I feel for her, but this is business…

This story from the KC Business Journal came out today. I really do feel for Barden. It sucks to find yourself on the wrong side of a legal showdown with a corporation. They have deep pockets and will always be able to win in this age when lawsuits are more about who can pay their lawyers the longest while this drags on. My heart breaks when she talks about the deep personal connection she has to the restaurant and, by extension, the name. I know first hand how much of your soul goes into a restaurant. It is like a child. And the name is the embodiment of that.

But in the end, this story is about business. Now, full disclosure, I’m a librarian whose husband owns a restaurant. I know way more than the average person wants to about intellectual property laws (copyright and trademark). I’ve been on Gene and Dan from the beginning to trademark everything. Sure we started as a one barrel brewpub in a fairly small suburb of Kansas City. Our main goal at the start was to get the doors open and find a way, every day, to keep them open. But the real question you need to think about when you start a business is how big do you really want to go (which is another interesting question in the brewery world which I will write about soon). Gene and Dan knew they wanted to get to distribution. Once you think you might expand out of your geographic area with your name/logo (and the name and logo of every beer you make), you need to be prepared for that. You need to cover your butt legally.

First and foremost, the trademark process lets you know whether anyone else out there already has the name. In doing that homework, we were able to find out before we opened that no one else had Rock & Run trademarked in the hospitality arena. If we hadn’t done that homework and we were wrong, we would have found out now, as we move into distribution (in the form of a cease and desist letter when we move into a market that is already using the name). At that point, all the brand awareness you’ve created is useless. You have to change all of it. Essentially, you’re starting at ground zero again. It’s suicide for a brewery. Brand awareness is everything.

If no one has the trademark yet, then you’re in the clear. But you need to grab that trademark for yourself. Otherwise you find yourself in Barden’s position. The company who owns the name only trademarked it a year and a half ago. She’s been in business for 15 years using the name. But it may not matter. If she doesn’t win her lawsuit, she’s limited to the KC market unless she changes the name of her restaurant.

Unfortunately, this happens fairly often in the world of entrepreneurs. Trademarks live in the world of a corporate mindset. Small businesses are often created by dreamers and artisans with a passion for what they do. It is often difficult for the passionate artisan to wear the corporate hat and handle things like trademark and licensing. And there is no governing body that requires a business to register trademarks before they open their doors. So small business like Barden’s don’t find out there is a problem until it comes knocking on their door in the form of a cease and desist letter. And by then, it is usually too late.

Funny story, or maybe a new sign of the times?

A few weeks Gene and I were talking about the brewery. This is not surprising, as the brewery takes up a good half of our conversations these days (as in, when couples say, “What did we talk about before we had kids?” and “and a brewery” to that sentence and that’s pretty much our lives). The surprising part was that this conversation didn’t center around beer or brewing, but around people. His staff, to be exact.

I’ve written an ode to these guys in the past, so I won’t go into their amazing qualities here. The important part of this particular story isn’t the guys, it’s how they came to be in this place.

As Gene and I were talking about his staff and the peculiar love for some aspect of brewing geekery that each of them brings to the table, the conversation turned to how thankful he is that they do this for love, because (I think we all know) they aren’t in it for  the money. Which then led to to conversation about how they are able to work for love of craft rather than need of a fat paycheck.

For a long time, I thought Gene and I were an anomaly in the relationship world in that I was the one with a steady job, a paycheck  that covers most of the household bills, and (most important, let’s be honest) good health insurance. Those things allowed Gene to chase his dreams. And he has done so admirably, turning a myriad of hobbies into paid businesses (musician, boy scout, brewer). None of which would have been possible if he was required to play Ward Cleaver and bring home the bacon.

[It helps that I do love what I do (though I didn’t for a while, but that wasn’t the job, it was the environment). Otherwise, I’m pretty sure I would resent his ability to chase his dreams. I’m chasing dreams too. Mine just come with a corporate bonus.]

But as I delve further and further into this world of brewers, I’m learning that we are not as unique as I once thought. You see, each of Gene’s brewing staff shares one quality – a wife who is frighteningly like me. They also have a steady job,  a paycheck  that covers most of the household bills, and health insurance. (*Disclaimer, I haven’t delved into these poor women’s finances, nor can I attest to the quality of their health insurance – these are generalizations based on conversations Gene has had with their husbands in the course of daily physical labor interspersed with beer sampling.) The takeaway is: without their wives giving them each license to do what they love, they wouldn’t be here. And our brewery would be much worse off for it.

Lest you think our whole brewery operation is some freak of relationship nature, let me assure you that this is not the case. In the Kansas City area, I know of several brewery owners who are brewers in whole or in part because their wife or significant other does the heavy lifting financially. This is a thing, people. Maybe even a sign of a shifting family dynamic?

I would love to explore this with some high level, extremely un-pedantic sociology, but I am not even remotely qualified to speak for a generation. I can tell you that in my family, we never really gave much thought to who would have the “grown up” job. I had a college degree (then two, then many more than I needed) and the temperament to handle a traditional, show-up-every-day-and-do-what-someone-tells-you kind of job. If you’ve met Gene, you’ll know that he does not. Beyond that, what Gene did for a living wasn’t really a concern, as long as he was able to be home to care for the kids when they needed him. Musician was an easy start. He worked weekend evenings while I was home and stayed home with the kids during the week. Then he added ropes course facilitator, which was basically a paid Boy Scout camp counselor. These days, brewery ownership has all but suffocated room for his other hobbies, but most days Gene still marvels that people pay him to do this. And that, I think is the mark of a man chasing his dreams.

I love these crazy people!

Three weeks ago I got a call from my husband that turned everything upside down.

Gene: “The Ethan Allan building collapsed.”

Me: “What do you mean, it collapsed?

Gene: “As in, fell down. I’ll send you a picture.”

This is the picture he sent. And I got up from my desk, got in my car and drove back to Liberty.

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The building on the left was under renovation. And then, suddenly, it wasn’t…

The building that collapsed shared a wall with our building. Now, our building is structurally sound (see those steel beams right below the top windows? They’re called overkill and I love them). Even if the shared wall fell down, our building (sans one wall) would remain standing. But due to a variety of factors, we won’t be opening Rock & Run for a little while (don’t ask me how long. That’s the million dollar question and sadly the answer is, I don’t know).

My first reassurance was that no one got hurt in the collapse. My second reassurance was that we have good insurance. Because this was clearly going to get messy.

After those reassurances, my first worry was for our employees.

Before The Collapse (as we refer to it now), I often used to marvel at our employees. Most of them didn’t know each other before they came to work at Rock & Run. But now they’re like a (slightly weird and dysfunctional) family. They live together, hang out together, do public service together (hey, they’re kids – sometimes they do stupid kid things), and generally enjoy each other’s company, both in and out of work. A few have been with us since the beginning. Two and a half years is like 15 years in “real world” job terms. They should get a plaque soon (better yet, their choice of bottles from the liquor closet!).

Now I’ve been a server and a bartender in my life. I know that restaurant workers typically don’t have healthy savings accounts or trust funds they can draw off of when crazy happens (as in, the building next to your work collapses, leaving you without a way to make money). It’s a week to week kind of job that relies on cash coming in daily. And that cash just came to a screeching halt.

In the last three weeks, I’ve been reminded why we have the absolute best employees ever. Many of them came to the square the day of The Collapse. Both to see what had happened and to laugh and drink with us in the aftermath. FYI, you can’t have a serious conversation with restaurant people. They poke fun at everything, even the awful things. And that is so completely what we needed right then. A little gallows humor keeps everything in perspective!

And even more of them came to our impromptu All Staff meeting the Saturday after The Collapse. They wanted to know what they could do to help (lots, it turns out). They wanted to make sure the restaurant was going to weather this storm (it is). And they wanted to know if they still had jobs (they do). Our managers have worked hard to reach out to the restaurant community and find temporary jobs for our workers. Some of our servers even found some interesting jobs of their own (ditch digging?) to make ends meet. These are resilient kids. They scrap and work and land on their feet.

Fast forward three weeks to today. We opened last weekend in a restaurant next to ours that had closed their doors over the winter. We will be leasing this space for a while, serving beer and a limited menu. And I’m proud to say, we haven’t lost any of our employees. In this world where restaurant workers come and go with the wind, we have a great group of committed and enthusiastic employees. They care about Rock & Run and have been our greatest cheerleaders and our greatest word of mouth advertising as we transition to this new space for a little while. I’m glad we can finally get them back into Rock & Run uniforms and back to work. I’ve missed their trash talk and their stories about the wee hours of the night before. Mostly, I’ve just missed them.

Stone Brewing’s new investment group

This story from USA Today restores my faith in craft brewing.

Funny how this never occurred to me in the swath of recent news stories about breweries being bought lock, stock and barrel by investment groups or Big Beer. Stone has figured out a way to give craft brewers the leg up they need without forcing them to lose their craft brewer status or their creative control. Well done, Greg Koch! Let’s hope that more groups follow their lead…

Never underestimate the power of a team (especially in a brewery)

All brewer’s wives can agree: a brewer’s work can be soul crushing. There are so many more aspects to it than making beer. Hell, if it was just about making beer, then everybody would do it, right? But no, to be entirely honest, most of the work of brewing is wet, hot, sticky and downright messy. Not to mention the ordering, costing, equipment maintenance, supply tracking, licensing, government regulations, and just keeping up with news and trends in the beer world. Any brewer who attempts to handle all aspects of brewery operations on their own will go crazy within a few years. As brewer’s wives, it is partly our job to keep our husbands sane.

So it stands to reason that a good brewer’s assistant is worth their weight in gold. And finding a good brewer’s assistant is exactly as hard as you would think.

We’ve had our share of good and bad brewer’s assistants at Rock & Run. A bad brewer’s assistant is a lot like a bad assistant anywhere. So what makes a good BA?

They pay attention to details. In a brewery, details matter. A lot. A bad BA will mis-read recipes, grab the wrong grain, not double check clamps and fittings, etc. A good BA will go the extra mile to check and re-check to make sure things are right. They just care.

They have a team mentality. No one likes cleaning fermenters or kegs. It’s just not fun. A bad BA will just phone it in…and wait for the beer quality to go south. A good BA understands that the job is often messy and dirty and, well, shitty. But they love what they do and have pride in their work, so they do even the shitty job to the best of their ability.

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A good BA is ok with the fact that the brewer gets all the glamour. Ok, I laughed even as I typed that, but let’s face it, brewer’s assistant is an unsung hero kind of job. The brewer gets the credit most of the time. There’s not a lot of room for egos among BAs.

But most of all, a good BA (or this might be where they cross over into great), provides support for the brewer. Like I said earlier, the number of things that need to be done on a daily/weekly basis in a brewery is mind numbing. A good BA will be a sounding board for new beer recipes, help think of ways to make the brewery more efficient, look for ways to cut costs (i.e. troll hardware stores for parts to build those things that are insanely expensive to buy pre-made), and generally pitch in whenever and wherever needed.

We currently have some fantastic guys in our brewery who allow my husband to laugh at work, relax (a little bit) at home, and generally reduce his stress level overall. As a brewer’s wife, that’s one of the most precious things I could ever ask for. Consider this thanks for everything you do. And for smiling while you do it.

I’m surprised it took this long…

Apparently German brewers are bristling against the restrictions placed on them by the Reinheitsgebot, a 500 year old German regulation (the world’s oldest food regulation, according to this article) that mandates German beers consist of only four ingredients: water, malt, hops and yeast. That significantly narrows the creative window for German brewers. And since Germany has no laws against importing beers that don’t follow the purity law, German brewers are left without a place at the table as creative craft beer enters their market. This will be an interesting battle to watch.

Craft Brewers Won’t Play By Germany’s 500 Year Old Rules

 

Tips and tricks for traveling with beer…

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One of the cool benefits of my job is that I get to travel. And I try to make time in every business trip to search out beers that we can’t get in good old MO. Over the last year I’ve brought back numerous bottles of beer, all without a single broken beer. Here are some of the things I’ve learned about traveling with beer (this would go for wine as well):

  1. They say the weight limit is 50 pounds, but really it’s 51 – So far, every baggage handler I’ve met on a variety of airlines has been willing to overlook one pound over the weight limit. But that’s as far as their nice goes. A pound and a half? Nuh uh.
  2. The type of luggage matters – hard shell suitcase all the way. If you’re going to be transporting beer, invest in a hard sided suitcase. You’ll be so very glad you did.
  3. Everything in your luggage can (and will) become beer packing material – Think through what you pack for your trip. You’ll need your luggage packed tightly for the return trip so make sure you pack enough soft items to fill the suitcase without adding significant weight. Everything soft will become padding for beer on the flight home. Yes, I’ve been known to pad my suitcase with towels (from home, not stolen from the hotel!)
  4. Pay attention to the airline scale when you depart – This is so important. Without this information, you can kiss your hopes of a successful return flight goodbye. You can’t know how much weight room you have left unless you know the starting weight. If there are things you are leaving where you are going (consumables such as food; gifts; etc.), either know the weight of those items before you go or pack them in a different suitcase.
  5. Know your beer weights – One day I called Gene from Philadephia and said, “I need to you take a 16 ounce beer bottle and a 22 ounce beer bottle and put them on the bathroom scale.” God love him, the man knew just where I was going with that. It is important to how much each kind of bottle weighs. After that it’s simple math: 51 minus departure weight of suitcase equals the amount of weight left for beer.1925234_10202316434806604_1755511261_n
  6. Mix and match rather than 6 packs whenever possible – Remember you’re going for variety here. Unless it’s 21st Amendment’s Come Hell or High Watermelon (which totally warrants bringing back an entire 6 pack – or even a case), you’ll want to buy single bottles rather than full 6 packs. Explain that you’re from out of town (praise their beer selection) and ask if pretty please they would let you break up a six or two. Praise their beer selection again. And maybe again.
  7. Growlers WON’T fly – don’t even try it. Disaster. You’ve been warned.
  8. PACK your suitcase (you don’t want anything rolling around in there) – When packing for your trip, make sure your suitcase is fully packed. Not to the gills, you still have to fit beer in there, but full enough that things stay where you put them. If you need to, add a towel or two to your luggage. They provide soft bulk without adding much weight. Bonus is that they double as packing material for your beer’s flight home.12729252_10207126471174507_7135643918264722407_n
  9. On your return trip, leave room in your carry on and pack clothes at the top of the suitcase – This is essential. After you’ve packed your suitcase full of beer and soft, cushiony things, make sure to pack some non-liquid items (clothes, etc.) at the top of your bag and leave some empty space in your carry on. That way, if you get to baggage check-in and find that your luggage is overweight, you can quickly unzip your luggage and transfer some ballast from your checked bag to your carry on. Trust me, you don’t want to be that person with your luggage all laid out in the middle of the ticketing counter trying to find something to take out.
  10. Cross your fingers that your bag isn’t dripping at baggage claim – This is the moment of truth. Some of the longest moments of my life have been while waiting for my bag to come flying down the baggage claim ramp. If your bag isn’t dripping, changes are, you’ve had a successful transport.1001122_10206968517624624_7284602494186309432_n

The Brewer’s Wives Club

News flash: Gene and I went south of the river this past weekend. Those who know us know that this is a big deal. Gene usually hates downtown and the river provides a natural barrier that he (and, to be fair, many Northlanders) loathe to cross. But, in a move that clearly proves that my husband was abducted and replaced with an alien, he decided we should start exploring places outside our cozy little hamlet. And not just this past weekend. He used the word “regularly.” Before you get all “Awww…” and think he’s being romantic, let me be clear. This is all about market research. But as I get a night out that isn’t at one of our four usual spots, I’ll take it.

So Friday night found us south of the river. At a brewery. See, I told you. Market research disguised as date night. To be fair, I actually like it. I enjoy visiting other breweries. Call it brainwashing (or Stockholm Syndrome) but I really can’t think of anything better to do on a weekend.

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It was at this brewery that I met yet another brewer’s wife. I don’t know if other brewer’s wives feel like this, but I feel drawn to other brewer’s wives. Especially those at small microbreweries. We share a variety of life experiences that people outside this industry can’t understand.

And it was no different for this lovely lady I met last weekend. We bonded early over the sheer volume of brewing knowledge we have accumulated (against our will, in some cases) by sheer repetition and, at times, osmosis. From there we shared our paths to brewery wifedom. These stories always fascinate me. Every person who starts a micro (or nano) brewery professionally has a long, and often winding, path that led them ultimately to professional brewer. And every brewer has a spouse (often a wife – let’s face the fact that men dominate the brewing world) who followed that path right along with them, often changing, relocating, or giving up putting on hold their own dreams in the process.

I can guarantee you that every wife of a small brewery owner can answer the question, “Do you remember the moment you both agreed to actually go for this?” Not only do they remember it, they know where they were, and, to some extent, the words they used. This is a flagship moment in the life of a brewery and those who run it. It is the moment when the pendulum shifts from “This is a cool idea, we should do this someday,” to “We’re opening a brewery. Excuse me while I sign my name to this bank loan.” Yep, shit just got real.

Brewer’s wives are the sounding boards for their husband’s off the wall beer ideas and the person they vent to about problems with the equipment (that can only be solved by talking them through – preferably with someone who doesn’t interrupt). We’re often the first (read – free) labor for the brewery, doing everything from painting, cleaning, washing, decorating and (once the brewery is open) manning the bar.

Brewer’s wives view beer differently than the general public. We look at beer label art, bottle size, ingredients, where the brewery is located, how many barrels it produces, etc. We can’t stick to one or two favorite beers. Tasting a variety of beers is part of the gig. We don’t brew, but we advise brewers, and people expect us to know beer – so we’d better stay on top of things in the beer world.

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As I talked with my new brewer’s wife friend, we touched on all of these topics and more. I’m thinking we should start a brewer’s wife support group club. There are only about 12 or so microbreweries in KC, so it would be a pretty small group. But we would bring the best beverages!