Black Circle Brewing Offers Benefits to Employees, But Not For the Reasons You Think

Black Circle Brewing Offers Benefits to Employees, But Not For the Reasons You Think

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

Liz Biro of the Indianapolis Star recently inquired on social media about the low unemployment rate and any changes people had noticed in service at area restaurant and bars. Many of the anecdotes she acquired via this route were critical of service acumen in an age where the labor market is shrinking. What do employers do in this situation when trying to keep enough people on staff and still being able to replace staff if it becomes necessary?

The market is just as tight in the taproom/brewpub arena, so I wondered what brewery owners are doing to make sure that they keep the people that are working well and are invested in the business, and training or re-training employees instead of immediately replacing them (it’s almost always better to improve rather than start over). I asked around and found that people are in fact consciously prizing their employees more in this era of low unemployment. Our recent piece on training at The Pint Room shows that they are happy with their servers and would not relish having to look for replacements who would be equally invested.

Likewise, a recent discussion with another owner brought out that he loves to look for the additional skills that a server might have and figure out how they can use those skills on the brewery/taproom/restaurant. This gets the employee more money, which makes them happy, the employer gets extra value, and everyone feels as though they have a stake in the brewery. That’s how you 1) keep service top notch, and 2) retain good staff.

Finding and keeping good servers is an art. image credit: pintrest/Ufaz Brisker

Another possibility to retain good staff is to offer benefits. That isn’t very common in craft brewing. The larger national or regional breweries are much more likely to offer healthcare, retirement, vacation, or other benefits, but some middle-sized breweries do as well. Sun King Brewing offers benefits for all full time employees, but that may be more of the exception than the rule. Brewers Association doesn’t keep statistics on which breweries offer benefits because the number is so low in the age of 7200 breweries in the states.

This made it all the more interesting when it came to light that Black Circle Brewing recently starting offer a couple of benefits to their eleven employees. That’s incredibly small to be offering benefits, but Jesse believes it to be important…but not necessarily for the reasons we discussed above. Jesse has his own motivations for what he is doing, although it can’t help but aid in employee retention. Jesse and I decided to sit down and talk about Black Circle’s new policies.

I got to Black Circle before Jesse, just around opening time at 4pm. A few minutes later Jesse entered the brewery in full suit – and a nice one at that. Immediately he started putting out fires, not big ones, but those fires that let you know it’s a Tuesday. Why is the change machine turned off and jammed? Who didn’t order more Underberg? There’s a show Friday night that’s going to put a strain on our Miller High Life stock, can we get some more?

It’s not that Jesse doesn’t trust his people get things done, because he does. It’s just that he is a pretty driven and detail-oriented type of guy. He’s got good people and he wants them to shine at what they do best, so he tries to fill in the gaps – and small businesses have a lot of gaps. As we said, there are eleven people in the Black Circle family, and almost every one of them has been their since the early days (2017). One person moved away, one was fired for having their hand in the till, but otherwise, they like to stay at Black Circle.

Reason number one for that is because Black Circle pays them better than most other taprooms, and Jesse makes it point to help employees use their talents to push the brewery forward. If you can write – why don’t you take over our social media? If you are involved in events that go on at the taproom, how about helping run the board and inventing new opportunities?

Black Circle Brewing is so much of a music venue. Their employees need to know more than beer. image credit: Black Circle

Jesse saw early on that the people he had in the brew house, behind the bar, even those at the door, who were talented and they had more to offer. So why not make use of those talents, pay them for it, and help them take some ownership of the business. That’s how you retain employees and build a cohesive group. This echoed that discussion I recently had with another owner (look for that article soon).

During the first year of Black Circle’s being open, Jesse noted that his costs equaled his revenue. He was investing heavily in the business, but when the second year was done – he noticed the same thing. Things have changed in the taproom and the brewhouse since the first day and you know Jesse is buying equipment and improving the brew house, but he just seeing money left over after all the bills and investments.

Jesse was/is taking a salary, but he noted that at the end of the year, there was no nest egg built. He still wasn’t worried about that in a large sense because he knew that he opened Black Circle because of his love for beer and music; his commitment to those communities and his neighborhood were much more important to him in the end. And in a very real sense, his employees are a part of those communities.

Employee retention has never been a problem at Black Circle, and yet Jesse has chosen to do even more for his employees. Jesse definitely knows that he’s in business to make money. He figured that if that year-end benefit was more philosophical than monetary for him, it was probably the same for his employees. But wouldn’t it be nice to have something to point to at the end of the year? It would be a way to say, “OK, here’s a concrete representation of my time and the effort I invested.”

The California Brewers Guild has an employee benefits system that breweries can buy into. image credit: CCBA

Jesse has a background in finance, and he went back to his full time job last September. He got his healthcare back, he started adding to his 401k again, and he had all those other benefits that come with having that kind of job. He figured that if he had these benefits, shouldn’t he consider investing in them for his employees?

It wasn’t exactly in the front of his head, but all that finance knowledge had to be working on him, because he decided to investigate benefits for the people at Black Circle. The size of the business made healthcare benefit actually more expensive than the exchanges, but what about efforts like PTO time or an IRA (401k is really for bigger places too).

Jesse realized that despite a small hit to the brewery’s bottom line, this activity does a lot of good for all his people. At the end of the year, there’s money socked away and growing. When people need time to do important things or research the beer or music worlds for themselves, they have it. Then they end up bringing that knowledge and that feeling of good will and calm back into the business.

The upside is good for a relatively small buy in, but as we suggested above, this isn’t the reason for doing it. The employee benefits aren’t an effort to correct a problem, they’re a chance to make a good thing even better. Jesse was likely going to spend that money anyway by putting in something for the business, but now it’s a long-term benefit. A soundboard might help, but he was never going to get out of it what he put it in. Goods depreciate, but good employees get better with time.

It gets to the heart of how personal this endeavor is for Jesse. He didn’t open the brewery to make a ton of money, or even so much to make and sell beer. It was more about connecting with people and improving the lives of people around him to whatever extent he could. It’s about the visit experience of his patrons and the work experience of his employees. He said, “I believe focusing on the beer at a brewery is missing a large part of the point. Our beliefs have served us well so far, and I hope we can continue to build that culture and that it translates to customers.”

Jesse didn’t come from a brewery background, so this probably helped him to not dismiss the idea out of hand. Small breweries hardly ever offer these kinds of benefits…. but he didn’t know that. For him, there was there was no voice in his head telling him not to do it. Likewise, he didn’t have a bunch of examples for what kinds of things to offer at a small brewery, so he was able to build this program on his own, from a starting point and based on what he saw his employees needing. Sometimes it’s good to be ignorant, it keeps you from dismissing ideas that could work.

And this idea works. It satisfies Jesse’s desire to invest in his employees, it helps retain good workers, and it might serve as an example to others in the industry. Lifting everyone in craft beer is a laudable goal, and there are many ways to do it. These are the ways Jesse has chosen.


banner image: Business Insider

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