How Buffalo Rock Brewing is helping transform Ohio’s growing craft beer market
“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” If you’ve heard that old Yotam Ottolenghi quote once, you’ve heard it a million times. But have you ever actually taken the time to make it work to your advantage? That’s what brothers Troy and Tim Burns, and their close friend, Brian Wilson, decided to do when they eyed a dilapidated six-bay car wash in their hometown of Waterville, Ohio.
The old car wash with the industrial feel might not have seemed like the perfect place to set up shop for everything (but maybe another car wash), unless you have a plan. So, Troy, Tim and Brian bought the building that had been vacant for several years and set forth turning their craft brewing hobby into the real thing—a community watering hole, so to speak.
Having dabbled in homebrewing for the better part of 20 years, the trio decided to follow the advice of friends and open a business, which they named after the Roche de Boeuf rock outcropping in the Maumee River that was once used by Native Americans to sign peace treaties.
After making the purchase and slapping on garage doors—instead of windows, which some thought they may do—Buffalo Rock Brewing Company was born this year.
We caught up with co-founder Troy Burns to get his thoughts into finally being a brewmaster, why the craft market is the best place to be and how his brewery is just getting started.
Tell us a little about your brand.
One of the things we set out to do from the beginning was to create an inviting environment that people can enjoy. We really have swung away from the typical sports bar feel and technology driven environments. We felt that people are missing the idea that they can go out and just talk—learn to communicate again without having a cellphone in their hands or sitting behind a computer. We have one small TV, and unless we are asked to turn it on, we typically leave it off. We wanted people to get back to the “front porch” talks they could have with neighbors and friends.
How did you get into the marketplace?
We’ve been homebrewing for a few decades, so we have a passion for what we do. What pushed us forward was that the people who tasted our home brews told us we should be marketing them. We have had several beers that we struggle to keep on tap at home when people come over. We were constantly asked to provide beer for weddings or various other events. Finally, we decided to investigate options instead of turning everyone away all the time.
What kind of conversations are you having with your customers today?
A lot of it stems from our building and our names. We repurposed an old car wash into an inviting environment with open door seating. And why Buffalo Rock? Once people hear the story about our name and that most of our beer titles focus on historical names and lore from the area, it brings a lot of conversation into the mix. Other discussions tend to focus on how long we’ve been brewing and what led us to opening a brewery.
Give us a snapshot of today’s craft spirits market.
The market continues to take the world by storm. In our eyes, people are looking for an experience—something to remember. They want to walk into a place and walk away with something memorable. They want to try different options and see what new creations they can find. They want names and flavors they’re not going to forget. This is evident in that a lot of large commercial breweries are starting to brew recipes that are not the typical ones you’re used to seeing.
There also is a trend for areas of the industry to establish “trails” to encourage market growth. It attracts new customers and allows for exponential growth in various regions as customers want to check the brewery off the list of places visited.
What’s likely to happen next?
I think the market is going to continue to grow. There will be more small breweries popping up in cities and smaller towns. This will continue to drive commercial breweries to get more creative and maybe even start to buy up mid-size microbreweries. Smaller breweries are becoming the “Dollar Generals” in every town; they all offer something unique that becomes very attractive to the consumer.
What trends are defining the space?
How creative you can get with a building can really define your atmosphere and company. Breweries are popping up everywhere—even in the oddest spaces. We’re not the first to have open garage doors or to have been a car wash. It just worked for what we were trying to achieve. Converting old factories to small garages can work great if effectively utilized.
The idea of repurposing a building versus building new also provides a savings on our environment and people see that as a positive. When you look around, there are a ton of old buildings going to waste. The idea of taking one and converting it to something usable helps add a little charm.
What’s your story from a brand perspective?
We wanted to create something that meant something to the community. When we set out on this journey, we made community our focus. Yes, the brewery is great, but we wanted to make an impact on those around us. That was one of the biggest reasons our grand opening was not focused on us, but on an Alzheimer’s Association fundraiser. The money stayed to help local facilities. We want the community to know we’re here for them and, in turn, they have been extremely supportive.
Walk us through your branding strategy.
Since the beginning, our strategy was to develop a company known for being part of the community. Robert Greenleaf wrote a book called “Servant Leadership,” which I feel each of our three owners try to demonstrate in everything we do.
Lead by serving. We want our company to show those same qualities as it serves the community and surrounding area. We want to be a place people can come and socialize, and be served. They say that the Roche de Boeuf rock outcropping in the Maumee River was once used by Native Americans to sign peace treaties. That is what we want our place to be known for—a place for peaceful meetings and social gatherings.
What’s the biggest issue related to the marketing/sales side of the business today?
Most, including us, didn’t know where to begin. We’re learning as we go. Making beer is often the easy part. But getting the beer to market is completely different. Today’s society is social media biased for information. Knowing the right people to contact, the right resources to use and the right audience to reach is critical. There are so many avenues to pursue.
We also don’t have huge budgets like the larger craft or commercial brewers, so we rely on outreach events, social media, craft festivals, etc., to reach a wider distribution area.
What’s the secret to creating a branding story consumers can buy into?
Make it personal. We wanted to create a brand that catches people’s attention and yet they can relate to, especially to those where the business is being opened. When people can relate to your brand, it becomes more personal to them. Our name comes from a rock outcropping in a nearby river called “Roche de Boeuf.” Locals know it and we’re able to use that to market our beers as well.
What’s the key every craft brand should do in the way of marketing?
Look for something that is eye catching—whether it’s your story, your logo or something unique about how you present it to your customers. We made sure our logo was attractive. We presented an environment that was pleasing and became involved with the community to help spread the word.
What are some of your biggest opportunities moving ahead?
Expansion of the craft brewing market. I can see almost every small town having a small craft brewery. Larger towns will have many. The nice thing about it is that the craft industry acts more as a family and less as competitors than larger commercial breweries. As long as you produce good quality crafts, people will frequent many different places. We still go to our competitors on a regular basis to support them. There still are lots of undiscovered opportunities out there that could potentially grow into another craft residence. Towns are dying for something like it to move it.
What’s the biggest item on your to-do list?
The next big step for us is expansion—opening more days, food, expanding our offerings, increasing our brewery size. We went into this as a stepping stone and now I think we realize we cannot move fast enough. We’d love to get into the distribution side and see where that leads.
We want to expand our operations into the distribution market. We’re constantly asked if we can provide larger volumes and get our beers into local restaurants. That’s definitely our intention, but making it happen and happen quickly creates a different set of problems. We’re still learning. There are lots of improvements to be made before we get that far in.
Sitting down with Buffalo Rock Brewing co-founder Troy Burns
What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
By far the satisfaction of our customers and the positive feedback we receive. Having your customers return repeatedly means we’re making a difference. Also, being able to give back to the community through benefit opportunities and fundraisers.
How important will your marketing efforts be in driving brand interest?
As we begin to expand, our marketing strategy is going to be critical to our approach to growth. Which media avenues do we pursue? What audience do we focus on? What team do we need to develop to meet demand? These are all questions we’ll have to answer.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
This can be summed up by pretty much every brewer in the industry. No matter where we went and who we talked to, the same two pieces of advice were evident. First, make good beer. If you don’t, people will not return. Second, don’t run out of beer. One of the biggest mistakes a startup can make is brewing all the beer for your opening and thinking it will last longer than it does. We thought we over prepared, and we still cut it short our first few weeks.
What’s the best thing a customer ever said to you?
We had a customer say, “Do you know the best thing about this place other than an awesome environment? I am walking away tonight, and I can honestly say your beers made an impression on me. I have been to other places and yes, they have good beer, but there isn’t anything that really made it memorable. Here, your presentation of great beer and the atmosphere make me want to come back and I will remember that.”
What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned about the craft business?
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Most in the industry are more than willing to help. There doesn’t seem to be as much competition. It’s like a big family. Places right around the corner are more than willing to give advice or help when necessary. Before putting together our business plan, we visited every brewery within a 50 mile radius asking for advice.
What have been some of your early impressions of the craft consumer?
Really surprised at the knowledge and their reflection on what they’re drinking. They are more into smells and tasting notes than what you might think. Sure, some come in and say, “Give me the lightest beer you have” or “I don’t care for dark beers or IPAs,” but the majority ask about what they’re tasting or being served.