The beer-boot baron

Brendan McCarthy built a successful online business selling glass beer boots to customers around the world — from a bedroom in his parents’ East Isles home.

EAST ISLES – It started out as an experiment.

Brendan McCarthy was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, on his way to meet his thesis advisor when he stopped into a liquor store to check out the latest promotional items. He often bought stuff like that to sell on e-bay.

This time the store had two-liter glass beer boots, the kind that rose to fame as “Das Boot” when the knee-slapper film “Beerfest” was released a year earlier, rousing college students who had never seen such a large and unusual receptacle. McCarthy bought three, and just as he had done before, put them on e-bay.

All were gone in four hours for twice the price he paid.

 “So I went back and bought every last one they had in the store and sold all of them in about a week,” he said, noting that “every last one” meant about 30 boots. “And I started to realize that because of the movie ‘Beerfest’ in 2006, these two-liter beer boots had all the sudden exploded in popularity in the United States, so I was trying to get them any way possible.”

Today, McCarthy, 26, runs bierboothaus.com and oktoberfesthaus.com, online businesses dedicated to beer boots and Oktoberfest party fare, respectively. During this year’s Oktoberfest season — the celebration starts in September and runs through mid-October — McCarthy has sold $3,000–$4,000 worth of boots, party hats, German flags and other merchandise daily.

Not bad for a business run from an upstairs bedroom in his parents’ house.

Getting started

“He was always the neighborhood entrepreneur,” said Richard Stern, a childhood friend of McCarthy’s who grew up next door. “He was the one who mowed everyone’s lawn, that swept all the snow; any sort of small-time entrepreneur activity in the neighborhood, he was all over it.”

So Stern wasn’t at all surprised to hear of the beer-boot business and he didn’t doubt for a minute that it would be a success. Stern, now a trader in Chicago, contributed the startup money to get McCarthy’s businness going.

“When you invest, you invest more so in the person than the idea, and anything that Brendan does, I don’t care whether its selling orange juice on the street or beer boots, I would certainly back him in any entrepreneurialism that he is in charge of.”

McCarthy launched his boot site in September 2007 and the Oktoberfest site went live in June of this year.   

An international studies undergrad, McCarthy quickly made connections with suppliers in Europe after discovering the beer boot’s potential. He started ordering boots and having them shipped to his parents’ house.

His third-floor bedroom soon became stuffed with boots of all sizes, some as small as shot glasses.  

Authentic two-liter beer boots, mostly made in Poland and Austria, were pretty much McCarthy’s main sellers at first and went for around $90.

“But I realized in April that there were a lot of people who saw the movie and wanted a boot, but didn’t want to pay $90,” he said. “So I created a mold and found someone in China to make a boot.”

The China-made boots sell for less than half the real deal: $34.99. He’s sold some of the boots to bars in Germany. Breweries Paulaner and Hacker-Pschorr ordered some to distribute as promotional items at Oktoberfest.

Some customers still want boots from Europe, though, so McCarthy has a variety in stock, some more elaborately detailed than others. Customers can also have their boots engraved.

Boot sales are strong, but hype from “Beerfest” has waned and demand has dropped somewhat, McCarthy  said.

“The boot business is tied to movie,” he said. “In terms of overall gross sales it was very much tied to that. But now people are aware of the boots whereas before no one knew what a beer boot was.”

The addition of the Oktoberfest site has also helped McCarthy keep busy. Many Oktoberfest party planners don’t think to buy materials a month out, which is how long orders from Germany — where
McCarthy sees his main competition — can take, he said. Some are also wary of using a credit card on a European website, he said. Those are his customers.

Moving out

“I have very much outgrown the space my parents will let me use,” McCarthy said with a laugh while walking up the stairs to his bedroom office and warehouse in late September.

It was overflowing with no fewer than 500 boots and an assortment of Oktoberfest garb from paper lederhosen and pointy hats to signs, flags and blonde braids. McCarthy moved with a sense of urgency around the small space as a couple of friends packed orders. He recruited them to help with the intense workload during Oktoberfest.

“It’s a very random niche,” said Claier Bretzke, a longtime friend who was helping out. “I didn’t know so many people would be buying German beer boots and party decorations.”

At the time, McCarthy got about 100 e-mails a day from six different accounts and his cell phone rang nonstop. When customers called the toll-free number on his sites and selected customer service, he was the only one working the other end.

“Right now it’s pretty much a one-man operation,” he said. “But that’s about to change.”

That’s because he made a deal with a warehouse and customer service center in Kentucky that would be handling all the orders and distribution. He was also close to signing a lease for an office space in Loring Park, so he could move all of his operations out of his parents’ place.  

He hoped to be out early this month.

McCarthy said he wants to make a career in e-commerce but with more than the sites he’s got now. He wants to put his Master’s degree in French to use and start a Tour de France site and French Open site, for starters. As long as he can find stuff that’ll sell for a handsome profit on e-bay.

“I see myself in e-commerce,” he said. “But definitely not beer boots alone.”

Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or [email protected].