R.I. man lives his island dream

Phil McAndrews purchased Offshore Ale in Oak Bluffs even though he had never owned a business.
Phil McAndrews purchased Offshore Ale in Oak Bluffs even though he had never owned a business. (Jonathan Wiggs/ Globe Staff)
Photo Gallery PHOTO GALLERY: Running the Business: Offshore Ale Co.

Each month "Transitions" profiles an individual who has made significant changes in his or her work life and highlights the techniques used to make the changes.

Phil McAndrews

Born: Detroit
Raised: California, Illinois, New Jersey
Education: Bachelor's, St. Bonaventure University, 1988
Was: Sales manager, restaurant division, Rhode Island Distributors
Is: Owner and president, Offshore Ale Co., Oak Bluffs, Martha's Vineyard

Island life: it's a dream of many, especially in the summer months after a memorable holiday with family, to pull up stakes and move to the islands for a different, better way of life.

Phil McAndrews didn't just dream about it -- he did it.

A year ago he uprooted his family and moved to Martha's Vineyard, where he bought the Offshore Ale Co., a restaurant and brew pub in Oak Bluffs, even though he had never owned a business or worked in a restaurant in his life.

"Since I was in college, I've always hoped to own something of my own," he said, "to have equity in what I work for and do it for myself."

McAndrews' idea began to take hold after a brief overnight visit to the island with his wife in July 2005. He hadn't been to the islands in more than five years, and the visit took him back to his boyhood. "I started coming to Martha's Vineyard as a boy, and then we went to Nantucket every summer for seven years," McAndrews recalled. "Some of my fondest memories are of summers there."

Sitting on the dock at the ferry terminal with his wife, Colleen, waiting for the return trip to the mainland, he remembered "how much I loved the islands."

"We should move here, raise our family here," McAndrews said to his wife. She looked at him and replied, "You're not serious, right?"

"This is the place," McAndrews recalled saying to her. She, in turn, told him he was crazy.

He grabbed a book of real estate listings and came across the Offshore Ale Co. -- the island's only brewery -- that was up for sale.

McAndrews was immediately taken. He knew it was a good fit with his experience. Since graduating from St. Bonaventure he had been in the sales and distribution end of the beer and wine business. In Rhode Island, where he worked for a large distributor, he worked his way up from sales representative in the Providence area, to sales manager for the restaurant division. He had worked nine years for the family-run company and liked the people, but was not actively looking to move.

"It was just by chance," he recalled.

Moving was not unfamiliar to McAndrews, who did so three times as a child before his family settled in Summit, N.J. He had also moved his own family once before, relocating from New Jersey to Rhode Island in 1996 when he and his wife had two young children.

McAndrews also cited an entrepreneurial streak in his family, inherited from his father, who owned and operated a small firm in the chemical industry, and his grandfather, who was self-employed and built his own insurance company during the Depression.

By the end of the week he had called the sales agent and hopped a ferry back to the island. When he toured the property it became even more evident that this was "a unique opportunity for me."

McAndrews was not daunted by the challenge or concerned by his lack of experience as a restaurant operator or as a business owner. "I'm very confident in myself and my abilities," said McAndrews. "I know my work ethic and knew that I would work hard to make it succeed."

With his goal in sight and his family behind him, McAndrews put together a business plan and was able to secure funding from Edgartown National Bank and a Small Business Administration loan, supplemented by family funds. His offer for the business was eventually accepted.

There were some tense moments later in the acquisition process, however, when it was not clear that the deal would go through, due to a local ordinance involving parking.

At that point McAndrews had already sold his Rhode Island house, purchased a home on the island, and scheduled the family's move. In the end, McAndrews worked out an arrangement with the town, allowing the deal, valued at just over $3 million, to go through. "Fate tests you like that," he said. He took ownership of the business and moved out to the island with his family in January of last year.

The previous owner agreed to stay on for a four-month transitional period, which McAndrews was grateful took place during the slower winter months. He also inherited a full-time staff of 14, including a head brewer, head cook, and eight wait staff, all of whom he kept on.

"We never closed the doors. We wanted to maintain a consistent product," McAndrews said.

McAndrews characterized his first year of ownership as "being in a dark room with a flashlight -- I couldn't see everything." It was also a year that was "full of surprises," including a chimney fire, and broken kitchen equipment that also broke his budget.

He also took advice to put aside a year's income for savings, which he needed --plus sold an RV and a boat to help fund the family's expenses.

But McAndrews, who handles the books himself to make sure "he gets as close to the business as possible," is upbeat. "I have faith in my accomplishments to date and have not lost any enthusiasm or energy," he said.

McAndrews also draws on his 15 years of calling on restaurant owners, all of whom, he said, had "different philosophies and approaches."

He "picked up bits and pieces" from different restaurateurs, including menu, and promotional ideas, staff training tips, how to create the right ambience, and more, which he uses "to create his own formula."

Now in his second year, McAndrews said he now knows the pub's seasonal business cycle -- lean from October-April, busy during summer -- so things don't seem quite so daunting.

Still, he'll be lucky to break even this year, the goal in his business plan. "We've got a shot at it," McAndrews said, who said he and his wife, who serves as Offshore's business operations manager, can pay themselves a small salary during the busier months.

Under contract with a brewer and bottler, the brew pub also distributes two of its sixteen beers off island in New England. McAndrews wants to expand this part of the operation and sees this as a critical revenue stream for the future.

He said his wife and four children, now ages 7 to 13, have been "over-the-top supportive" throughout the process.

The children have integrated well into their new life on the island, and McAndrews and his wife have already helped start a restaurant owners group as part of the Oak Bluffs Business Association.

He also loves the pub feel -- the friendly atmosphere. "It's the Irish in me," said McAndrews, a drummer who sits in from time to time with the bands that play in the pub, yet another part of his island dream come true.