On Aug. 14, during DC Beer Week, Molly Malone’s on Barracks Row was packed for an ALS awareness fundraiser. Local ’90s cover band Mr. Blonde played, and people drank local beer donated for the event.
Funds from the evening were supposed to go to Bottoms Up to Down ALS, a nonprofit that raises money for the ALS Therapy Development Institute in Cambridge, Mass. It’s a cause near and dear to the group’s founder, Teresa Thurtle, who serves in the National Guard and lost her father and one of her grandmothers to the debilitating neurodegenerative disease.
It’s also an important cause to DC Brau co-founder Brandon Skall. One of the brewery’s initial investors died from ALS, and Skall has a family friend with ALS who introduced him to Thurtle’s group. DC Brau, along with Atlas Brew Works, each donated four kegs to the event with the understanding that the proceeds would go to the cause, along with money collected from a $10 cover charge (which included a beer), raffle tickets, and an auction.
Five months later, however, the nonprofit hadn’t seen any of the money from the donated beer sales. After the fundraiser, Molly Malone’s owner Richard Cervera blamed “an overzealous manager,” who’s since parted ways with the restaurant, for poorly organizing the event and failing to keep track of sales. Cervera says he didn’t know about the event and promises made until weeks after it was over, but he eventually agreed to donate $1,652. The brewers say that’s far less than the value of the donated beer, which they estimated to be worth around $9,000 in sales. (The brewers also directly collected $1,212 from the door charge and raffle tickets, which has already been donated to the charity.)
Even then, the money wasn’t forthcoming. Thurtle emailed Cervera four times between October and December about sending the check. He repeatedly said it was coming, but the money never arrived. It wasn’t until Washington City Paper contacted Cervera about the situation last week that he finally sent the donation.
“I thought the check had been mailed to them in mid December—I reached out to our back office this morning and learned that it had not been done, and was lost in the shuffle of the holidays,” Cervera told City Paper.
Over the summer, Molly Malone’s expressed interest in doing an event with DC Brau for DC Beer Week. The brewery team suggested tying in a fundraiser for Bottoms Up to Down ALS. Later, Molly Malone’s sister restaurant Lola’s was added to the event.
DC Brau Senior Accounts Manager Jen Jackson, who helped coordinate the event, and Molly Malone’s and Lola’s then-General Manager Colin Laverty and Bar Manager Will Boone agreed in emails that a portion of the beer sales would go to the charity. Jackson says they had several discussions about how much of the profits would be donated, but the restaurant managers repeatedly avoided giving them a direct answer.
The first conflict was over the delivery of the beer. DC Brau and Atlas Brew Works invoiced the beer to Bottoms Up to Down ALS and arranged to have their distributor deliver the kegs to the restaurants. (The breweries can’t legally just drop off kegs themselves.) But due to some sort of mix-up, the restaurants ended up paying for kegs rather than getting the donated beer. Skall and Atlas Brew Works founder Justin Cox say they went out of their way to make sure it was taken care of, and the kegs were donated retroactively, immediately following the event.
In the weeks following the fundraiser, DC Brau’s Jackson repeatedly followed up with Molly Malone’s managers about the status of their donation. After a month with no answers, Jackson threatened to go to their superiors and called it unacceptable “to effectively steal from a charity.”
Laverty emailed back that the donated kegs arrived weeks after the event. “Having a month of joggling [sic] inventories has not only been unbelievably frustrating but downright ridiculous,” he wrote. He concluded the message saying, “To think I personally would steal from a charity is…… well there really isn’t much i can say.”
Atlas Brew Works’ Cox countered that they took care of the kegs immediately after the event and questioned why the distributor had only just delivered them. “Is that because you didn’t have room for them in your cooler?” he wrote. “Our issue is the lack of communication and any commitment from you to this charity… We need to see you hold up your end in a reasonable timeframe, which has passed.”
Laverty promised to get everything worked out. “This all could have been handled better on both ends and communication was terrible but i will do my best to have this all resolved… Again sorry we dropped the ball on our end [but] that was not my intention,” he wrote. (Laverty could not be reached for further comment.)
After this, owner Cervera got involved. On Sept. 22, Boone told the brewers that the restaurant group would donate $750, roughly eight percent of their combined sales from the entire day. Instead, Skall suggested that Cervera and the brewers sit down to discuss the matter in person. They met on Sept. 28.
“[Cervera] was not very open to wanting to work things out,” Skall says. “From the start, he was like, ‘Well, we didn’t really get anything.’”
Cox likewise recalls that Cervera was mostly concerned with what additional business the event brought to his restaurants. “So, [the sales] he would normally do on a Friday night, did he do better than that because of the people coming to the event? And then he would donate a portion of those proceeds after he backs out all his overhead,” Cox says.
Cervera tells City Paper in an email that no one kept track of the sales or how many guests were attending the event versus the bar’s normal Friday night crowd. He says by the time he was made aware of the situation, “it was too late to recreate the sales and calculate what the number was, though our sales were fairly typical for a summer Friday.”
Cervera says in an effort to resolve the issue, “we made our best effort to calculate an appropriate figure and then added in an additional sum of money to donate to the organization. Of course we had to budget for this unexpected expenditure as well.”
He adds that his restaurant group takes pride in working with local charities, citing events benefitting breast cancer organization DC Pink Divas as well as the American Foundation for Children with AIDS.
“To be completely frank with you, I am really disappointed in how this whole event was handled from the beginning and was completely blindsided by the issues surrounding it,” Cervera says.
Brianne Murphy, who consults on the operations of Cervera’s restaurants, says the situation was complicated by the delivery mix-up and the fact that they didn’t know many beers were given away as part of the $10 cover charge.
“By the time we realized what had happened, those kegs are long gone, they’re long accounted for, there’s no way to tell who sold what,” she says. “I don’t know how much beer was poured that night, and the people that organized the event no longer are with us.”
As for the $1,652, Murphy says, “everyone came up with this number and thought it was a fair amount, and they rounded up, and it was a best estimate on what was sold.”
But Skall says that wasn’t really the case. “We just wanted, at this point, to see some outcome for this charity,” Skall says.
Skall and Cox both say that only about three kegs were tapped the night of the event. He says anything left over should have been returned to the charity, not sold for profit after the fact.
On Oct. 20, Jackson from DC Brau sent Thurtle an email introducing her to Cervera and letting her know that he had decided to donate $1,652 to Bottoms Up to Down ALS. Cervera said he’d send the check by the end of the month, and Thurtle promptly offered the address.
Nearly a month later, the check still had not arrived. On Nov. 16, Thurtle followed up again. Cervera said he’d check to see if it was sent.
On Dec. 1, Thurtle emailed again. So did Jackson.
Cervera responded only to Jackson: “It will be done soon. No one in accounting knew what it was,” he wrote. “Now; stop emailing me any further.”
On Dec. 11, Thurtle followed up a fourth time, offering to stop by the bar to pick up the check. Cervera responded: “Your check will be sent out on Monday then we will be done with this unfortunate situation (not started by your group, but a complete failure by all others concerned in originally putting it together). I was not happy about this deal, and though I reluctantly agreed to a solution it is not something I appreciate being involved in. Especially when your partners refused to participate in what I would have thought was a quid pro quo; our annual breast cancer event. Enough said.”
The quid pro quo Cervera is referring to is another event he asked DC Brau and Atlas Brew Works donate beer to after the Bottoms Up to Down ALS fundraiser.
“I thought he was joking when he said that, just under the circumstances,” says Cox, who declined.
Skall also said “no”; their charitable budget for the year was maxed out. (DC Brau donated nearly $20,000 worth of beer to various causes in 2015, Skall says.) “He got really offended or something, it seemed, that we couldn’t donate beer to his charity,” Skall says. “I don’t feel like that should have any impact on this previous event where he sold all this beer for days or weeks after the event.”
As for the check’s lengthy delay, Murphy says the restaurant outsources its accounts payable to a company in Baltimore. “Richard picks up a phone, tells them, ‘Hey, cut a check for this,’ and he assumes it goes out unless he hears otherwise,” she says. “I just think it fell through the cracks.”
“We all want to make things right with this group, and I don’t think anyone feels good about how this went down,” Murphy adds. “It’s just been disorganized from start to finish.”
Skall says he’s never witnessed anything like this with any charity event he’s been involved in before. Likewise, Thurtle says she’s never had trouble getting donations from the bars and restaurants she’s worked with in the past. Bottoms Up to Down ALS hosts a number of fundraisers throughout the year, including an annual cornhole toss tournament and various happy hours.
Thurtle got involved in ALS advocacy and fundraising shortly after her father died in 2011. She and her brothers have familial ALS, meaning they have the gene that can lead to the disease. Thurtle also notes that military members are twice as likely to develop ALS.
She and her siblings are part of a research program through the ALS Therapy Development Institute where for six days a month they wear motion trackers on their wrists and ankles—“like the ultimate FitBit”—to monitor their health. “The more we understand about the disease the better we can find a cure for the disease,” Thurtle says.
The night of the Molly Malone’s and Lola’s event, Thurtle got on stage to tell her story and encourage people to do the Ice Bucket Challenge. A few ALS patients were there, as well as a family who’d just lost their 32-year-old daughter to ALS.
“It was a lot of energy. A lot of people had fun. The band was great,” Thurtle says. “That’s why it’s disappointing. It was just such a successful event.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery