Ridgewood Bottle and Tap was slated to open in late March, in the iconic space that Starbucks once held on top of Phinney Ridge. Over the past 9 months, they have slowly worked to bring their original vision to life by moving their beer experience on-line; building sidewalk connections with customers; and, most recently, adding limited table service and food truck options. When I went back through my notes for this interview, I was amused by how central frosé (frozen rosé) was to the story! But, it’s the entrepreneurial spirit that plays the main role here: from self-designed and built spaces, to a community-driven marketing plan, and an unwavering belief in the power of place to bring us together.
Above is a pic taken over the summer, featuring a ‘traditional’ frosé out in front of Ridgewood Bottle & Tap.
Interview with: Stuart Faris, co-owner
Neighborhood: Phinney Ridge
You have had the considerable bad luck of opening a new business at the beginning of COVID.
Yeah, we had finished our build out and were ready to go when COVID happened. We had originally projected to start with a soft opening at the end of March, so obviously, we had to change our plans. We were still able to put a good foot forward – it just wasn’t the one that we intended.
How did the idea for the business come together?
I grew up in this area, right down the hill. And, in my senior year, I went to high school with Robin Warma, who's now my partner here. Even after college when I moved to Portland, we always stayed in touch.
In Portland, I co-own Uptown Beer Co, a tap house and a small brewery. Robyn was always really interested in that model and, as he continued to work at places through Seattle, we always kicked the idea around. But, honestly, it was when this space became available that our conversations went from a ‘fun to think about’ to ‘we need to do this as soon as possible’.
The space is amazing and it felt like a good synergy with Red Mill Burgers, which is next door. Obviously, they have great burgers, but they don't have an adult beverage program. I mean, no one can say ‘no’ to one of the shakes over there, but it's just not on their roadmap to offer wine sales.
In what ways has this effort built on or departed from the business you already have going in Portland?
We did all the planning and design ourselves, between my wife and myself, and Robin and his fiancé, along with a lot of help from friends.
All the furniture in the bar, the wall work, the fixtures, and even some of the big statement pieces are custom built by us. It will be fun when we're able to invite folks in to see those details – right now, you just get a snapshot of it from the street.
Beyond the visual, we’re really excited to share our experience with the community. We want customers to get excited about a new kind of beer, something they haven't had before. We want to be a place where breweries, especially independent, self-distributed, small folks can get a foothold in the market. We want to showcase great beer that's produced in our area, as well as the one-off beers, seasonals, and collaboration projects.
There is always limited tap space at bars and restaurants but we have 46 taps here and they are all flow controlled, for different types of beer. We have cooler space for another 350 other products, including packaged beer, cider, kombucha, wine. So we're able to bring in some really special beers and treat them the way they should be. As the seasons turn, we’ll be able to do a lot of fun stuff with specialized beers, in the way that they should be experienced, with the right glassware.
On top of that, our beer-tenders are all Cicerone certified servers. They are very knowledgeable and can help customers sort through the selection, based on what they like or what they've had before. We really want to provide a place for folks to have this unique experience with beer and gather with friends or family. The space is designed to create that space for folks, to be comfortable with their kiddos or enjoy movie nights and the big games with their friends – it’s really just a neighborhood spot….a place to sit with your Red Mill order or anything else that you want to bring in.
This is IPA land, have you been able to push beer that falls outside of that story?
Yes, we’re all hopheads here in the NW. But, the opportunity is to dig into seasonal options, like pilsners and crisp summer lagers. And, our sour program, which is more specialized, allows folks to find a very different beer that works for them. It’s worth the process to dig into these more specialty, often more expensive, beers to find the one that really fits. That’s where the knowledge of staff here can help.
Obviously, you haven’t been able to offer your full experience to the community. In what ways have you worked to build a base in the midst of COVID?
Oddly, because we weren’t fully up and running when COVID hit, we were able to pivot pretty quickly. We moved all the inventory online and that’s something we’ll continue – it’s a good way for folks who want to do the quick pick-up. We also have a kiosk set up out front for folks to order on-site, whether it’s a slush drink or a growler. We can’t sample, but we can bring out a selection of beers and walk them through the options – it’s more engaging than just looking at the giant shelf of options at a grocery store.
We’ve also been selling packaged drinks for pick-up curbside. And, our frozen, slush beverage program has been a big hit.
I love when you discover that one random product, that none of us knew was missing from our lives, and it just takes off.
Yes, slushies have caught on like wildfire – we’ve even had to upgrade our machine to be able to offer more.
We have a friend in Portland who does a frosé program and we thought, it’s summer, let’s give it a try, but, really our aim will be to grow the sour beer program. And, now they’re both successful….it’s about a 50-50 split of our sales. It’s terrific. You can have a lot of fun blending. We do a hazy IPA, piña colada, mixed with the rosé …we call it the Miami Vice.
We’ve also been able to open up some business on the sidewalk. But we’ve made the decision to not put out seating at tables. Instead, we filled some decommissioned kegs with concrete and popped some umbrellas into them – we call them keg stands.
Well, that could be another business line if this whole thing goes south – you could launch a keg stand business.
The problem is, we wouldn’t have many repeat customers because those things will not break. And, shipping definitely could not be included in price.
Marketing a new business is difficult in normal times. In what ways have you been successful in building awareness during COVID?
The Phinney Neighborhood Association (PNA) has been nothing short of fantastic. They have a business liaison group there that has put us in contact with press, banking resources, and other businesses in the neighborhood. For example, we’ve done a collaboration with Bluebird Ice Cream - pints and pints - and $2 from every purchase went back to PNA. But, yeah, it’s all been very organic. We’ve built up our social media, we’ve gotten some press, and we’re just hollering out the window at everyone who goes to Red Mill.
Every new business anticipates a slow ramp-up for their first year. I’m assuming that your first year has had an even more dramatic burn rate. How are you planning to survive a likely longer ramp-up as the shut-downs continue?
Fortunately, we were able to budget a pretty healthy padding for burn. And, by doing so much of the buildout ourselves, we were able to come under-budget, by not an insignificant amount, and we’ve contributed that savings to our ramp-up. We’ve done this before and we knew what we needed to consider before starting out. Yes, it’s been slower for business, but it’s also a different model than we anticipated – by managing our purchasing and, in focusing on pick-up, we’ve been able to control labor expenses. Ultimately, we’ve had less profit but we’ve had decent enough cash flow. In addition, our landlord has been working with us. Red Mill actually shut down before it was required – so they’ve been really focused on safety for their staff and customers…we follow them.
And, again, the slush program….the health we have is based on our frozen rosé and sour beer programs.
I was going to ask if there is anything you’re looking to carry forward, post COVID but, clearly, it’s the frosé program.
The online ordering too. We wouldn’t have thought to roll that out – we wouldn’t have had the capacity to roll that out. But, it is a really good way to showcase everything that we have and it keeps us really honest on managing our inventory.
But, the thing we’re looking forward to introducing is being family-friendly and creating that space for folks to come together. We’re not going to rush it – but we’re excited to welcome people into that experience.
What are your plans for the winter? Frosé isn’t necessarily going to carry you through.
Industry wide, winter always dampens sales a bit. But, oddly, the slush programs are usually still popular.
I clearly do not understand customers at all!
In the NW, as long as you have a good warm coat, your favorite drink of choice doesn’t need to change. But, we have a couple fun ideas for winter warmers and drink specials, warming lamps – we can still be a fun, quick stop for the neighborhood.
We’re just hoping that a slow-down doesn’t also come with an increase in public health concerns.
I am continually reminded how unique Phinney Ridge is. Geographically, it’s so limited - it’s just the ridge connecting Greenwood to Fremont. If you go a few blocks off either side, most folks consider themselves in either Greenlake or Ballard. Yet, it’s got this robust business district that is embedded in the community. It seems like a great place to open a business, even in a pandemic.
Absolutely. Again, when the opportunity came up for this space, we had to go for it. The PNA was my preschool. My dad ran the tool library for 25 years. My mom still comes up and gives me a hard time if the plants aren’t watered out front. The community is the backbone of having any chance of success during this time.
Any last thoughts?
Everyone needs to take a breath and remember to be nice to each other. We’re going to get through it and we’re going to learn from it. In the meantime, look out for the small businesses and the self-proprietors and the gig workers that rely on a healthy economy and that need our help.
In the meantime, I’d love to introduce anyone to their new favorite beer and to their new favorite frozen sour beer.
This is their most recent offering: “Dark beer slushie time! ‘Tis the season right?? We took @counterbalancebeer Verboten Cocoa Porter, that was already stacked with @theochocolate , and we added coconut to the mix and it gets topped off with some nitro cold brew from @caffevita. This will get you all warm n’ toasty, now available at the shop.”
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