Today I’m thrilled to share the story of my long-time friend and Kansas Citian John Couture who is the founder of the Bier Station, as a part of the “Amex Welcomed” program with @americanexpress, which is showcasing the people behind our favorite local businesses that welcome Amex. Did you know that over 8,000 more places in the Kansas City area started accepting American Express® Cards in 2016?
I first met John when he was a high school student working at a local video rental store. (Remember those?)
A few years later, John and his business partner, Dan Kiefer, created Bier Station, one of the most successful neighborhood beer bar and store concepts in the nation. Bier Station routinely makes top 100 lists and best of state lists from sites like Thrillist.
But it wasn’t always smooth sailing.
Before Couture could realize his entrepreneurial dream, he had to get a local and state ordinance changed for his concept of a combined neighborhood bar and retail bottle shop.
To make his concept viable in KC, Couture hired an area law firm to help lobby the City Council to change tavern licensing. He also had to secure written consent from a majority of the property owners within a certain radius of the business – a door-to-door errand at best.
In this interview, Couture shares a bit of what he’s learned and gained along the path of building a wildly successful small, local business.
To me, the biggest takeaway from my time with John is when he talks about what they look for in employees. In the beginning, they looked for people who were very knowledgeable about craft beer but found they could teach that knowledge. Instead, they look for people who love serving and being a part of the business. You can’t teach kindness, positivity, and can-do attitude, but turns out you can teach the meaning of IBUs. Cheers!
Questions John J: I am talking with John Couture, -founder of Bier Station. Tell us a little bit about Bier Station.
Answers John C: Bier Station is the Midwest’s first craft beer tasting bar and bottle shop. Essentially this is a concept that was started on the West Coast in Portland, Oregon. If you can imagine a packaged beer store with coolers, blended with a regular pub that has taps and food, you get kind of an idea of what we are.
Q: What makes this place special?
A: We have won quite a few national beer awards and we have the vibe of a neighborhood pub. We attract a lot of people from around the neighborhood who push a stroller here and stop in for a sandwich and a beer with their kids. It’s a very unpretentious, almost like a European coffee shop style vibe. At the same time, we have a national reputation and attract people I would call “beer tourists.” Being a neighborhood beer bar with a national reputation is what I would say sets us apart.
Q: Would you say that that neighborhood family feel is something that was intentional from the very beginning?
A: Absolutely. When we opened the store, my kids were about two and four years old. My kids go to school right up the street and one of the dreams I had for opening my own business (once I got past the sheer terror of starting a business and working 23 hours a day) is that someday my kids could walk down after school and have a pretzel and do their homework here. I wanted to make sure that people felt comfortable coming here with their kids.
Q: What has been the hardest about growing a business?
A: Probably paperwork. Sitting next to me is a six or seven-inch stack of envelopes that I was trying to get through today. There’s so much busy work when you’re running a business that you wonder where the day went. When people ask you how you spend your time, I just say, “I’m just busy.”
Q: What’s been your secret to getting people that fit into the culture of your business?
A: When we first started out, we were really hyper-focused on making sure we had people who knew as much as possible about craft beer. I think one thing I’ve learned is that we’ve had better experiences hiring people that are just good people, that are fun to work with and take their job seriously and work hard, but are willing to learn.
Q: What’s the most fun about what you do?
A: It’s still work, for sure. You have some tough days, but, it ultimately does feel like you’re kind of hanging out with friends. We all get along really well. A lot of our staff hangs out outside of work, which always is a great indicator.
Q: How do you fight the grind of it to stay motivated and inspired?
A: You’ve got to always stay fresh. We never want to rest on our laurels. One thing we’ve done this year is another extension of what I believe in – trying to give back to the community. This year we’ve been doing a lot of fundraisers. We partner with breweries and they donate a keg and we donate the proceeds from that keg to a positive choice. We’ve raised about $70,000 for about 15 or 20 charities so far this year.
Q: Do you have any people that you would call mentors?
A: Jill Green was my business coach. I went through the Kaufman Urban Entrepreneur Program. She has opened up Outback Steakhouses in new markets. So, she knows restaurants. She really gave me the confidence to believe that we could actually make it work. She believed in us and helped me develop the business plans.
Also, John McDonald from Boulevard Brewing. He really believed in our concept. He saw how much we cared about beer and he gave us some amazing suggestions. He also donated the labor for his top draft technician, who’s one of the best people in the Midwest at that, to help us build out our tap wall. I come from a family of two Catholic high school teachers. We didn’t have unlimited means. We really had to stretch our budget to open and he saw that we needed some help and helped us out. We’ll never forget that.
Q: Where are you on the path to world domination?
A: You know it’s funny, my business partner and I have talked about opening up a second location. I think a lot of people stumble by assuming it’s easy to open up a second location if the first one is successful. Honestly, for right now I think we’re good with one. I’m supporting my family. Our staff seems happy. My business partner and I are happy. We’re not greedy. I think that we might be happy just having our piece of Kansas City for now.
“This post is sponsored by American Express, but all opinions are my own.”