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Casual Pint bets on craft-beer craze


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“I cleaned him out. That’s how much faith he has in me,” says Nathan Robinette about his father.

Nathan Robinette, the 35-year-old co-founder of Casual Pint, describes a financial arrangement guaranteed to focus a young owner’s mind. His father and business partner, Jon, 55, used 401(k) savings to fund their new retail venture.

“I cleaned him out. That’s how much faith he has in me,” Robinette says. How does that make him feel, knowing the money is needed for retirement? “Extremely nervous. Extremely nervous,” he repeats, “but so far so good.”

Mix-and-match six-packs

So far, Casual Pint is on pace to have 20 to 22 stores sold by the end of this year, after starting to franchise in January 2014. It’s not a taproom, although there are 22 taps on the wall so customers can come in to sample a pint. Or they can fill a growler, choose their own six-pack mix, or hang out and watch a ballgame.

“It’s kind of an English pub style,” he says, and he believes the store is a leader. “We definitely feel we’re the first. There are a lot of people that do just growlers, or they’re just a bar or a taproom. There’s not anybody out there that does both in one place.”

The heart of each store is the huge selection of beers for sale that customers can mix and match into a six-pack. In a grocery store, there might be 75 to 100 different SKUs of craft beer, he says. “We have 400 to 500 SKUs” in the corporate store in Knoxville, Tennessee, and could have up to 1,000 in some stores in other states that have less tax on alcohol and hence more craft brewers.

Nathan and his father are both steeped in grocery store operations and lingo—like SKU that stands for stock-keeping unit and refers to a specific item stored to a specific location. Nathan was an assistant manager with Harris Teeter out of Raleigh, North Carolina, and a store manager for a small organic chain. He also called on Food City, a chain in eastern Tennessee and Southeast Virginia.

Jon’s experience runs even deeper. “My dad’s been in grocery retail from a back boy to a director, for almost 45 years now,” he says. “We’re grocery guys, and we wanted to use our retail experience in what we’ve created.”

Casual Pint has one corporate store and eight stores total. Sixteen are sold: three in Ohio, three in South Carolina, and the rest in Tennessee. Its next store to open will be in Franklin, Tennessee, and that will be its ninth.

Chris Owens is the first franchisee, in company headquarters of Knoxville. He’s a full-time sales executive for IBM, and by the time he turned 50 two years ago wanted to diversify his portfolio beyond stock holdings.

“I looked at a lot of different franchises, from complex like Chick-fil-A, to not complex. I never really pulled the trigger, because after I read the preliminary documents it said you had to own it and operate it,” Owens says. “I wanted a franchise I could own but not run it myself.”

He and his business partner pulled the trigger after visiting a Casual Pint in the summer of 2013 and seeing a sign that said the chain was seeking franchisees.

Staffing ‘way too much’

The first six months or so were tough for new owners who had never run a small business before. The first lesson: “We overstaffed the store and spent way too much on labor,” Owens says. The second: “How to spend your sales and marketing dollars. A charity would come in and we’d do it. The learning was all about where to spend the money.”

Sixteen months in the business, staffed with a general manager on site, is going well, with the past two months hitting records. Owens says they might consider another store, but not until they have more solid numbers in place.

“It’s just starting to hit its stride, so I’d give it a thumbs up now,” he says.

Robinette says he’s spending all his time now on supporting franchisees through training. “We bring on these owners, and they’re essentially members of the family. We sign a 10-year license agreement and we’re going to be married for the next 10 years, to be successful. That’s been the biggest challenge,” he says.

For an operator at heart, switching gears from a hands-on role has been difficult. “I find myself working during the day to support our owners,” he says, “and then I’ll go into the store in the evening, and it’s kind of like my sanctuary. I can talk to the customers and pour a few beers. That’s kind of my release.”

Perhaps he ponders his obligation to his actual family members, as well, including his father who bankrolled the venture. Robinette is happy he was willing to take a risk whereas his father was not, until the idea for Casual Pint came along.

 “I don’t want to be the 50- or 60-year-old guy that says, ‘Man, I wish I would have done that.’ I want to risk and potentially fail, than not have tried at all.” Of course, he’d rather succeed, pay back the investment and then some—and who wouldn’t lift a pint to that?

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