New Challenges and Solutions for Food in the Taproom
A big part of keeping your customers’ butts in the seats of your taproom relies heavily on what you offer by way of beverages, entertainment, and food. Got great beer? Awesome—you’re already nailing it. Staff members friendly and knowledgeable? Engaging live music? Even better! But food? That’s a whole different monster.
Offering snacks, a comprehensive menu, or even a food truck increases the likelihood that your patrons will stick around for another pint. As an added bonus, it can enhance your brand identity making for an unforgettable guest experience. But these benefits aren’t without some caveats, depending on what method you choose.
Craft breweries specialize in beer—that’s the whole point—and it’s likely that you have heard somewhere from someone that it’s easier to “stick to what you know” and keep on brewing the good stuff rather than try your hand at something new and potentially risky. But COVID-19 hit the brewing industry hard, and taprooms especially are having to adjust quickly in order to stay relevant in the face of changing federal and state standards. So, “risky” might as well be business as usual.
“If you had asked me three years ago when we opened our brewery, ‘Are you going to serve food?’ my immediate response would have been ‘no,’” said Kurtis Cummings, Founder of Switchyard Brewing in Bloomington, Indiana.
He, like many other brewery owners and managers, were content to serve pre-packaged snack options and work with food trucks to satisfy customers’ need for food. Cummings even tried pop-up concepts and delivery service from local restaurants to add something new to the lineup.
Utilizing local food vendors is often the go-to for many breweries, with food trucks seemingly being a dime a dozen in more concentrated cities. But even in areas where saturation in the mobile food market is high, there can be some pitfalls for breweries. So, with a variety of potential options, how do you know what’s right for you?
To Kitchen or Not to Kitchen
When the pandemic changed the operational structures for breweries and taprooms, Cummings was left with a million dollar question: Is a kitchen worth it? For him, the resounding answer was yes. After multiple attempts at pop-ups, food truck partnerships, and the like, he decided to let the data speak for itself. “You should first and foremost listen to your customers,” he said.
Outside of that, location is another big consideration. Is your brewery located in an urban area where foot traffic is high and customers are looking for available food and beverage options? If you’re located in a more remote area, would offering food be an added bonus or a necessity for guests who travel to visit?
Another question: Do you choose to take on a in-house dining concept all on your own or partner with a local restaurant?
“For Switchyard, we decided to partner with a local wood-fired pizza truck to bring their concept into our taproom,” Cummings said. “I liked the idea of letting them run the show. We provide the space, the utilities and the customers – they provide the staffing, the product, and the equipment.”
Kitchens can be a solid, permanent food option for your guests and offer myriad possibilities for collaboration, beer pairings, and ways to build customer loyalty. Keep in mind, however, that start-up costs can be high, health department codes are constantly shifting (particularly in the face of a pandemic), and you’ll have a different staff with unique specializations apart from your taproom team.
Menus on Wheels
Particularly in many craft beer-centric areas, food trucks are ubiquitous, and the mobile vendor/taproom partnership seems a natural relationship from the get-go. The variety amongst mobile food vendors is virtually endless—with some offering grab-and-go options like pizza and sandwiches, to others dishing up more composed fare of farm-to-table entrees—and thus, very appealing to both breweries and customers. How can your palate get bored with so many options?
“The more eclectic, the better for our customers,” said Bill Bridges of Pitt Street Brewing in Greenville, North Carolina. “Just like beer variety, food truck variety is key as well.”
Another bonus? Food vendors often bring their own following, bringing potential new customers to your door.
That’s not to say, however, that food trucks don’t bring with them their own set of issues. Bad weather, mechanical issues, reliability, and slow sales nights are just some of the downfalls to working with mobile vendors.
“Mechanical issues are to be expected from time to time, but last-minute cancels, no call and no shows, double bookings, etc. aren’t okay,” said Jacqueline “JP” Parker of Birdsong Brewing in Charlotte, North Carolina. After dealing with over 40 trucks individually, she created her own distribution list and works on a three-strike policy to weed out unreliable vendors. “Our customers expect consistency, so it’s important to me that we do our best to offer that.”
Some, like Jon Wright, Founder of Redbeard Brewing Co. in Staunton, Virginia, keep consistency for customers by partnering with a smaller number of trucks. “We had much better success with having only 2-3 [trucks] in rotation, rather than as many as possible,” he said. “While my initial logic was that people would want as much variety as possible…they wanted consistent food and faces.”
Bag It Up
When food trucks and kitchens aren’t in the plans, pre-packaged food items like chips, pretzels, and mixed nuts can satiate guests’ hunger for a time and keep them from seeking food elsewhere. This can be especially useful for businesses that may lack alcohol licenses, like cheese shops or other specialty stores.
“We partner with other local craft producers (a pretzel bakery, a charcuterie maker, a chocolatier) to bring high-end specialty products to our taproom,” said Melissa Romano, owner of Lake Anne Brew House in Reston, Virginia. “Win-win for all businesses. We all benefit.”
Another tactic is to partner with a local restaurant for delivery or take-out options if pre-packaged goods aren’t available.
“In our case, we are basically surrounded by restaurants,” said Wright, who put out an open call to see if anyone would be willing to deliver food to his location. “We established a relationship with the most popular and closest of the bunch. This arrangement has been much better than any food truck.”
Consistency Is Key
No one method is going to fit for every brewery. Just as each taproom has its own niche in terms of product, vibe, and location, your food solution should be tailored to your business model because, after all, it’s an extension of your brand’s identity. Would it make sense for your laid-back, country-style taproom to start serving culinary-inspired entrees? Should your German brauhaus offer up pizza and chicken tenders?
Your partnerships with local food vendors or your decision to create an in-house kitchen should not only maintain consistency with your mission as a brewery and taproom, but add value to your customers’ experience. Listen to what your guests have to say and pay attention to trends that can impact your business model.
And remember, business models can change. What once was a non-starter might be more appealing as we make adjustments in the face of COVID-19 and our states’ restrictions.
For Cummings, who added a kitchen in the early days of the pandemic, his decision changed his whole trajectory. “This morning I met the farmer so he could pick up our spent grain, put away our food delivery, prepped recipes for the weekend, sat in a team meeting, wrote this article, and will work in the taproom until close,” he said. “Yes, it’s one more thing to add to the daily chore list, and I would be lying if I said it wasn’t difficult at times, but opening our kitchen has literally saved our business.”
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