A little over three years ago, a brewmaster from San Diego, CA moved his business to Nashville, TN. During the time since, Wes Keegan built his brand into the largest brewery in the state. Situated on 7.5 acres off Charlotte Pike in the old Moose Lodge, Keegan has built a thriving business by offering a product people love in both his craft beer as well as the food that he serves in the tap room. The folks at TailGate Brewery take a few extra steps, however, to make sure they have plenty of the key ingredient to their recipe for success. Keep reading to find out what that is!
The business focuses on people; customers as well as staff. The crew sincerely cultivates a community environment that is open to all ages and families. In addition to the every day, or every week, things their patrons can do at Tailgate, like play board games, watch sports, build with Legos, hear live music and more, they host a number of special events. For example, they recently staged a craft fair that supports local artisans and businesses. It’s no wonder Tailgate has been thriving, so I wanted to talk with those guys and see if I could get some insight into the heart and soul of the place.
Interview with the General Manager
I wrote the following after exchanging a question and answer session with one of the first guys to join the Tailgate team. This post is about how Wes and his team built such a successful food (and beer, of course) business. This is not a review of the beer, food, facilities or service, although those are all fantastic! If you’d like to take a look such a review, check out this article by Nancy Vienneau in “The Tennessean”.
Discovering a Passion
Ryan Bruchey is the the Taproom GM at the Tailgate HQ. He allowed me to pepper him with a few questions about his time at Tailgate and help me understand what makes the place tick. Before hiring on, Ryan kept himself busy with a bevy of other jobs… all at once! A lover a craft beer, Ryan decided to check out a new place in West Nashville. It was love at first sip. On his second visit, he asked for a job which in short order became his passion. “Bar backing at Tailgate became my fourth concurrent job and quickly my favorite,” stated Bruchey.
It wasn’t long before he left his other roles behind and threw all his energy into the brewery, resulting in the jealous (if good-natured) grumbling of ex coworkers; a sign he knew he was on the right track. Here’s where the focus on people counts- According to Bruchey, “It was, and still is, like going to work with your best friends, and even the most stressful moments are an absolute blast.”
Not everything in business is a bed of roses. Just like the ever-present thorns, there are things that will poke you in the backside within every venture, every job and every market. What is the one thing, however, that keeps these guys up at night? Their sincerest concern is for people. Having grown from 7 employees when he joined the TailGate Brewery team to almost 70, Bruchey noted that all of those people count on Tailgate now. It’s their livelihood and their passion along with his own. Additionally, their customers have come to rely on that warm atmosphere of community that they work so hard to foster. Maintaining success in the face of fierce competition in order to meet those needs is what the folks at Tailgate think of as important. That’s what I call having a heart for service and is a key to success!
Making Friends and Influencing Customers
To put an exclamation point on my last statement, I give you the answer to the next question I posed. When asked about the one accomplishment they are most proud of, Bruchey answered, “Service.” From a hospitable taproom team that is both welcoming and knowledgeable, to the open atmosphere of the place, to the excellence of their beer and food, it’s easy to see they have what it takes in the service area. “We have the ability to make regulars out of any walk of life – domestic drinkers, bottle trading experts, fellow brewers, and ice-cubed chardonnay drinkers.” says Bruchey.
The best thing about being in business, according to the young GM, is people. Introducing new people to the staff, the food and the beer is a delight for the whole staff. They get energized when someone is able to share their experiences after visiting the taproom. It’s not just the customers either. Management works hard and gets excited for employees who grow professionally within their ranks and step into new roles. “I myself have grown from bar back to bartender to market manager to assistant manager and to general manager. Growth for the business is exhilarating but growth for the people in the business is even more so.” states Bruchey.
Authenticity is Crucial
As a member of management and and influential part of the Tailgate team, I asked Bruchey what advice he may give to an entrepreneur who is thinking about getting into the food business or opening a brewery. His answer encompasses the spirit of Tailgate, “Be authentic. Our taproom isn’t forced, there’s no fake theme we push. We know who we are and we act as such. It makes decision making easy and executing fast.”'Be authentic. Our taproom isn’t forced, there’s no fake theme we push. We know who we are and we act as such. It makes decision making easy and executing fast.” ~ Tailgate GM, Ryan BrucheyClick To Tweet
Stories: The Spice of Life
Stories, usually best told over a pint or around the dinner table, are part of what makes life fun. If you’re in business for yourself or help operate one long enough, you’re going to start collecting entries for your memoirs that will grow more grand every time they’re told. From the strange to the sublime, they’re always fun to hear about, learn from and often either laugh or cringe at. Bruchey was kind enough to share a couple Tales from the Taproom with me.
What’s That Smell?
One of the funniest moments at Tailgate happened one evening when one of the bartenders was taking out the trash. It was apparent something was amiss when he entered back in through the warehouse; odd, since the back door is the employees’ typical ingress. When the smell began to fill the expanse of the large storage area, it was clear what had happened… a skunk!
He’d come back in through the warehouse to stay away from the customers. “He was miserable,” stated Bruchey. After turning to Google for some quick, simple remedies to quench the stench, the crew went on the hunt for tomato sauce. With pizza being a staple of the Tap Room fare, they happened to have plenty of the stuff on hand! About the incident, Bruchey noted, “Before too long I found myself in the middle of the brew house floor in the largest brewery in the state of Tennessee, spraying my employee with a hose while our kitchen manager dumped pizza sauce on him. I was in tears laughing for over 45 minutes straight!”
When it Rains it Pours
Not all stories have such a happy ending, though, if you ask the bartender, the happiness of that story is relative, I’m sure. Other stories can leave you feeling thankful that more didn’t go wrong. For example, during the summer of 2016, a storm blew into town. It was one of those really good Tennessee storms that the old timers might call a “gully warsher”. The problem presented itself on a Friday night during one of the taproom’s busiest hours; because that’s when things like this happen! At the time, TailGate had been installing a huge canning system to expand business. This involved some work on the roof, and for whatever reason, the roof had not been sealed yet. The GM at the time discretely came in with a couple small buckets and some paper towels to take care of a “few leaks”.
Before long, those leaks became torrents, pouring into the taproom, soaking TVs, tables and patrons alike. They moved their customers, who were in great spirits, into the dry canning room. Bruchey recalls his thoughts and feelings at the time, “As the staff waited, the uncertainty of the damage wore heavy on my mind. Did we lose the entire nights sales? Is the taproom completely lost? Do we need to completely renovate? How soon until we’ll be open for business? That’s real fear.”
A Leader in the Storm
The storm passed after an hour or so and Wes Keegan addressed his staff. He wanted everyone to go home, dry off and get some sleep. He determined they would open an hour early the following day, start working to dry everything out and get the place back in shape. True to his focus on people, Keegan ensured his staff that they would be paid what they would have otherwise made that night in tips.
Despite being told otherwise, the entire team volunteered to stay and help clean up. After squeegeeing and mopping the 7,500sq ft taproom that night, the staff went home exhausted (and a little soggy) and got what rest they could. The Taproom still opened an hour early the next day. Here’s where it goes from bad to ridiculous. The next afternoon, it happened all over again! “We were less afraid this time,” noted Bruchey, “now water damage restoration experts.”
What did we learn?
The lesson here is that if you take care of your people, they will take care of you. It’s easy to hire folks and pay them to do a job. They’ll do that job and nothing more. It’s something else altogether to hire someone, invest in their life and show them you care about them. Make that person a partner and you’re no longer just paying an employee for a job. You have someone who will work with you as a caretaker of your business, and will shoot for the same goals you’re aiming for. That is, hands down, the key component in the recipe for success!
TailGate Brewery – About the NOMS
Since we’re writing a food blog and not just a business journal, I ended with a couple questions that reach into the kitchen at Tailgate. According to Bruchey, the one kitchen tool they couldn’t live without is the dough roller. “At a pizza place, the dough roller is king!” I’ve never used a dough roller, but I’ll do some research on them and add some links in the tools and resources section of this blog at a later time. And to answer my recipe question, he gave me notes on Tailgate’s hyper popular Caprese pizza.
Recipe: Caprese Pizza
Pizza dough – Rolled to size
Thick cut tomato slices
Thick, fresh mozzarella crumbles
Feta cheese crumbles
Cook in pizza oven
Balsamic reduction drizzled on top
That’s a simplified version of a recipe, but they can’t give me their proprietary pizza crust. I’ll put together a recipe that is more complete, however, and post it separately. It won’t be nearly as good as Tailgate’s pizza, but maybe I can give you something you can try at home that will hold you over until the next time you can visit their taproom!
Interested in more stories about small food businesses? Check out these posts:
All images in the post are courtesy of TailGate Brewery