From the Front Lines: Liquor Liability

kyle rheiner headshotKyle Rheiner
Lead Brewing and Distilling Insurance Agent
Strickler Insurance,

How did you get started at your agency?

Two days after graduating college, I hopped into my first job with one of the largest insurance companies in the world, stayed there for four years and moved over to another monster for a few more years. It was then my wife and I had a newborn daughter and decided that driving a long distance to and from the office, successfully generating sales across the country to folks I’ll never meet and working on somebody else’s watch was something I was not passionate about. I asked myself, “Why can’t I work face to face with clients, build something I’m passionate about, create a lifestyle I enjoy with my family and do this all locally on my own watch?”

Already licensed, I began my search for an independent insurance agency. After I interviewed numerous agencies, and after many conversations with a good friend and agent at Strickler Insurance, I joined their agency. The agency started in 1860, continued generation to generation and still had that family feel. I knew I had made the right decision. The family even owns a brewery!

How did you become a liquor liability specialist?

At the age of 16, I started working as a server and bartender. I’ve always enjoyed the restaurant business and took courses in serving alcohol responsibly and recognizing patrons who may have already had a few drinks before they showed up at our establishment. During college, I worked at a popular brewery and saw how breweries operate and understand their clientele. This was also when I had my first craft beers—I couldn't stand anything hoppy at the time, but thankfully my taste buds have changed. This was a great learning experience and laid the foundation for my future in liquor liability insurance.

As it became known that I was focusing on insuring restaurants, I was asked to speak at the Philadelphia Bar, Nightlife and Hospitality Convention in 2013 and 2014 in front of some prestigious bar and restaurant owners about insurance risks and exposures associated with their business. This built tremendous credibility. Because my partners also own a brewery, I was able to watch that grow from a home-brewing hobby to a brewpub, which is how many breweries begin. Seeing this firsthand, I learned the insurance package from the ground up.

With a boom emerging, I expanded into the craft brewing and distilling industry and haven’t looked back. I studied the market for six or seven months before I even called my first brewery. Just over the last eight months, I’ve written insurance for 32 breweries and distilleries and I’m quoting another 30-40.

From a branding standpoint, I eventually created because if I joined the New Jersey and Pennsylvania Guilds and said “Hey, I’m Strickler Insurance,” it wouldn’t be memorable. I created so they know who I am, remember that name and can easily find me online.

In New Jersey and Pennsylvania, there are a few other insurance agencies within this field. It depends on location, but I travel far to meet clients. There are some agencies that say they insure breweries, but they go out to a brewery and can’t tell you what any of the equipment does. So that’s why it’s been so nice working with a guy who owns a brewpub—I understand what they do, what each piece of equipment does, the safety training necessary and the clientele that walks in. It’s an advantage where I truly care about the profession and the brewing process itself. Let’s face it, insurance may not be the most exciting topic out there, but when you pair it up with a pint of hoppy goodness, you can’t help but smile.

What are you most passionate about within liquor liability?

I’m most passionate about working with the owners of these establishments because we have so much in common. These are blue-collar guys—they want to have a beer at the end of the day. I have a white-collar background, but I’m a down-to-earth, blue-collar guy. I enjoy helping them understand why they need certain coverage types, what types of claims could arise and making sure the right coverage is in place. I love that every day is a little different—oftentimes I’m at a brewery gathering information, reviewing policies and learning about what makes these brewers tick while they’re brewing a new batch. Nothing is better than the smell that fills the room on brew day! It’s not your typical office setting and that’s what I enjoy.

What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in liquor liability within the past few years?

Since the craft brewing and distilling industry is so new and rapidly growing, the laws are constantly changing. Thankfully, they’ve been changing to benefit the breweries and distilleries. In New Jersey, for example, laws changed and now there are 26 new breweries and 20 new distilleries that are starting up, but just two years ago, there were about only six distilleries total between Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The owners are getting together with lawyers and members of Congress to re-write state laws and it’s great to see, but it also changes liquor liability coverage. For example, defining what’s allowed to be sold and consumed on-premises, off-premises or at festivals, what constitutes a brewpub, licenses needed, volume allowed to be sold in 6-pack, 12-pack or more. With these changes, it’s important to ensure your liquor liability coverage is adapting so there are no coverage gaps.

What do you say to a first-time client looking at liquor liability coverage?

Not all liquor liability policies are the same. Not all are going to provide coverage for assault and battery such as threats and fighting and not all are going to provide coverage for off-premise sales. Not all are going to allow you to sell alcohol after midnight, or even 10 p.m., and not all umbrella policies are going to sit on top of this coverage either. It’s also important for your staff to be trained and certified to sell alcohol and to point out intoxicated patrons. This can reduce insurance costs, and more importantly, reduce claims and lawsuits.

What advice would you give to an agent interested in liquor liability?

First and foremost, read the coverage language. Understand your client and their establishment. Interview them, talk to their staff and visit their location. Make sure it’s a good risk for your agency. Having a properly educated and experienced staff in place can drastically reduce the opportunity for claims—and vice versa. Don’t be afraid to talk to the owners and staff about how to mitigate some of these risks. Once you understand how their business operates, make sure you and your underwriters are clear on what the liquor liability policies are covering, and what they’re not.

For me, Twitter has been unbelievable for staying on top of the market. There are specific magazines and publications that cover restaurants, breweries and distilleries in New Jersey and Pennsylvania and I make sure that I’m notified when they post. Last week, there was an article about five new breweries that opened up in central Pennsylvania. I emailed them immediately and now have meetings scheduled.

Do you have a favorite liquor liability success story? Any coverage gaps you’ve found?

After reviewing a brewery’s current policy, we realized they actually didn’t have a liquor liability policy in place at all. They were to start filling growlers in a few days on-premises and that typically includes the patrons tasting different styles to determine which beer they’d like to take home. This brewery wasn’t covered for that, but now they are.

What do you hope to see in the future for liquor liability?

I’d like to see more transparency and consistency from a coverage standpoint. Some companies do this very well, and some have gray areas. But it’s up to agents to ask the appropriate questions to the underwriters and business owners, and then paint the correct picture to the underwriters to make sure the appropriate policy is in force.

Morgan Smith is IA assistant editor.