On October 20, 2017, beer distributor Carter Distributing will shutter its doors. Three days later, the doors will reopen under a new name and new owner, Knoxville-based Cherokee Distributing.
The sale of the business was a rather easy decision, says company President Blair Carter, paraphrasing a quote familiar to many: “They—Cherokee—made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.”
Carter’s father, Bill Carter, moved his family and beer distributorship from Clarksville to Chattanooga in 1959. It was a smart move, says his son. Miller Brewing had a distributor here, but was looking for someone else to take over ownership and distribution of two if its brews—Carling Black Label and Miller High Life.
At that time, there were four other distributors with a solid foothold in Chattanooga’s beer business, so when Bill Carter opened Carter Distributing, “We were at the bottom. We were the smallest,” Blair Carter says. But that position didn’t hold. Within a decade, and thanks to innovations in areas such as packaging, primarily the introduction of pony-sized bottles sold in eight-packs, Carter Distributing rose to the top.
A Family Business
Blair Carter worked summers at his dad’s distributorship as a teen, then left college after a year to join the company full-time in the mid-1970s. “Working in a family business has it rewards,” he says. “But it’s really not as easy and glamorous as you might think.”
Bill Carter, who passed away at the age of 91 in January 2017, remained with the company until he was 85 —well past his generation’s traditional retirement age of 65. “He was fully active until then,” says his son.
Changes in Attitude
The 1970s was a decade of change for the beer industry in Hamilton County, with a reversal of antiquated alcohol laws helping to fuel the growth of the beer business in Chattanooga. “We had rapid growth in the 1970s,” Carter recalls. “It was amazing, fun and exciting.” There was a time that restaurants could not sell drinks stronger than beer. A vote to allow liquor by the drink not only helped liquor sales, but also beer sales. “It helped us by bringing in more, better restaurants to town,” Carter says.
The introduction and rapid popularity of light beers also helped promote growth, he adds. Carter Distributing, too, was on the move in the ’70s, relocating from a smaller facility on Market Street to a large complex on Broad Street shared with several other beer distributors. And laws have continued to evolve, such as those allowing the sale of craft beers, bringing yet more changes to the beer industry.
“Craft beers have a higher alcohol content, so we had to get a different alcohol license. With that, we were able to start selling wines and liquors,” Carter tells. “So we started a different company to sell those— Premium Brands. “When laws changed allowing sales of wine in grocery stores, we merged those two companies under Carter Distributing.”
Another change is one familiar to many businesses. Decades ago, company meetings/conventions were huge affairs. Carter Distributing was always invited to Miller Brewing’s annual glitzy Las Vegas meeting where distributors from around the country would come and spend days going to shows, parties and meetings.
When the economy tanked in 2008, companies tapped into the overall feeling of the nation and scaled back. Now, meetings may last for only two days, and company heads get down to business quickly, Carter says. The days of glutenous spending on annual gatherings are mostly gone.
A New Day for Beer Distribution
New owner Cherokee Distributing will not take on sales of wine and liquor. Carter says they will be distributing beer only, loading it in Knoxville and bringing it to Chattanooga, using the Carter Distributing building on Broad Street as a satellite warehouse.
Carter notes that changes affecting Carter Distributing customers beside trucks and invoices bearing the Cherokee logo, include presale orders taken 48 hours in advance of delivery rather than the current 24-hours. “Cherokee has a high-tech loading system,” Carter says.