Jared Adkins Adds Spirit to Bluebird Distilling and Char and Stave

The self-starter behind Bluebird Distilling and Char and Stave talks pandemic challenges and expansion around the Main Line.

Jared Adkins dreams up his most inventive business ideas while pacing the floor of his Phoenixville distillery amid the dense, malty scent of brewing liquor.

He has operated Bluebird Distilling since 2014. When businesses began shutting down during the pandemic in 2020, almost all of Adkins’ twenty-two staff left, but instead of downscaling his operation as many companies did then, he chose to expand his investments. “I decided to buy a very big coffee roaster with the idea of, ‘Hey, let’s start roasting coffee as another business. We’ll start an online shop and sell it,’” he says.

Jared Adkins's Bluebird Distilling located in Phoenixville. (Credit Brain Sanchez)
Jared Adkins’ Bluebird Distilling located in Phoenixville. (Credit Brain Sanchez)

His plan paid off. Over the proceeding years, Adkins grew the business to encompass not only a busy distillery, but also Char and Stave. The latter is a budding franchise that comprises two cafés, one in Ardmore and the other in Chestnut Hill, offering a varied menu of creative beverages to community members and a packed calendar of fun, communal events.

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After Adkins set up his new roaster in the back of the distillery at that uncertain time in 2020, he worked with distiller Scott Gilbert, also an avid roaster, to experiment with different ideas and ways to produce coffee. “I think it’s just in our blood,” Adkins says of their long-time partnership. “We like making things.”

His team gradually became inundated with orders and were busier than ever, managing liquor and coffee brewing and the manufacture of sanitizer, which was in high demand at the time. The whittled-down team of five was not enough, so Adkins turned to his community and invited friends and family who were out of work to help. “It was really an SOS to whoever: girlfriends, boyfriends, partners,” says Adkins. “Anybody who wanted to work was joining the team.”

Char and Stave became a team effort.
Char and Stave became a team effort for Jared Adkins and the local community. (Photo credit Brian Episcopo)

Being inventive and overcoming complexities is nothing new to Adkins. Before starting Bluebird Distilling, he was a mechanical engineer at another local brewery. Adkins’ father, Ron, was aware of his son’s passion for brewing­—a hobby that was quickly outshining the day job—and shared an article about modifications to local distilling laws, which, the article stated, would drastically improve what distillers could achieve. Few distilleries existed in the area, and a seed of an idea formed in Adkins’ mind: perhaps he could fill the market gap and catch this wave of opportunity. The more he read the article, the more captivated he became.

“That was 12 years ago, and I could say, to this day, I am more obsessed than I’ve ever been,” Adkins notes. After studying the piece from cover to back, he spent the next two years developing a solid business plan, learning about spirit production and visiting every distillery in his orbit. Taking the definitive leap into entrepreneurship wasn’t without concern, though.

“I think everyone gets caught being in a comfortable job,” Adkins says of how he felt before leaving behind his work as a mechanical engineer for good. “It’s the ease of that. And then finally having the courage to leave the regular world and put it all on the line.”

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He couldn’t wait any longer after stumbling across the ideal building that would soon become Bluebird Distilling. Almost a year later, Adkins opened for a soft launch with family and friends, offering $5 or free drinks. He wasn’t expecting to secure a profit but was delightfully surprised. “The first couple days of business were, it’s funny, very anticlimactic…You spend all this time building it, and then you finally get it done. It’s like, ‘Okay, this is running like I thought it would,’” he explains.

Launching Char and Stave

Once the coffee roasting process was in full swing at the distillery and business was running smoothly, Adkins sensed the time was right to take things to the next level toward the end of the pandemic. He wanted to open a flagship location to show off what his team was making.

Thinking through this next phase of the business, Adkins recalled past trips to Italy and areas of Europe, where he had been struck by the concept of an all-day, all-encompassing café at which customers could enjoy a coffee or a cocktail any time. And so, the idea for Char and Stave was born. It would serve unique coffee beverages created with inventive mixology techniques alongside more run-of-the-mill options, like cappuccinos, lattes and an array of exquisite cocktails crafted using the team’s 25 original spirits.

Adkins found the perfect flagship locale in Ardmore’s Rittenhouse Place. He acquired a building situated on a curved road of quaint stores, restaurants and tall trees. After making extensive renovations to the building’s interior, he went about hiring bartenders and baristas who could jump into a unique, hybrid role that would adapt throughout the day depending on what a customer ordered.

“We like to say coffee-minded bartenders and cocktail-minded baristas,” Adkins says of the talent within his team. When the Ardmore café opened, customers were delighted to choose from nonalcoholic and specialty cocktail menus —they could order matcha mojitos, barrel-age espressos, Old Fashioneds and plenty more from the morning to evening. “Our most popular item for the morning would be our whiskey smash latte, built like a latte with only eight ounces of milk,” Adkins explains. “Then, we do a bourbon caramel reduction out of our four-grain bourbon and add that as the sweetener. That’s my favorite pick for anyone coming in the first time.”

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Most drinks on the menu incorporate the team’s whiskey, aged at Bluebird Distilling, and the four-grain bourbon beans, also aged at the distillery for six months in whiskey barrels, imparting some of the liquor, sweetness and oak into the beans and culminating in an almost dessert-like cup of coffee.

A sense of community is at the heart of Char and Stave. (Photo credit Dominic Episcopo)
A sense of community is at the heart of Jared Adkins’ Char and Stave. (Photo credit Dominic Episcopo)

Adkins’ primary goals for Char and Stave in Ardmore was to ensure a casual, friendly atmosphere for customers; an idea, again, inspired by European coffee shops, as well as what Adkins observed to be a deep public need for companionship following years of pandemic-induced isolation.

He quickly found that customers didn’t only want to order a drink when they came in—they wanted to be part of a community. So, the team launched quizzo nights every Tuesday, live music every Wednesday and, on occasion, live poetry.

“I feel like there are a lot less places now, after the pandemic, offering somewhere for people to come together and share. We’ve brought in acts from New York City and all over,” Adkins describes, detailing how the team often secures an already established or aspiring artist to take the stage before the mic is handed over to the crowd. These events are a gigantic success, with many Main Liners stepping up to the stage. Much artistic talent also exists within Char and Stave’s team.

“We actually employ a lot of musicians as bartenders, as distillers, assistant distillers and such,” Adkins shares.

Expanding to Chestnut Hill

Around six months after launching Char and Stave in Ardmore, Adkins received a phone call from Ann Nevel at the Business Chamber responsible for securing new commerce in Chestnut Hill, just 30-minutes away across the Schuylkill River. She expressed her delight in the Ardmore café and asked Adkins to consider opening a second location in Chestnut Hill. When Adkins viewed the building she had in mind, situated on the corner of Germantown Avenue and East Highland Avenue, nestled on a quaint cobblestone street with huge windows, he says, “It just made sense right away.”

After meeting the landlord, he was certain. “Right there on the spot, I said, ‘We’re in, we’ll take it.’”

Whereas the Char and Stave café in Ardmore is casual, bright and airy, Adkins chose to design the Chestnut Hill location in a darker color scheme with a more opulent ambience. The space is adorned with intricate mosaic tile and mahogany paneling. He carried forward his experience renovating the first café and engaged True Hand Design, an interior design firm from Philadelphia, to help. Adkins’ retired contractor father, who’d inspired his son’s entrepreneurial path, also got involved.

“He was 70 when we started Bluebird,” Adkins says, describing how, for almost a year, he and his father renovated and installed equipment at the original distillery, mostly just the two of them. “It gets him out and keeps his mind sharp, and that’s what he loves to do. The guy has a wealth of knowledge and is a fantastic builder,” Adkins says. “Now, him being 80, he’s definitely not as quick as that, but he’s still very, very knowledgeable.”

Adkins’ ideas and dreams are constantly evolving, but at the core of everything he does is always his community, be it family, his team or customers. As the popularity of Char and Stave grows and Adkins adds more space and newer products, his enthusiasm still flashes brightest while bringing people together. “We’re all in,” he says.

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