When it comes to craft beer, Dennis Hoffman describes himself as a “hobbyist.”
Still, the longtime Frederick resident is the proud owner of District East, a new beer and wine store tucked into the ground floor of a former car dealership on East Street — behind Family Meal and adjacent to Rockwell Brewery, the craft manufacturer founded by Hoffman’s friend and former business partner, Paul Tinney.
Calling District East a beer store might be a bit of an undersell. The roughly 2,200-square-foot space is packed with more than 200 varieties of beer — “things you probably won’t find anywhere else,” Hoffman said. Along with the stacked shelves of cans (and a machine that can chill a six-pack in less than five minutes), the store features a solid wine selection and eight taps where customers can refill growlers and crowlers. In a town, and region, increasingly defined by craft breweries, District East is a one-stop shop for dozens of local varieties.
Hoffman didn’t always plan on opening a mecca for beer lovers. His experience in the hospitality industry started as an investor in Volt and Family Meal, defining Frederick restaurants co-founded by longtime friend Hilda Staples. Eventually, he and Tinney created a separate “food fund” within their investment firm Wellrock Capital Partners, financing restaurants from big-name D.C. chefs like Bryan Voltaggio, Erik Bruner-Yang, and Mike Isabella.
The fall of Isabella’s empire, following a widely publicized sexual-harassment lawsuit and the celebrity chef’s struggles with substance abuse, helped complete Hoffman’s disinfatuation with the restaurant industry. He and Tinney dismantled Wellrock and the food fund, which now operates as a “checkbook,” Hoffman said, paying out dividends to investors. District East made sense as a next move, given his peripheral involvement in craft beer. Tinney opened Rockwell in 2017, and another former business partner, Jonathan Staples, owns Vanish Farmwoods Brewery in Leesburg.
“In the restaurant business, I really saw the trend of craft beer come in,” Hoffman said. “I decided it was something I was interested in, but I wanted to go a different direction. I didn’t want to compete with my friends. That’s why I went into retail.”
Hoffman chatted more about District East, investments, and living in Frederick for a Q&A in this week’s 72 Hours.
When you moved to Frederick, you were working as a fundraiser. So, tell me how you first got involved in restaurant investment with Volt.
Hoffman: Well, I’ve known Hilda Staples for years. I was the best man in her wedding. So, when she decided to open Volt, I was probably one of the first people she got in touch with. And I was excited to have it happening here in Frederick.
The Frederick News-Post once quoted me as saying, ‘Volt put Frederick on the map.’ I never said that! I loved Frederick before Volt was here. I chose to be here. I love the fact that I go to Wegmans and I run into people I know. We already had a cool restaurant scene in Frederick, but Volt got everybody to step it up a little bit. And now we have this amazing restaurant scene. For a town our size to have so many really amazing, first-class restaurants — I think it’s unique. There aren’t many places where people can say, ‘Let’s go out to dinner in Frederick.’ Not, ‘Let’s go out to dinner at this place.’ It’s more like, I’m going to drive to Frederick and walk down the street and decide.
How did that initial investment turn into a full-fledged “food fund”?
Hoffman: What happened is, I invested in three or four restaurants. Family Meal, Volt, and I guess probably Range [a former Voltaggio food hall in the Chevy Chase Pavilion] and Graffiato [Isabella’s now-closed flagship restaurant in D.C.].
Then, my friends started asking, ‘Hey, next time there’s a restaurant, can you get me involved?’ But I didn’t feel comfortable doing that, because I don’t know if that restaurant is going to work out. The idea behind our food fund was that we could kind of spread out the risk. If people invested in our food fund, they’d be investing in a whole bunch of restaurants. So, if one didn’t work — and we’ve had a bunch that haven’t worked over the years, and some that have done really well — they wouldn’t be losing their whole investment.
Why did you start to lose your enthusiasm for restaurant investments?
Hoffman: Well, Mike Isabella is a big reason why when I talk about it, I talk about it in the past tense. I was very disappointed by what Mike did and how he acted and we lost a lot of money with Mike’s restaurants. Both Wellrock and our investors.
I’m curious how you met him, and came to invest in his restaurants in the first place.
Hoffman: I met him because he was on Top Chef with Bryan Voltaggio. I think I met Mike at Volt, and then he approached a lot of the Volt investors about investing in [Graffiato]. He actually had an investors event out in Frederick.
And Mike is a warm, welcoming, likable guy. He’s an amazing chef. His food is much more casual and much more approachable than some of the other chefs whose restaurants I’ve been involved in. His restaurants were the most fun of all the restaurants I’ve been involved in. But what I think happened is that he believed his press and he became this character he had created. Even without the scandal, though, I think he would have had an issue. Because he grew too fast. He stopped being in the restaurant business and started being in the restaurant development business. And I think that there are other well-known chefs who we’ve seen —
Like Bryan Voltaggio?
Hoffman: Bryan overextended, too. But he still had a base. I guess Mike did, too. Mike would probably still have Graffiato if he hadn’t had the scandal. But a lot of these guys do overbuild. They’re celebrities and people want to be involved. People want a piece of them. And it’s a huge ego boost.
And you did mention that Isabella thing wasn’t the only reason why you wanted to get out of the restaurant industry.
Hoffman: Yeah, it just stopped being fun. Wellrock had actually stopped investing before that happened. Because it became much more like buying stock in the stock market. By the end, we owned part of Erik Bruner-Yang’s Maketto. There were the Mike Isabella restaurants. We invested in the four ROCKSALT restaurants, in Charlotte and Charleston and Charlottesville and Fairfax. Those are just some of the better known ones. We reached the point where I had never been to some of the restaurants. And that’s not why we got into it. We didn’t do it to become a big, corporate thing.
Volt is fun for me. Family Meal is fun for me. Range was fun for me — seeing them all come to life and be successful. I liked supporting chefs and helping them create something. But by the end, we weren’t a part of it anymore.
So, tell me about the decision to open District East.
Hoffman: Well, there are a lot of choices in Frederick for beer, of course, and there are a lot of stores with something-and-beer. But we wanted a place that put beer first. That’s where we put our creative energy. We do have a fantastic wine selection, but 88 percent of our sales come from beer. And for some of them, we’re the only store in Frederick that carries them.
Give me an example of beers that are really hard to find anywhere else.
Hoffman: Well, we have the Vanish beers, for example. You can find them on-tap other places, like Family Meal and Hootch & Banter, but we’re the only retail store in Maryland that sells them. True Respite down near Gaithersburg — we’ve always had their beers before anybody else. And we’re really proud of our relationship with Commonwealth Brewing, which is down in Virginia Beach. Somebody on Chris’ show [IT specialist Chris Sands, a News-Post employee, the host of the UnCapped beer podcast] was talking recently about having trouble getting Commonwealth beer, and I was like, ‘Well, we have Commonwealth beer.’
One of the really interesting things is that a lot of beers are limited runs, so we’ll get all we’re going to get. We might get seven cases of a beer, and then once it’s gone, it’s gone. Which makes it different from a lot of other businesses. We can’t say, ‘Wow, we sold ten of these shirts, let’s order 100 now.’ Because there aren’t 100 anymore.
Were you a craft beer guy before you opened the store?
Hoffman: I was much more of a hobbyist. My husband is much more into beer than I am, so I learned from him. But getting into this, I was really surprised at how little I knew. Luckily, our beer buyer, Andrew Boyd, is super connected in the beer industry. We have all these really amazing professionals who run District East, and I hope to someday have that knowledge.
Does it help that Frederick already has such a huge craft beer scene?
Hoffman: Yes! I’ll open the Untappd app to look up sales by geography, and it doesn’t work right in Frederick. If we were even in Urbana, for example, I could search and say, ‘Oh, these are the most popular beers here right now, we should sell them.’ But in Frederick, there are so many breweries selling their own beer that it overwhelms the system. It isn’t really made for this kind of density.
If you just think about it, I have Attaboy and I have Midnight Run and I have Rockwell and I have Olde Mother all within a few blocks from me. I mean, it’s super cool. We have an amazing beer scene and really amazing beer. And people support these super-local breweries. When we carry them, they’re almost always our most popular beers.