Bissell Brothers Employee Splits Off to Form Bissell-Focused Distributor

Austin Ray

THE GIST
Bissell Brothers Brewing, a young but highly regarded brewery in Portland, Maine, found itself at a crossroads in 2015. Thanks to an onerous law that limits what brewers can legally self-distribute in the state, the company was faced with the reality that it would soon have to sign on with a wholesaler if it wanted to keep growing. That notion didn’t agree with the company’s vision of the future, however, as it didn’t want to hike prices or take diminished profits, the likely outcome of partnering with a wholesaler that would take a hefty commission. 

So it decided to forge a different path. Rather than sign on with a traditional wholesaler, Josh Schlesinger, who had long been in charge of Bissell’s distribution in-house, would instead branch out and build an entirely separate distribution business of his own, one that took a smaller cut of the brewer’s revenue but maintained a fanatic devotion to the Bissell brand. Sleek Machine Distro officially launched in August.
 
WHY IT MATTERS
The two-month old distribution company is an entirely separate business from Bissell Brothers, and Schlesinger is no longer an employee of the brewery. So it jibes with the traditional three-tier system that mandates the separation of certain industry stakeholders. But Sleek Machine represents a creative way around overly burdensome regulations—none of which are unique to Maine—that bind brewers to wholesalers. Indeed, the whole point of Sleek Machine, Schlesinger says, is to take less money out of Bissell’s pockets.
 
Speaking with GBH, Schlesinger said the idea had been percolating for two years, as the company was well aware it was poised to surpass Maine's 50,000-gallon threshold—or roughly 1,600 BBLs—for legal self-distribution.
 
“We were all sort of wired to be really protective and just really ultra hyper-focused on the distribution side of the beer because we were making it and it’s something that felt very personal to us,” he says. “We asked, ‘What are we gonna do?’ Being able to maintain that ability of being hyper focused on one brewery—is that even a thing you can do? Is that such a wildly fantastic idea or is it actually a practical idea we could legitimize and put into practice?”
 
Deciding in the affirmative, Schlesinger put together a business plan, pitched banks for loans, and got started. Now, he runs Sleek Machine out of an “old, beat-up warehouse that was scheduled for demolition” in downtown Portland. He drives a green Bissell-branded van, “which is truly a piece of shit at this point,” that he bought direct from the company.
 
While Sleek Machine was founded to help Bissell Brothers specifically, it does, of course, take money from Bissell as an independent business. And as an independent business, Schlesinger also sees ample opportunity for growth in partnering with other select smaller brands.
 
“This thing isn’t designed to house a lot of brands or have this sweeping portfolio,” he says. “It’s a scalable company and the idea is for it to grow, but not in the way a traditional distributor grows. Growth will probably revolve around more one-off things I do with other breweries. If breweries want to come into the state and not feel like they’re locked into some sort of, even a handshake agreement, I would like to be able to offer my services in very, very isolated circumstances. I’m certainly not going to be a mule for breweries just so they can get up here. But I want to curate special events for out-of-state breweries.”
 
The whole business is new to Schlesinger, who, prior to founding Sleek Machine, had never worked for a beer distributor. “I don’t know very much at all, to be honest,” he concedes. 

But it’s clear, even if—or when—it partners with new breweries, as Bissell goes, so too does Sleek Machine.
 
“If Bissell Brothers is still a thing, Sleek Machine is still a thing,” he says.

—Dave Eisenberg