Craft Beer Bromance

On the road with the Growler Guys

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At initial glance, it looks like father-and-son team Kent and Kizer Couch were simply lucky when they happened to start Oregon’s first growler-fill station store in Bend in 2012. The Central Oregon burg was at that time a microbrewer’s “Beervana,” with craft beer consumption on a feverish rise.

Yet no one in Bend had yet attempted the Couches’ big idea, which was to add a line of taps at their Shell Stop & Go gas station mini mart and allow customers to fill up with fresh, local draft beer in a 64-ounce glass jug. (A growler-filling shop had appeared in Buffalo, New York, at a Sunoco station earlier in 2011.)

The Couches’ instant success — they were soon filling hundreds of growlers weekly — caught them by surprise. “It was a cult-like following: We had people out the door on holidays, for Super Bowl, Thanksgiving, and Christmas,” says Kent, speaking at the Growler Guys location in Southeast Portland.

And soon enough, the Couches knew they had started a trend — the growler-filling station trend — by the stream of future competition scouts showing up with phone cameras and trying to figure out how to duplicate their winning formula.

In the four years since, the word “growler” has become part of the national lexicon. Meanwhile, the Growler Guys have demonstrated steady growth: They have 12 stores throughout the Pacific Northwest, including a large location in Ashland, and plans for 16 more. The company grossed $3.25 million in 2015 and predicts it will hit $5 million in sales this year.

Their accomplishment is fueled by the national growler phenomenon, to be sure. But it is also rooted in business 101 practices; i.e., attention to customer service and constant innovation. And instead of licensing their concept, they chose early on to grow through franchising, letting local entrepreneurs open and run their own small businesses.

When Kent, 56, and Kizer, 32, started filling brown glass growlers with draft brews, they had already earned a local and online reputation (via Yelp reviews) for bringing customized service to the gas-station experience. Their Shell attendants wore crisp white shirts and peaked caps and washed car windows, and their mini mart was constantly experimenting with unique fast foods to please customers. They were always looking, as Kizer puts it, for the “next new winning idea.”

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Kent Couch had years of experience in the grocery business and as a convenience store owner, and son Kizer had worked in the family’s concerns since his teenage years. Both the Couches share an earnest, animated demeanor, and the the elder Couch also has a ready-to-take-risk personality (exemplified by his YouTube-documented helium balloon and lawn chair adventures trying to fly to Idaho in 2008-2009).

The Couches were well situated to handle a burgeoning business when growler mania struck. They expanded from their first 12 beer taps to 36 at the Bend location (and 16 kombucha taps); opened another growler-fill shop on the opposite west end of Bend, which was their first franchise store; and made plans for expansion. Father and son were then joined by Mark Knowles, 55, who added digital and Internet marketing savvy as well as menu-design skills to the partnership. He also shares the bouncy enthusiasm emanating from the Growler Guys.

A lack of franchise experience has not been a handicap, the trio say. “We’ve never marketed our franchise to people, but they are finding us,” says Knowles. “We’re loaded with requests.”

The Growler Guys insist that no two of their dozen stores are alike — some serve food, others don’t, some have 36 taps, others 48 or even 60 taps, and all of them individually choose from a master catalog what beers, wine, sangria and kombucha to have on draft. But it’s clear the franchise has brought selection, convenience and uniformity to craft beer buying — and that the success of their venture rests on three unique, albeit now internally standardized, concepts.

The first is unlimited free customer sampling of the craft brews and other craft beverages the stores have on draft. Many wineries and breweries do limited sampling and instead offer flights for sale as a way for customers to sip multiple wares, but the Couches and Knowles say they felt sampling without boundaries is key in converting regular beer enthusiasts into craft beer lovers and repeat customers.

The second distinctive feature is the stores’ low-key, unintimidating and even mall-like atmosphere: They look and feel like a cross between a friendly sports bar and a clean, well-lit family restaurant. No craft beer snobbery here — quite the opposite. “We want people to be able to walk in and find approachable people, who [can] talk about the beers and not make people feel stupid,” says Kizer. We knew we didn’t want to come across as snooty or uptight.”

Finally, the three partners share a dedication to finding a successful formula for the stores. The Couches and Knowles spent over a year developing a slim menu of snacks and meals that could be made in a tiny kitchen space and delivered in 12 minutes or less. They devised a CO2 flushing and tube-from-the-tap system to push all air out of growlers before filling, as well as a proprietary Phssssh™ CO2 cartridge holder that recarbonates growler beer once you’ve had it at home in the fridge.

The Couches and Knowles also adopted the novel “Crowler” filling method designed by Oskar Blues Brewery of Colorado, to be able to sell craft beer sealed in 32-ounce aluminum cans.

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A tightly knit trio that clearly enjoy each other’s company — they finish each other’s sentences and interrupt each other like close buddies — the Growler Guys seem to relish the mainstream popularity of what they’ve created.

The ongoing craft beer craze doesn’t hurt. Craft brewers in the U.S. produced 24 million barrels of brew and saw a 13% rise in volume and a 16% increase in retail dollar sales between 2014 and 2015.

The Couches and Knowles say that their Oregon-born success fuels craft brewing’s growth inside the state and out. By being on tap at The Growler Guys a small brewery can get quick, inexpensive market exposure. Knowles says the growler stores can delay craft breweries’ need to invest in canning and bottling equipment by providing a distribution method — kegs — that is efficient and cost effective. “If they [breweries] find a customer niche, they can concentrate and invest in ramping up production rather than on bottling or getting shelf space,” says Kizer Couch.

Though craft beer competition is intensifying, Kent Couch doesn’t feel pressure from other growler fill shops that have sprung up — over two dozen in Portland alone. “Here in the Northwest I don’t think we’ve seen anyone we have to worry about,” he says.

And Knowles and the Couches seem secure that their 16-store expansion plan, which includes places like Reno, Nevada, and Seattle. In each of the Growler Guys stores, the screen-based listing of beers and kombuchas on tap glows bright neon blue. When a keg is tapped, Knowles says, and a new beer put on, the change instantly updates the digital list, the Facebook page, and the company’s smart phone app.

“It may not sound like a big deal but it’s a lot of work to change a menu all the time,” he says. “And we’re turning kegs faster than most places,” interrupts Kizer. “So now with two gestures on an iPad, you can update all those systems — accurate information is important,” Knowles adds.

Asked if they will further standardize the offerings or the look and feel of the stores moving forward, Knowles shakes his head. “If we could actually build two stores that were the same, maybe we’d show we actually have a clue,” Knowles says. “But the concept is evolving so fast, every store tends to be different, and that’s okay – we know we don’t want it to ever get stale or sterile.”

The Growler Guys seem to intuitively understand that their mini retail chain of fill stations has benefitted from a uniform approach, yet they seem to thrive on change. While all three of the partners are craft beer enthusiasts who think the market for specialty beer has lots of room to grow, they are always on the search for the next new thing. Will it be mead, nitrogen-infused coffee, or maybe organic local milk?

It seems to not much matter to these partners. “Our customers – if you are coming in to fill a growler or get a pint, you are already in a good mood,” says Kizer. “We rarely deal with unhappy customers. In the convenience store business — or the technology business — there are a lot more headaches. That’s why we love this.”