Innovate, but stick to your core. Build and develop personal relationships. As a lawyer, don’t thrive on conflict, but prevent it.
Saint Louis University law and business students were treated to this advice and more Thursday, March 30, from some of the region’s biggest beverage innovators: Michael Alter, founder of Fitz’s Root Beer; Florian Kuplent, co-founder of Urban Chestnut; and Tom Schlafly, co-founder of Schlafly Beer and the St. Louis Brewery.
The event, “Beer-storming with Brewers,” was organized by two SLU LAW groups – the Sports and Entertainment Law Association and the Business Law Association – and the John Cook School of Business’ Center for Entrepreneurship. It featured a happy hour with free beer (and root beer), opening remarks from School of Law dean William P. Johnson, a panel discussion moderated by Center for Entrepreneurship director Tim Hayden, and a raffle to have a private drink with the three guests of honor. About 40 students, faculty, staff and alumni were in attendance.
During the panel, Schlafly, Kuplent and Alter each shared personal stories about the risks, failures and successes of their respective businesses. They all agreed that they had not gone into their businesses to make a lot of money but because they were passionate about their craft, and that was what got them through tough times. The beer brewers also discussed the complexity of alcohol regulations and ways to cultivate loyalty in a time when there are so many craft breweries.
“After InBev bought Anheuser-Busch, we were experiencing double-digit growth,” Schlafly said. “We taught people to appreciate everything, to appreciate variety. Well, it was great for consumers, but more competitive for those of us still in the business!” Schlafly said he misread two trends: indefinite growth of craft beer and regional loyalty – assuming where there were St. Louis Cardinals fans, there would be Schlafly Beer fans.
“While the Cardinals might be the local baseball team in Evansville, we’re not a local brewery in Evansville,” he said, but “in large areas (like New York) where there’s a critical mass, you can have a cult following.”
“For making your product relevant to a market outside of St. Louis, building personal relationships is very important," he said. "It's a very tedious scene, and it comes down to personal contacts, talking to people and trying to convince them that what you're doing is a good thing, telling your story.”
“All three of us as manufacturers try our best to come up with products that can feed the distribution side of things,” Alter said. “Innovation is something that I feel is incredibly important, because you want to keep the consumer happy, and you have to provide products to keep the distributors happy. Without innovating, it's an incredibly competitive environment out there.”
Alter said he decided from the beginning, though, that he did not want to try to come up with hundreds of Fitz’s flavors – no “kiwi banana,” for example. “I'm having more success staying with my core.”
One of the most interesting and perhaps unexpected points from Schlafly – “Beer is largely marketing.”
“The consumer will say they’re driven by the quality, and they are, but it’s the influence of the marketing, and that’s where I think you have to be innovative, meeting the consumer where they live.”
He mentioned Schlafly Beer’s promotional events such as Art Outside and the recent Oyster Festival, and said if people like them, they continue them.
“I don’t know what the difference between appalling and edgy is!” he said.
Following the panel, raffle winners – plus students who asked particularly strong questions during the question-and-answer session – were invited to join the brewmasters for a private drink.