Creating the Perfect Atmosphere for Your Brewpub or Tasting Room

Authored by Tom Hennessy. Reprinted with permission. Sept/Oct 2011 The New Brewer

The Oyster

Have you ever walked into a restaurant and immediately felt comfortable? Sort of like an old AM radio that tunes into a clear station and the static fades away. It’s hard to put a finger on it, but the place just feels right. It’s probably no accident, but rather the careful manipulation of the restaurant’s environment.

When I was in San Francisco in the late 80s scouting restaurant ideas, I found myself in one particular restaurant that felt so perfect I had to ask the owner how he did it. He called the environment his “oyster,” meaning he created his own little private world, separate from the busy street outside, as though it existed in its own shell. I have since used the term when describing the same thing in my own restaurants and breweries.

Whether you have a brewpub or packaging brewery, this very simple concept can have a huge impact on your sales. I would go so far as to say that if you commit to this concept in your business practice, it will fundamentally change not only the way you do business, but how you look at other businesses as well.

Now you may be thinking, “As a pack- aging brewery, what’s the point?” But, as I learned when I opened a packaging brewery, most of my cash flow and profits were coming out of my tasting room rather than keg accounts and six-packs. In fact, I dare you to show me a packaging brewery that has not expanded its tasting room, realizing this huge sales benefit.

Right here in Colorado, I can think of examples like Ska Brewing in Durango and Upslope in Boulder who have increased the size and scope of their tasting areas. When Tim Myers of Strange Brewing Company opened as a nanobrewery last year in Denver, he was hoping to sell kegs to a few accounts in the local area. He considered his tasting room a place where he could get some direct feedback from his custom- ers. “What we found, though, is the tasting room paid all our bills including all our startup costs, and gave us enough money to expand into a seven-barrel system.”

Using this powerful tool will cost you a little time and a minimal amount of money. It will take practice, though. But, once you get it, it becomes second nature.

There are five parts that make up the oyster:

  1. Lighting
  2. Music
  3. Temperature
  4. Cleanliness
  5. Stage Setting.

Lighting

I can’t say enough about lighting. In so many businesses, it is taken for granted. However, with just a little imagination, it can be a criti- cal part of the way you present your brewery to customers.

Thai Me Up Brewing in Jackson Hole, Wyo. uses lighting to help create the sense that you are not in Jackson anymore. “There is a myth of the Old West cowboy town,” explains Jeremy Tofte, owner/brewer of this three-barrel brewery. “When you walk into our place, it’s like you are in the city.”

So instead of a typical hanging lantern light you might expect in a saloon from Gunsmoke, Thai Me Up uses halogen spots, modern hanging fixtures, and soft recessed lighting to give the space a more urban feel. It works! The look is more of a Bangkok nightclub than a bar in the American West.

To help you create the type of oyster you are after for your brewery, here are two basic rules about lighting.

Avoid using fluorescent lights.

A brewery doesn’t need fluorescent lights, except perhaps in the back kitchen, or in the production area, out of the public view. For the serving area, choose lights that match the type of brewery you intend to portray. You might use track lighting, recessed lights, pendant lights, or a combination of all three. Fluorescent lights, however, make skin tones look unnatural. When your customers are in your brewery, they do not want to look like they are in a cold office.

Put lights on a dimmer switch.

It is important to have the lights on a dimmer switch, an on/off switch that is adjust- able up or down. You can adjust the lights according to the outside natural light. The general rule I find works best is that when the sun is at its brightest, you keep the lights on their highest to balance out the sunlight. But, as the sun goes down, so do the lights, softening the effect. If the lights are not bright enough during the day to balance out the sun, then the space feels too dark. If the lights are too bright when the sun goes down, it makes the space feel too cold and empty. When you find that perfect balance of light, the room will feel and look warm and inviting. You can mark your dimmers for the day and night shifts, but remember the in-between time when you need to ad- just them in small increments. Also, when adjusting your lights, adjust them slowly— so slow that the adjustment is imperceptible to the customer.

Music

Music is one of my favorite subjects within the oyster theme. There are two key factors that have to do with having music in your business.

  1. Type of music.
  2. Volume of music.

The type of music depends on many factors. One is the type of brewery you have. If it has a lounge feel, you might choose some hip modern lounge music. If your customers are urban professionals, you might want jazz standards or hip-hop. If you are located next to a university, the music might reflect a student population.

The type of music also depends upon your clientele. For instance, your brewery might have a business clientele for lunch and a college crowd for dinner. You definitely wouldn’t want one type of music for both of these groups. It is best to under- stand all of your customers and be able to customize your music selection in order to reach them.

Most brewery owners I talk to just let the bartenders pick the music. Consider this: music is not for the employees’ entertainment. It should be customized to your tasting room’s concept and clientele. Your music selection is too important to leave up to your bartender!

As for the volume, this depends on the sound level of your brewery. If it is early and there are only a few customers, you might want the music a little higher to help fill in the silent gaps, making the bar not feel so vacant. However, if the pub is jamming, you might not want to have any music at all, or at least not as loud. When there is too much activity, the extra music just makes the whole scene feel out of control.

Generally, keep the music level at about what is considered normal speaking level. It should be loud enough so that customers cannot hear the conversations at the next table without trying to, but not so loud that someone has to raise their voice to be heard.

Brian Smith of Blackfoot River Brewpub in historic downtown Helena, Mont. has a simple philosophy when it comes to music. “It’s all about beer and people. We focus on these two things, so there are no TVs.” The music accompanies the atmosphere where there is community seating and no bar seats. “People come to have a beer and visit with friends or meet new people.”

Think of music as the glue that holds your atmosphere together.

Temperature

Correct temperature equals comfort. It’s that simple. The temperature inside your brewery fluctuates according to the outside temperature and how many people are in the seating area. It also has a psychological impact on your customers. For example, if it is snowing outside, instead of a comfortable 70 degrees, boost it to 73—your customers will come in from the snow to a blast of warm air, welcoming them into the comfort of your pub. Or, if it is sweltering outside, and you have a good air conditioner, the customer gets a blast of cool air. You can almost see the customer relax.

In business, we sometimes tend to forget about the temperature of our establishments unless the heating or cooling unit is broken. We also are not good indicators of the temperature because we are usually running around doing things that make us feel a little warmer than a customer just coming in the door. If you have ever been inside a restaurant in Phoenix in the summer and noticed that customers bring sweaters in with them because they know the air conditioner will be blasting, then you know what I mean.

One good thing we can do is watch our customers’ body language. If a customer feels cold in your pub, you can tell by the way they cross their arms or keep their sweaters or jackets on. Whether too cold or too hot, body language is always a great indicator of temperature imbalance.

Cleanliness

Why is cleanliness so important, aside from the obvious? When a customer walks into your brewery and everything is clean and neat, there is a sense of order about the place. Subconsciously, it tells the customer a lot about your level of professionalism.

When a customer leaves a table, not only do you wipe the table down, you also need to push the chairs back up to the table, and reset the condiments in a uniform manner. On a regular basis, chipped paint needs to be painted, and lights and fans need to be dusted.

Cleanliness in your brewery is a direct result of successful implementation of your systems. If a salt shaker is only half full, it means there is no system to fill it on a regular basis. If an establishment can’t keep a salt shaker full, can they properly rotate their food inventory? What you are giving your customers is a sense of order in a sometimes chaotic world. Cleanliness indicates reliability and responsibility.

Stage Setting

Stage setting is the touchy-feely part of the oyster. It’s what you are trying to tell your customer about you. Avoid the obvious and have fun. There is no need to reproduce what everyone would expect out of a brewery. First, decide what you want to say about your brewery, not just what you want to sell. People often make purchases based on feelings, not on necessity. What kind of feeling are you trying to get across to your customer?

Even a large brewery like Odell Brewing in Fort Collins, Colo. aims for a “pub feel.” Taproom manager Jason Bowser says, “This place is massive,” but the atmosphere “has to fit the clientele.” In spite of the large size, the tasting area is set up into smaller sections including a patio, to-go area, and open seating. The arrangement tells the customer that although it is a large manufacturing facility, it also is a comfortable place to hang out.

At Colorado Boy, our stage setting is that of a small corner pub with a warm feeling created by color choices and lighting. There are no TVs. We promote conversation over a pint of cask ale. Although the entire brew- pub is only 1,200 square feet, the use of angled mirrors and a completely open-to- the-public brewery make the place  seem inviting and larger than it really is.

Your Brewery is Your Oyster

To recap the highlights:

  1. Lighting: No fluorescents. Put lights on a dimmer to create warmth and balance.
  2. Music: Pick the music that fits your customers. Adjust the volume to normal speaking volume, not more, not less.
  3. Temperature: Set it to what’s comfort- able for the customers, not the staff.
  4. Cleanliness: Create a sense of order and use systems to keep the facility in good repair.
  5. Stage Setting: You are creating a play. Stage-direct it accordingly.

The oyster is about what your business says to the customer. Just being aware of what you need for your oyster puts you ahead of most competition. Give it a try.