Some Lehigh Valley residents celebrate Cinco de Mayo with a chilled Dos Equis, while others salivate at the slow cascade of foam on a perfectly poured pint of Guinness during Bethlehem’s Celtic Classic. Pop open any of these – or a Yuengling, Heineken or Miller Lite, among others – and you’re unwittingly toasting to the Lehigh Valley’s oldest and only locally owned and operated national beer wholesaler, Banko Beverage. During its 85 year history in the Lehigh Valley, it has grown to its current regional distribution of 10 counties and serving more than 1,000 restaurants, bars, distributors and entertainment venues.
The company has not only helped to shape the beer business in the Lehigh Valley but has also survived a recent rapid industry consolidation to remain the only locally owned and operated wholesaler of its stature in the Lehigh Valley. “Banko Beverage and its employees are like extended members of my family,” explains Mary Ellen Racz, Banko’s owner. “I could have sold the company numerous times in recent years but I was unwilling to expose our employees to job uncertainty by selling.” In fact, the company has not only survived a feverish period of consolidation, but has set its sights on growth and expansion. In 2014, Banko relocated from a leased facility that it operated out of for decades into a company owned, newly refurbished building in Allentown. “The new facility not only gives us the opportunity to operate our business in a safer and more efficient manner but provides the perfect platform for us to further expand and grow the business,” said Joe Marino, Banko’s director of sales. “Our growth strategy is very simple,” explains Rob Gontkosky, Banko’s assistant director of sales, “We are fortunate to have an amazing portfolio of domestic and imports with a heritage that our market connects with, so organic growth within that segment is important to us. To supplement this, with craft brewers that align with our sales, distribution and customer service model. Representing large domestic brewers like Miller, historically significant imports like Heineken, Guinness and Stella Artois, and strategic crafts like Old Forge and Doc G’s allows us to have the products that our customer’s demand, when they demand it, and serve them in a manner that our competitors are unable or unwilling to.”
The company distributes millions of cases a year and is also the principle supplier of beer for all ArtsQuest events, including Musikfest (a partner since its inception in 1984), where they assist the festival in keeping eight trucks running with up to 12 taps each over the course of the 10-day festival. They also supply beer for the Allentown Fair, the Sands Bethlehem Events Center and partner with both Coca-Cola Park and the PPL Center to get their brands in front of sports fans and concert goers.
After 85 years in the business, what sets Banko apart beyond their strong relationship with suppliers and growing footprint (Banko North operates out of Scranton’s Jessup Small Business Center) is their company culture and commitment to their customers and the community. When a supplier calls Banko, they know they’ll be in contact with a sales representative or brand manager who has been with the company for decades. Children and siblings of current and former employees help make up the Banko team, creating an atmosphere of generational employees who enjoy working for a business under Mary Ellen’s leadership.
Mary Ellen has been with the company for four decades and maintains affiliation with the National Beer Wholesalers Association, Craft Brewers Association, Malt Beverage Distributor’s Association, and the Pennsylvania Beer Alliance. She has seen the company through expansion, environmental sustainability practices and partnerships with nonprofit organizations and charities throughout the Lehigh Valley. Under Mary Ellen’s guidance, Banko has won numerous brewery awards, including Guinness’ Gold Bar and Heineken’s Red Star Award. They are very proud of their most recent, the 2017 MillerCoors President’s Award which recognizes the best of the best in wholesalers across the country.
Mary Ellen has also been at the helm of the company through the challenging period of Pennsylvania liquor reform. The pace of liberalization for Pennsylvania’s alcohol industry has accelerated over the past several years, with changes in the state liquor code expanding sales channels for beer, wine and spirits. Looser regulations have not only impacted the quantity of bottles and cans that can be purchased at one time, but have also expanded the number of accounts that Banko services to include places like grocery stores, convenience markets and gas stations. “The changing landscape of the Pennsylvania beer industry has created a few challenges. As a wholesaler, we’ve had to adjust on the fly to the expanding regulations, while continuing to provide quality service,” explains Gontkosky.
As Banko Beverage holds a place as a community-oriented operation, Mary Ellen and her colleagues are looking ahead to future growth and continuing to add new brands to their portfolio. First and foremost, the company wants to continue being a top employer and continue to support the Lehigh Valley community.
“We are always looking for opportunities to grow our business,” says Dave Lieb, executive vice president & general manager. “After all, we are the stewards of a long standing family tradition, not just to Mary Ellen and her immediate family, but to all of the local families that the company employs. To be successful, our unwavering focus is on protecting local jobs, preserving high quality employee benefits and growing wages.”
Or, in Joe Marino’s words, “We want to keep our trucks filled and our people employed.