Oskar Blues Celebrates First Anniversary - Brevard NC
Last updated 12/11/2013 at 1pm
When he started Oskar Blues Restaurant in Lyons, Colo., on April 25, 1997, Dale Katechis said he wasn't sure his business would survive being hit by a 4-foot-deep snowstorm, running out of food by 7 p.m., and serving up a Band-Aid as an accidental garnish in one patron's salad all on the first night, much less turn the small restaurant into one of the country's fastest growing beer producers.
But he did.
Since then, the Oskar Blues Brewery has experienced a meteoric rise in the number of beers they produce each year as they continue to climb the ranks as one of the hottest brands in the craft beer industry. Today, marks the one-year anniversary of the first barrel of beer brewed in its Brevard facility.
Over the course of the year, the brewery overall has seen a 40 percent growth, while the Brevard brewery alone has turned out nearly 45,000 barrels of beer, and canned close to 10 million cans that were distributed in 16 states along the East Coast.
The Brevard location now employs 36 people, six of whom attended a beer brewing class at Blue Ridge Community College that the brewery helped launch earlier this year. Another six BRCC students have been hired by other breweries.
While the brewery is now on pace to crack into the top 25 craft breweries in the country, it wasn't always that way.
It all started in 1998 when Katechis decided to open a bar with live music in a space below his restaurant.
"After doing that for a while, I thought, 'Let's start brewing our own beer,'" he said.
He found a brewing system for sale in California, purchased it and used that to begin making beers, one of which was Dale's Pale Ale, a beer Katechis first brewed while in college at Auburn University.
He described the beer as "an extremely aggressive pale ale" and recalled that it quickly began to get a cult following around Lyons, where the beer was brewed and served.
With people driving up on a regular basis to get a taste of Dale's Pale Ale, Katechis said they decided the next step would be to begin packaging the beer so people could take it with them.
After a Colorado canning line manufacturer repeatedly asked him to take a tour of his facility, Katechis said it finally clicked with him that cans were a superior packaging product. Katechis said that at the time, selling craft beer in a can was considered a "ridiculous idea" that was only used to sell "cheap" beer.
"Once we realized it was a better packaging solution, it was kind of game on," he recalled. "No one was doing it, and we thought it could be our entry into the market. Our thought was that we would use it as a marketing idea to draw more people to the restaurant; it wasn't to build a brewing business. I didn't know anything about the brewery business, but I knew I wanted to grow my restaurant and thought this could be a good way to do it."
In 2002, Oskar Blues became the first U.S. craft brewer to brew and can its own beer with their flagship beer, Dale's Pale Ale. Since then, the beer has been called "one of the quintessential American hoppy pale ales of our time" and was named the "Top U.S. Pale Ale" by The New York Times and is the top selling Pale Ale in Colorado.
Since then, the brewery has gone from producing 600 barrels of beer per year to more than 100,000 in 2013. As production expanded, so did the number of employees. Katechis said having the right group of people around him working on ways to improve and expand their business has been a key to their success.
"It's not that I'm highly creative, but there are just a lot of ideas, and the problem is how to get them all done," he said. "Our business culture (at Oskar Blues) and how we've been able to attract people is through attracting people who feel the same way we do. We basically have 150 entrepreneurs on the brewery side who are given a great deal of bandwidth to do their job without hardly any oversight.
"It was important for me to establish a culture where everyone is in charge of their own thing. The downside of that is that every employee has a great deal of responsibility to carry that load. It means you have to show up every day banging because there aren't a whole lot of directives out there. So they are required to be creative and execute those ideas. That can be taxing because there is a lot of risk out there because if something goes wrong it was the employee's ideas."
Katechis said he prefers a hands-off management approach that allows his employees to basically make their own decisions.
"This is kind of like Survivor," he said. "There is nobody really in charge. Some days it might feel like you are swimming in a shark tank, but, in the end, everyone is held accountable and is responsible for getting the job done. My goal would be for everyone to learn every aspect of this business.
"The people who are most valuable to me are the ones who know the most about the business because it tells me that they aren't going to just compartmentalize and do their own thing. There is an overall thing and that's that we hire people to get things done and do it fast and can handle a great deal of responsibility and be held accountable for it."
"The pirates have taken over the ship. My responsibility is to make sure the pirates still run the ship. Once you've cultivated this group of people who can come up with good ideas and execute and the more people you have that are good, it solves that problem of 'how do I do this' and it gives you the ability to move the ball much faster."
When asked if he'd ever consider selling the company or getting investors through an initial public offering, Katechis is adamant that he has no interest in selling out.
"I don't have a desire to be the next rich guy," he said. "I think those guys get bored. Doing something that is fulfilling every day, coming in and enjoying it, that's more important to me."
In the meantime, Katechis said he has enjoyed getting to visit Brevard and watch as the North Carolina brewery continues to expand capacity. Fresh off of a three-hour-long bike ride, Katechis recalled his first visit to Brevard around 15 years ago when he came to visit John Felty, a long-time friend.
"I decided to bring my bike with me on that trip and I dipped into Pisgah National Forest to go for a ride and there was something alive in the woods that I'd never experienced before. I fell in love with it," he said.
Over the course of the next 15 years, Katechis came back for vacations, attended some of the various music festivals, and on each visit, he brought his bike, until finally he decided to just begin keeping a bike here.
"Brevard was just a special place where I came to retreat," he said. "As we were growing our brewing business we were looking for extra capacity because our brewing facility in Colorado was reaching capacity and was in need of expansion. The idea of putting a brewery on the East Coast was really far-fetched, but as I considered it, the only place I would really consider was Brevard.
"One thing led to another, I sketched it out on a napkin, and it made more sense to build a brewery here. I knew I wasn't going to be giving up quality of life, but instead was going to enhance my quality of life."
An added bonus was that the brewery was also able to capitalize on shipping savings because 40 percent of their beer is delivered to the East Coast.
Katechis said he has appreciated the level of community support they have received since announcing plans to open the brewery last year. Likewise, he said growing a relationship with the City of Brevard has been a good experience as well.
"As far as moving into Brevard and establishing that relationship with the city, I think what we experienced was just normal partnerships," he said. "I think what we experienced were just normal bumps that happen when you're starting a business. We got through those and I think that Joe Moore and Josh Freeman are very pro-business.
"I believe both sides understand the value in the other and it's continued to evolve. It's been a good relationship, and they've been extremely helpful with everything from the business license to utilities to signage and expansion. I think it's important that we have a healthy relationship with those guys and we do."
When asked if he ever dreamed that his restaurant in Lyons would have turned into one of the top 25 craft breweries in the country, Katechis smiles and shakes his head.
"This is nothing like I imagined," he said. "I could have never dreamed it would have turned into this. I'll keep showing up and making sure the pirates are still running the ship. It's really pretty cool. I got to go on a three-and-a-half hour bike ride this morning, so it's a good fit."