By KATIE GINDER-VOGEL
During the COVID-19 pandemic, small business owners have had to scramble to stay afloat amid rapidly changing public health regulations. Garth Beyer opened Garth’s Brew Bar on Monroe Street in Madison in December 2019, and had been open only three months, before Wisconsin’s Safer at Home order forced him to pivot to carryout sales only and eventually to carry-out and patio seating only. But Beyer says the three months he had to prove himself and for guests to experience the bar is keeping the business going.
“We’ve had a lot of support from the community, craft beer drinkers, and breweries,” says Beyer. “We had a few months under our belt for people to come enjoy our beer, and we got our brand out there. People learned about our mission and want to support us.”
Three months after opening and right before the shutdown, CraftBeer.com dubbed Garth’s Brew Bar the “Greatest American Beer Bar in Wisconsin.”
“There are only a few major awards that a beer bar can really win in America, and this is one of the biggest ones,” Beyer says. “And though we planned a big celebration for it that had to be cancelled due to COVID-19, we’ve had a lot of craft beer drinkers come in and congratulate us.”
Beyer has appreciated the support of the community throughout COVID-19, as well as the city of Madison’s willingness to approve outdoor dining and the endless support of his landlord, Urban Land Interests.
“Folks are more comfortable drinking outside right now, so it was paramount we got our license quickly to offer that opportunity. Since the quick approval, we’ve had good weather, and seeing people enjoying craft beer outside the bar is the best advertising there is,” Beyer says. “Nothing says, ‘this is a good place’ than seeing people enjoying it when you walk or drive down Monroe Street.”
During the pandemic, Beyer’s original business model of 80% of revenue coming from on-premise beer sales and 20% from carry-out purchases flipped, but he’s more optimistic than ever about the future.
“Now, we’ll have regular to-go purchasers who know us as the place to get a six-pack of great local craft beer to-go,” he says. “At the end of this, there will be people who love doing business this way, not having to get a sitter, staying home—there will be a remnant of this that helps businesses likes ours long after COVID-19.”
Garth’s Brew Bar is hosting virtual tastings and craft beer launch parties, as well as moving forward with collaboration brews with local breweries.
“Breweries seek us out if they’re going to start distributing to Madison or want extra attention from the city’s craftiest of beer drinkers,” Beyer says. “They like knowing that we’re a destination hub for them to test the market and brew a collaboration beer with. And we take pride in providing them consumer feedback, brand support, and market knowledge to help them thrive.”
Beyer has been immersed in Madison’s craft beer community since college at UW-Madison, where he launched the Badger Herald’s craft beer column and often wrote about beer for academic assignments as a journalism and strategic communications major.
“I dove into stories about Potosi Brewing Company’s contribution to their community through the Potosi Foundation and Central Waters Brewing Company’s sustainability efforts,” says Beyer. “I talked to all these remarkable people in the industry and realized what a massive positive impact they have on their communities.”
When Beyer graduated in 2014, he continued writing about beer and local breweries for the Cap Times as a freelancer, cultivated his homebrewing hobby, and beertended at Octopi Brewing Company’s taproom.
“At the time, there were nine breweries in the area, and now there are more than 20,” Beyer says. “I had the privilege of telling the city about many of these new breweries as a writer.”
Madison-based integrated marketing agency Hiebing quickly hired Beyer, leveraging his communications chops for clients including Schneider, Church Mutual Insurance Company, Mansfield, and Toppers Pizza; not to mention Hiebing’s external marketing. He still works at Hiebing and loves it.
“Being a marketer is my main gig, and I moonlight as a bar owner,” Beyer says.
Beyer always had the entrepreneurial bug. As a child, instead of running a lemonade stand, he sold and traded Beanie Babes with other neighborhood children. He also owned several vending machines and arcade machines. For his thirteenth birthday party, he lined up all his games in his garage and invited his friends to come enjoy them. He kept his eye on the idea of creating a unique business as an adult—he just didn’t know what it would be.
“After talking to and writing about brewers, brewery owners, and bar owners, I wanted to do something for these folks that could help them,” he says. “They’re remarkable people doing a lot for their communities and making a huge financial and cultural impact on the country, and they often don’t get the amount of light shown on them that they deserve.”
Beyer’s inspiration for a bar came from a “beercation” he and a college friend took to Budapest, Hungary.
“We went to a bar called Hops, and the owner was there serving beer, and he knew everything on the menu,” recalls Beyer. “There were communal tables, and it was relaxed and comfortable, with people socializing and drinking beer between conversations. I felt like Madison needed something like that, and that’s what I set out to create. After visiting Hops, I realized a craft beer bar was the best way to realize my passion for helping breweries thrive.”
In the fall of 2016, Beyer connected with Wisconsin Small Business Development Center at UW–Madison (SBDC), business consultant Anne Inman, whom he describes as “truly remarkable.” He says that’s when things started to take off.
“I had done a lot of pre-work and written a mini-business plan plotting where I wanted to be and how to make it happen,” says Beyer. “I leveraged the marketing prowess of colleagues at Hiebing and friends, brainstorming and asking questions about which Madison neighborhood would be most responsive to a place like this.”
Beyer and Inman began by going through his business plan, which at the end of a number of workshops became a 56-page proof of concept. Using an SBDC business plan template, the pair met close to biweekly to review each section, like company background, industry competitive set, market share, and more.
“Every time I thought it was thorough, Anne would suggest adding things to take it to the next level—asking me about my competitors, for example,” says Beyer. “She pushed me to bring all the data to table that I could. I thought I was pretty smart and had a good handle on things, but she brought me to an entirely new level and pushed me past the assumptions and small sample data I had, telling me if I was going to do this, I needed to go above and beyond.”
Beyer claims he would never have been able to accomplish what he has achieved without Inman and their collaboration over the past two years, which included a survey he calls “a game-changer.”
Beyer surveyed 200 craft beer drinkers in Madison, sourced from Facebook beer groups, brewery customers, and neighborhood beer aficionados. Another part of Beyer’s research involved reaching out to neighborhood associations and merchants around Monroe Street, to learn what they wanted out of a neighborhood craft beer bar.
“I’m collaborative, positive, and a believer that all ships rise with the tide, and that resonated when I went to the neighborhood and Monroe Street Merchants Association meetings,” Beyer says. “Everyone was understanding and helpful; they knew we could work together to bring the street alive.”
Garth’s Brew Bar opened on December 12, 2019, with seventeen beers on tap and one tap of cold brew coffee on Nitro. The focus is on Madison breweries first, Wisconsin Breweries next, and independent American craft brewers third. Beyer and his wife Briana run the show and pay for their beertenders to become Cicerone® Certified Beer Servers.
Beyer says working with Inman helped him make his business plan for entering the neighborhood airtight.
Beyer and Inman still meet every couple of months to touch base, and Inman has been in regular contact throughout the pandemic with updates on funding sources, general advice and simply to be a resource for Beyer, off of whom he can bounce ideas.
Beyer uses his marketing skills to promote Garth’s Brew Bar via media relations, virtual events, social media, and city and neighborhood meetings. He says right now, he’s counting on word of mouth to keep his business thriving.
“We hope our guests will continue to talk to other people about the bar and suggest to others that they check us out,” Beyer says. “There are still a lot of first-timers out there to reach, so word of mouth, even masked word of mouth, is super helpful.”
Beyer appreciates the fact that his guests still stop to chat for a moment when they come in to pick out beer to-go.
“They don’t rush in and rush out,” he says. “We’re still a place where people come and feel a reprieve. They know we’re smiling under our masks and ready to connect with them.”