster attitude.”

Going beyond bar food

Since the tap room opened, Good Robot has collaborated with local restaurateurs to provide a limited menu of food through a small kitchen (more an alcove) off the bar. Initially, they didn’t want to serve food because of the restaurant industry’s volatility but soon realized that beer nuts weren’t going to cut it – people in Halifax want to eat food with their drink. “We started bringing in restaurants that were already established brands; including Rinaldo’s, T Dogs, and then Black Sheep.” Black Sheep has been operating out of Good Robot for two years now, and the two brands are about to up the ante.

“Black Sheep came at us with a proposal that was difficult to turn down, so now we are building a full kitchen upstairs. It will have all of the equipment they need to run a restaurant that would serve a brewpub this size,” says Counsil. Not Good Robot, not Black Sheep, the new restaurant will be an entirely new entity that encompasses the values of both companies. “We’re creating a new brand we’re calling RumbleFish after the biker gang movie. It’s going to be experimental – like both Black Sheep and Good Robot. We are both quirky or eccentric about how we market ourselves, we both care very much about service being affable and friendly, and about good times.”

RumbleFish is set to open this August (before this issue hits newsstands). Counsil describes the venture as a perfect pairing – his crew has no interest in running a restaurant, but loves that Black Sheep are still young enough to be adventurous, which fits well with the Good Robot brand and philosophy.

Dave Woodley, co-owner of Black Sheep with his friend (and fellow chef) John House, says that they are ecstatic to be pairing up with Good Robot. “It’s exciting to spread our wings and challenge ourselves in a whole different area. As soon as we heard that Good Robot was expanding their tap room we proposed a partnership that would elevate the food and bar scene in this area,” says Woodley. RumbleFish will offer a full menu of “globally inspired bar snacks,” but with the same quality and attention to detail – homemade bread and pasta, house-smoked meats etc. – you’d expect at Black Sheep. “Good Robot is the coolest brand in town, we’re excited to create something new and launch it in this great spot in the neighbourhood.” Black Sheep will still exist at its original location, and Woodley says he looks forward to the challenge of running two restaurants. “I’m a chef, I do my best work when my back’s against the wall,” he says.

As any resident of the North End knows, the ‘hood needs more bars and places to socialize, so this is all great news. As the condos go in, the soul of a community can get sucked right out. Good Robot is a good neighbour – they turn the music down for prayers at the Islamic Development Centre next door, with the times posted in clear view by the register in the brewery store – and they encourage their patrons to be respectful. It’s a business model that works, and the three young owners are determined to keep getting better and better at what they do. Good Robot does things differently and has proven they fit right in in the North End.