Businessman in a Whole Brew World
Forbidden Root Owner/Rootmaster Robert Finkel. Photo courtesy of Katharine Uhrich.
Robert Finkel’s tenacity is comparable to that of an eager puppy. He claims this himself, discussing the process of opening up Forbidden Root, his now seven-month-old botanical brewery and restaurant in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood.
“I’m a puppy—when a bite an ankle, I stay on,” Finkel said. “You can shake a leg, but I’ll stay on.”
Finkel had been leisurely collecting different kinds of honey in the preliminary years before Forbidden Root was even a twinkle in his eye. He’d always been a foodie, and had an obsession with root beer in particular.
Having spent 26 years of his career before earning his Rootmaster title as a venture capitalist—including his founding of Chicago-based private investment firm Prism Capital, which successfully invested in 40 companies nationwide and managed $190 million, authoring his book “The Masters of Private Equity and Venture Capital,” and starting the Illinois Venture Capital Association—he wanted to invest himself elsewhere.
“It was a lot of fun, but it became much more of an industry and I didn’t want my tomb reading ‘Here lay a great asset manager,’” Finkel said. “That was just a soulless experience for me.”
It was Finkel’s “beer guy” business partner that first exposed him to the craft beer world through beer tastings held for people in the financial community. Finkel soon found himself brainstorming an idea for a new kind of business case: an alcoholic root beer. He knew how to do his research—using his detective-esque, truth-searching skills rubbed off from his venture capitalist routine—and discovered no sign of any root beer beers on the market at the time.
After spending six months consulting with local beer authority figure Randy Mosher, the two officially partnered up and crossed what Finkel calls the “threshold of passion.” What followed was two years solidly spent in development, further working toward the ultimate goal of producing a brand that could be appreciated outside of the city.
“It wasn’t purely that romantic passion—because I was a [venture capitalist] for 26 years, I have two sides of the brain: the risk manager and the passionate,” Finkel said. “I wouldn’t allow myself to jump in permanently and all-in unless I felt there was a reason to exist.”
Interior of Forbidden Root Brewery, located at 1746 W. Chicago Ave. in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood. Photo by Lauren Tussey.
The ball was rolling and Finkel began seeking out ingredients for his botanical brand identity in his travels, both worldly and locally. Along with all his types of honeys, Finkel started a conglomerate of various roots, nuts, seeds, spices, and herbs to get the brewery’s catalog started. His collection range spans across the map: Tahiti, Costa Rica, Turkey, Peru and the nooks of Chicago’s various ethnic markets. Part of his job today includes constantly seeking out interesting ingredients, and he tries to source locally when he can.
Finkel’s botanical brewing is different—he knows it, and he holds his authentic differentness as one of the highest values in his philosophy.
“The products we put out… we select them because they are different, we didn’t make it to be different than somebody else,” Finkel said. “It’s not a line extension of an existing product for a business purpose, this is what we’re into, and that’s very powerful.”
Finkel was a beer newbie when beginning his root beer brewing journey. Forbidden Root’s head brewer B.J. Pichman was initially skeptical of the whole idea when Mosher recruited him for the project. Finkel’s unrelenting drive to get it done is what sold Pichman—never in his wildest dreams as a home brewer would he imagine he’d be creating a 20-ingredient botanical root beer.
“I’m a pretty cautious person so I’m always like, ‘Alright, so let me figure this out and then I’ll make a go of it,’ and [Robert] is like ‘Well let’s do this and we’ll figure it out,’” Pichman said. “He’s more of the right-brained, move forward, get it done, and unafraid … If he doesn’t know the answer to something or if he needs something, he’s gonna get it done.”
Exterior of Forbidden Root Brewery. Photo by Lauren Tussey.
Now that Finkel’s root beer dreams have become a reality and served as the starter seeds to Forbidden Root’s development, brand identity and growth, he and his 49 employees are focused on building out the brewery’s name both locally and beyond the Chicago brewing scene. Finkel said the brewery’s wholesale business—its sales of bottles and various draft beers to other restaurants and bars—is growing at over 100 percent per year.
Not a week goes by without Pichman finding a box on the counter when he gets to work—Finkel’s left his latest ingredient find for him to check out. Finkel is eager for Pichman’s feedback, and wants all of his staff to contribute and actively take part in the business.
“The most important thing is to have great people as defined by my highly motivated, honest, smart and shared values, but different thinkers,” Finkel said. “A business does have a soul, and it’s the culture.”
Finkel wakes up closer to his passion every day. He loves wearing what he wants to work and pleasing people with each glass he pours.
Finkel’s enthusiasm and genuine spirit shines throughout everything he’s done, and that’s something he’ll always wag a tail about.