By William Degnan
Edited by Kevin Wise
I was looking for someone who might have his/her finger on the pulse of what is hot in craft beer or more importantly what changes can be expected over the next 5 years. I sought out a knowledgeable retailer- someone who buys and sells craft beer and spirits day in and day out and regularly interfaces with potential customers and competitors.
My search led me to Tim Stevens, a beverage industry consultant and owner/operator of Buffalo’s Ballyhoo Links & Drinks. Stevens, a native Buffalonian, has been in the bar business all of his adult life (25 years). He is a trend setter with applicable experience in multiple markets, including 8 years in San Diego, California. While San Diego is not Portland or Seattle it certainly isn’t a backwater beer town either.
Ballyhoo located on the edge of the Old First Ward is a diamond in the rough.
As soon as you walk in the door you can sense that this small place is special. Quality is a focus at “The Hoo” as it is affectionately called by those in the know. The bar room is spotlessly clean and well organized, but not in a stuffy kind of way. It’s warm and welcoming which is dramatically different then what is right beyond its four walls.
The Hoo specializes in keeping it fresh, natural and simple. As you look around the bar room you see small batch spirits, an approproately-sized draft beer list with plenty of style choices and good variety. The food menu consist primarily of house made sausage links with unique toppings.
So how did the Hoo get there? Well it’s obvious to me that Stevens’ direct involvement is what gets it done. He starts with specifications for everything from the ingredients going into his food and beverages, to the service that his bartenders provide.
He respects tradition and draws from it, with a goal of making a quality product. He puts his customers first, builds relationships, and listens to what people want. He couples this with his years of experience to concoct and deliver that thing that sets his business apart from others.
Stevens stayed on point and went right back to putting the customer first when I asked him about the major changes he has seen in the business over time. According to Stevens:
The biggest change is the educated consumer.
The use of social media and information sharing has led more people to try different things and use the information that is out there. He is tapping into that trend and makes it a point to ensure that his staff is educated and shares that information with his customers. They just don’t spin a napkin down and ask ‘what can I get for you’? The staff is at the ready with knowledge if a customer looks like they could use some help or is simply adventurous and wants to try something different.
I asked Stevens: why here, why now? Stevens said he saw an opportunity to use his knowledge and own/operate his own place- an opportunity that seemed beyond his reach in San Diego. He believes that Buffalo is energized and ready for change. Some, including myself would say Buffalo is lagging about five years behind the craft curve.
The location around the Hoo is seeing a dramatic transformation, the sun is starting to shine past the shadows of the grain elevators. Stevens said:
The anchors are in place and the rising tide will lift all ships.
Who are his customers? He said “anybody” and that the demographic is huge. It tends to vary with the time of day and event happenings and other factors, but overall it’s a mixed bag and everyone is welcome and seems to fit in. When I pushed him for a male/female customer ratio he said it was probably close to 75/25.
When we talked about sales breakdown he estimated that about 40% of his sales was craft beer. He indicated that Ringside Lager was probably his biggest seller, followed by IPA’s, and then unique ‘wild cards’ so to speak. Is this a true representation of the craft beer market? Maybe, or maybe not. These preferences are likely site-specific but customer preference is what really matters.
I think Stevens is using Ringside Lager as a transitioning beer to sway the diehard traditionalist into craft beer. Given the right environment and a varied beer list the customer may just ask “what am I missing?” Stevens is a strong believer in impressing the customer before your peers. That is definitely worth keeping in mind, since it often seems that brewers are often looking at what other brewers are doing and may lose sight of what really matters.
The bar has 12 beer taps, which might seem a little small when compared to today’s tavern norm. But is it? Probably not if you’ve got a good variety and selections that aren’t being found elsewhere. Stevens builds his revolving line-up using consensus. This includes what people are saying about products, bar managers take and reliability of sellers. But most importantly, his choices are based on his gut feeling about whether it will sell or not. And then there is canned beer, and if you want a glass they will gladly provide one. No bottles here- it’s all about freshness.
How does a brewer get noticed and added to the line-up? Stevens said it is all about relationships. Be reliable, trustworthy, make it good product and stand behind it. Oh, and free samples won’t hurt either.
When I asked about foreseeable changes in demand for craft beer, Stevens told me he misplaced his crystal ball. He did however make it clear that people are looking for quality products and are willing to pay for them. He also made it clear that wild cards can work, but we should not loose site of traditional styles. And last but not least, if you are going to do it, do it right and find a way to stand out.
So in closing, my interview with Stevens opened my eyes to how a true entrepreneur successfully goes about finding his competitive advantage and succeeding in business.
This is an interview in a series of guest entries by students in the Practical Brewing class at Erie Community College. Students were asked to conduct an interview with a person of their choosing in the brewing industry.
William Degnan is currently an intern at 42 North Brewing Company as part of his requirements for a state certification program in Brewing Sciences and Services at Erie Community College.