So while you could dive in and open another microbrewery and compete within our collaborative sphere, what many of you should consider is adding to the movement in a different capacity. What you should consider is opening the next great American craft beer bar. And if that is of interest to you, here are some important things to consider.
I've written before that businesses with a strong culture outlive those without, and having a concept that you can fall on helps instill this principle. Being craft isn't a concept. Having good beers offered alone is not a concept. Give patrons something simple and memorable. Something they can tell their friends about and want to show them. With the taproom at Solemn Oath we chose allowing credit card only, our Beer For Friends board, and no tipping (sort of). What happened with us was customer shock, why would a place not want cash? Why would a place not push tips for their servers? Still to this day we hit resistance, but I can guarantee when people leave our doors they still talk or think about it. There's value in that and many of them buy a beer for an absentee buddy because he too has to see how we do things weird. Come up with an idea and own it. Want to open an Irish pub? Cool, take a look at what Galway Arms does on Sunday nights where they have an open jam session of traditional Irish music. Bigby's in Addison has a stack of pebbles at the door that allow you to help them in their buying decisions. Three Aces in Little Italy has bondage bingo. In Milwaukee, Romans' Pub makes you feel as welcome as if you were sitting in Mike Romans' living room, because you are. Au Cheval plays old school rap off a reel-to-reel player. Under Belly in San Diego has stools that are on the sidewalk and face in towards the establishment. Hopleaf takes a stand through education with their staff, they'll help you navigate their list. These are quality establishments of different tiers for sure, but each of them are successful and each leave you with a simple and memorable element.
The foundational principle of integrity would seem to be a given, but it is certainly not always the case. How you approach your business, how you execute, how you treat your employees, and how you treat your customers are a direct reflection of the success you will have. Draw your own line in the sand. Don't take cash for lines; don't accept free glassware or beer. How is pay-to-play in any way good for your reputation, business, or customers? As a good friend of mine says, "You can't get a little bit pregnant." What matters more is giving a shit about every facet of the products you're putting out there from beer to glassware to cleanliness as well as the service from staff education to building a culture to your menu design and the tone of every interaction within your staff and with your customers. I was reminded of this fact while having a conversation about this post with Matt Modica, a sales representative at Windy City Distributing. He talked about how the accounts that he sells to that have the most success have their own principles of integrity to stick to. Clean lines do not make a quality establishment; that should be a given. Your efforts in this area will show, and it will make people come back.
You didn't really think you were going to be able to open a kick-ass establishment without having some blood in the game. For a business just getting started cash-flow is king. The people that I know or are friends with who saddle their businesses with bloated salaries for management are more likely to fail. A few thousand dollars here or there on a monthly basis can help propel your bar to the next level. A small business is about flexibility and long before you start seeing returns for your pocket you should be in a position to invest in garnering quality people around you or adding new people. Resentment can come quick and you don't want that in the culture you are trying to build. Keep your numbers in tight so that it is easier to make decisions in this arena, but if you're operating with the integrity mentioned above you will see the rewards of this sacrifice. Don't starve your children, but truly figure out what you need and project forward which will help you in setting the financial goals for your establishment. Long view people, long view. And never at the cost of customer service.
We opened our doors with five total employees and that included taproom staff. Now we have about 15 and have continued to operate under the premise of when we add someone we truly need them. It is better to have some days where you are slammed with everyone working at 115% than to have everyone constantly moving around at 80%. The money is better for both the company and the individuals if everyone's plate is a bit full. You'll operate lean and find out quickly who truly wants to be a part of what you're building. Also work smart, you've heard it before but if you are going into business with your family or friends you need to plan for that being a problem once in a while. You can combat this by going down a similar path as Joe and I, have your distinct areas for each of those people to own. We can argue over shit, but ultimately some decisions need to be dispersed when there are partners. Let someone handle hiring, let someone handle purchasing, or let someone handle the finances. Having distinct roles will help avoid confusion and give everyone their empowerment. And when you add, educate. You cannot assume everyone will just pick up the culture you've been building, they have to understand it first.
Developing relationships with suppliers (breweries) directly is incredibly important. It will help you get the rarest beers around, the ones the beer geeks will be at your doors at open for. But, the bars and restaurants that have the opportunity to receive the hardest beers to get are the ones that support those breweries the best. That means crushing through the every day beers at a high volume. If you are kicking your doors open on the idea that all the beers that will grace your lines will be rare, hard-to-get, high-gravity beers from across the country or world, you will have an uphill battle. I don't want my beer to sit, and we take a general approach of trying to get beer into places that are at least going to turn a keg of our stuff per week. Those people catch my eye when we're trying to make sense of our reports. Having a huge list can be cool, but shit has to move. Too many taps can be a problem, and it is a growing trend. You have to think if that is something that you truly need. My guess is that the answer is no. Unexpected bars move beer at high volumes all the time, and those are the ones that are going to see the rarest beers we offer, if they choose. This right is earned, either through relationships we've had with you at your previous locations or over time. So make sure you have your Allagash White, Lagunitas IPA, Stone IPA, or Half Acre Daisy Cutter that is going to be readily available to you and move well. These beers are high in quality and will keep the lights on while you dabble in a constantly rotating array of rare brews.
I'm not saying not to buy people beers once in a while. I am saying have a policy in place that you can point to. When my father, an investor, comes to the brewery for a beer or a growler he pays. When I've exceeded my monthly allocation for growler fills in the brewery, I pay. If I snag an extra tee shirt for a buddy or even for myself and I recently grabbed one, I pay. If your friends or partners, lovers or family come in you can certainly buy a round, but don't open those taps for a free for all. Have a policy in place that is easy to point to and then when you buy a round, it makes it that much more special.
We asked each of proprietors one simple question, what makes for a truly great bar? Here is the advice that they had:
"Allow your establishment time to evolve. Grow into it. A great reputation is built over many years - it won't come to you over night. No great beer bar started out great right out of the gate. Places like Hopleaf, Map Room, Bavarian Lodge... we all started as VERY different establishments than the our current incarnations. It's been an evolution for all of us. You have to have a relentless passion for what you do. Frankly, you need to be completely obsessed with it. I know the owners of many great establishments, and this is something they all have in common without exception."
-Alan Taylor, Bavarian Lodge in Lisle, IL
"Whether it's a brewery or a great beer bar it's a craft. Everyone knows you have to work at honing your craft which means a commitment to excellence in all phases of the operation."
-Tomme Arthur, Director of Brewery Operations - Lost Abbey
Look for Tomme's upcoming article on being craft at your core in an upcoming issue of All About Beer Magazine.
"A great beer bar has to be a great bar first, that happens to serve great beer. Great aesthetics, convivial atmosphere, attention to small details like lighting, and creating nooks for people to claim as their own make for a great bar. Allowing for conversation is key. Loud music and unescapable video distracts people from the most important things, drinking, eating and talking."
-Michael Roper, Hopleaf in Chicago, IL
"What makes a place special are the relationships that are crafted within the bar or restaurant's four walls. No matter how well-built or styled the place itself may be, what is more difficult to build, but ultimately stronger, are those relationships. An owner builds a relationship with staff, customers, food and beverage distributors, breweries, and sometimes even individual brewers and farmers. All of those relationships eventually cross paths through the give and take of ideas and tastes, a shared passion for both precision and creativity possible with craft beer, and a trust that the experience will be at least interesting, if not great. People and places that have a knack for building and fostering these relationships are most often the most special and lasting among the craft community."
-James Langstine, Bronx Ale House in New York, NY
"To me it's about an underlying authenticity in the approach, where clean lines and smart lineups are minimum expectations, that makes the difference. It's about being truly interested in and passionate about the product, craft beer, not just chasing some trend or riding a wave to cash in. That comes thru at every level, top to bottom. A quality buyer with an educated staff to execute and product from the kitchen to compliment. To be the best, I do believe you have to be the best on all three marks. It's more than just beer from the faucet."
-Phil McFarland, SmallBar Division in Chicago, IL
Creating new and better venues is essential to the growth of craft and it is important that the values of our industry make their way to the front lines. It falls upon us as suppliers to push this message and to help in any way possible to continue to drive the existence of even more great points of sale for our products. I'm not saying that many incredible establishments don't already exist, but there can be more. And as a brewery like Solemn Oath grows and continues to make a high-quality product right smack in the middle of a scaleable industry, we will rely more on outside people than ever before. If you're passionate about beer and working with delicate and tangible products, realize there are so many more areas than just the actual manufacturing. For us to survive and grow, we need more of you to see that light.
For beer to go from grain to glass it often takes manufacturers, distributors, retailers, bar staff, and more. These are those people. These are their stories.