After a job candidate has gone through the whole interview process, the forms, and the rounds of questions from others at La Cumbre Brewing Co. in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Owner Jeff Erway has one final question.
It’s a hypothetical question designed to demonstrate a candidate’s true passion for craft beer. We won’t reveal it here so as to not taint future employment opportunities, but Erway says the simple question “has weeded out a lot of folks who otherwise seemed great but ultimately wouldn’t have been the right fit.”
There is a lot to worry about when it comes to running a small business such as a brewery. One critical aspect is staff training and dedication and how they interact with customers. And that all begins with a business culture that informs, encourages, and expects a true passion for beer.
“We want people in our brewery, in our restaurant, in trucks delivering kegs, and in all aspects of the business to be apostles of craft beer,” says Erway. “Because we make that such a focus, it’s paid off.”
La Cumbre operates a taproom at the original brewery location as well as a second taproom on Albuquerque’s west side. With two locations, it’s important that the employees at each know what’s happening at the other. So in addition to regular training and updates, the employees assigned to one location will often work shifts at the other.
“When we rotate servers, at least once a month, it’s helping to maintain our culture and to get different takes on things when it comes to what’s working, what’s not, or what could be better,” Erway says.
And it’s not just servers who need to interact with customers. La Cumbre encourages brewers to come out after their shifts to enjoy a beer and to talk with customers about the different beers as well as about what’s going on and what’s coming up.
Now, this doesn’t make sense on the busy weekend days if customers are stacked a few deep at the bar, but on weeknights when it’s a little slower, Erway says these interactions have helped forge a better relationship with both new and existing patrons. These interactions also help keep the bartenders and servers informed.
At Bear Republic Brewing Co. in California, Owner Richard Norgrove Jr. regularly releases frequently asked question (FAQ) sheets on new beers and other happenings at the brewery.
“The biggest challenge we have is interacting with same message,” he says. “And that message is really centered on beer releases and how those beer are paired with food.”
It’s not a complicated document. It has the basic stats of the beer along with three or four key words that the brewers use to describe the beer (e.g., citrus, hazy, refreshing, or specific food flavors) and then a few suggestions about menu items that will pair nicely.
As craft beer has grown in popularity, this step has become more important—not only because there are new people coming into the fold who are curious and would like a thoughtful guide to help them navigate new flavors, styles, and pairings but also because there are some beer geeks who like to test the knowledge of staff.
Because Bear Republic (and La Cumbre, for that matter) is a restaurant, they abide by the regular practice of pre-shift information sessions. Regardless whether a brewery has a dedicated food component, this practice can be enormously helpful no matter the staff size. It ensures that bartenders and servers (and anyone else interacting with the public) are aware of upcoming beer releases, the food-truck schedule, future special events, or anything else that will get people interested in not only the day’s offerings but in coming back at a later date.
“Any type of suggestive selling is going to help,” Norgrove says. “You need to literally think of all the angles.” This can include everything from chicken-wing specials during NBA games to last-chance beers from a dwindling supply.
For many established breweries, after candidates complete the interview process but before they hit the floor, there’s a formal education process. At Bear Republic, they call it “beer boot camp,” and it goes through the history of beer, specific styles, and more. La Cumbre does something similar, and Erway still leads classes on classic styles.
“There’s still so much work that I need to do on teaching about beer culture, but these classes show why we believe craft beer is important, and if the employees, who are already invested, see this, they will continue to be passionate.”
He also makes sure that new hires study for and take Cicerone’s Certified Beer Server Exam within 90 days of starting their employment.
Preparing for Change and Staying on Your Game
For breweries that know their customer metrics—that is, how many patrons are first timers vs. returns—it’s important to keep in mind the dedicated ones when planning any big changes, such as a revamp to the menu.
Norgrove remembers when the kitchen changed chefs and the new chef removed a long-beloved menu item. The outcry was heard for years afterward. Gradual introductions and reminders go a long way toward goodwill in the long-term.
While this should be common sense for any business owner, Norgrove also points out the importance of keeping customers happy to avoid negative online reviews. In the case of a brewpub or a brewery with a dedicated food component, he is quick to remind everyone that someone with a bad food experience is likely to tell ten people about it. But will someone do the same if it’s a positive one?
“We have to manage the expectation,” he says.
Abiding by the Labor Laws
Brewery owners wear a lot of hats, and some things about the business can be left by the wayside. But, it’s important to be up to date on your state’s labor laws. Hourly wages have increased, or likely will soon, thanks to legislation passed in various states, meaning owners need to keep a closer eye on the bottom line.
It’s also important to know state laws regarding tipping so as to avoid situations such as the one Surly Brewing in Minneapolis, Minnesota, found itself in a few years ago. It lost a $2.5 million class-action lawsuit by employees who balked at a “mandatory” tip-pooling program that was implemented, accusing the company of illegally forcing them to pool tips. The brewery has since amended its policy.
Having long-term employees who are dedicated to the business and passionate about the product is good for everyone, but brewery owners we spoke with said that the key is to have regular conversations about goals and day-to-day operations and to make sure that everyone feels that they are a valuable member of the team.
At La Cumbre, this includes giving every staff member a chance to brew a recipe on the pilot brewhouse. Erway says that by being intimately involved in making a product that could be shared with the public (yes, there have been batches dumped) gives everyone—no matter their job—a better understanding of why they do what they do.
“We don’t want people around who don’t care about beer and just see this as a job,” Erway says. “When employees are happy, everyone is successful, and we can all grow.”