San Angelo is a small town in West Texas, hours from the flashier cities in the Lone Star State, but it’s filled with 5-star businesses that help put the town on the map. In this Community Spotlight series from Behind the Review, Yelp Elite reviewer Josh H. invites his favorite local business owners to talk community building, business tips, and more. Read all their stories.
Sometimes you just want to go where everybody knows your name. If you’re in San Angelo, Texas, that place is SoCo Taphouse, a craft beer bar that both owner Brandon Gardner and Yelp Elite reviewer Josh H. call “The Cheers of Beers.”
SoCo has earned the nickname thanks in large part to the incredibly knowledgeable staff. “The feeling you get when you’re at SoCo, it does come down to the staff because they help sustain and maintain the vibe that I think Brandon was going for when he started,” Josh said. “They foster the same attitude—that togetherness of people.”
Josh called out one regular bartender in particular for making his experience memorable: “[Devin] embodied everything that SoCo was because she is one of the people. She’s one of us locals that has lived here most of her life. She knows the town, the city, the people, the vibe, the likes, and the dislikes.”
“Cheers” is nothing without its bartenders, and the same goes for SoCo. Brandon—who worked in the customer service industry for many years before opening the brewery in 2015—focuses on hiring personable people like Devin, who will represent his brand and the welcoming, customer-centric atmosphere he strives for. Below, he shares three tips for building a team that feels as familiar and beloved as the cast of your favorite sitcom.
1. Hire people who understand your business’s atmosphere
It may seem obvious, but hiring the right people is crucial for creating an atmosphere that people remember and want to return to again and again. Bartending at a brewery requires a specific set of skills—from remembering the names of your regulars to recommending the perfect beer to a first-timer—and a key aspect of the role is making customers feel at home.
“Coming in and being greeted with a good smile, somebody calling you your name, or remembering what you like, that interaction, it hooks you from the beginning, right? As a customer, you no longer feel like a consumer or a customer. You feel like a guest, a guest in our house and SoCo’s house,” Brandon said.
When hiring, Brandon looks for people who are service-minded, personable, and passionate about the community he’s cultivated at SoCo. “It starts with the people, not just the atmosphere,” he said. “Our job is to make you hang out and feel the most welcome. Let’s find you a good beer that we know you’re gonna like. So it’s almost as good as sitting on your couch at home after a long day of work and cracking a cold one. We’re gonna make that feeling exactly like that at SoCo. [Our staff] are wonderful and welcoming, and that’s why we really try to make sure we’re very stringent on who we hire.”
However, if someone doesn’t have the right fit to bartend, SoCo always keeps the door open. Brandon will often direct these candidates to other opportunities, such as barbacking or brewing beer in SoCo’s own microbrewery behind the bar, which produces several of the beers SoCo keeps on tap.
2. Create a shared passion and knowledge for your product
Craft beer is a niche interest that can often feel inaccessible to new customers, so having knowledgeable staff is critical. But no matter your industry, your team should know as much—if not more—than you do about the business and products.
At SoCo, the staff’s shared passion for and knowledge of the product contributes to the authenticity that customers love. “We try to pick people that love craft beer because if you come into the place and you wanna work there and don’t love craft beer, you’re not gonna exactly have the greatest way of interacting with the bar regulars, talking about beer, or giving them something good to drink,” Brandon said.
To make the SoCo experience accessible to everyone, Brandon trains his team to start every recommendation with a simple question: “What are you drinking today?” If you don’t know, the bartenders will walk you through a series of questions, even asking how you’re feeling and attempting to match a beer to your mood. “We use our skill sets, our knowledge of understanding of beer and lagers—light beers, dark beers, IPAs, sours, ciders, whatever it might be—and what we have on tap to find the best fit for you,” Brandon said.
Brandon’s team is also big on sampling before buying—both for newbies and regulars like Josh, who enjoys stretching his palette. “There is a very approachable and not intimidating act of beer education going on when you go there,” Josh said. “They don’t want you to buy a beer just for the sake of buying a beer. I’ve gotten the vibe they want you to find the one you truly like and you’re going to enjoy drinking.”
3. Listen to customer feedback
As a business owner, your customers are your greatest asset. Regulars are often just as passionate about your products or services as your staff—and they can help spread the message of your business to a larger community, while still preserving the authenticity of the SoCo brand.
Brandon trusts his customers so much that he’ll even ask for their feedback on a new hire. Before giving an offer, he often invites a candidate to bartend for a few days and then ask regulars for their thoughts. This way, he can be sure that each team member keeps customers top-of-mind and contributes to the friendly, approachable atmosphere so many have come to love.
Reviews are another valuable way to take stock of your customers’ impressions and learn how you can improve their experience. Brandon uses Yelp reviews to check in on the business and determine what’s working—and what isn’t. “I love reviews, good or bad,” he said. “If [we] get negative ones, that allows us to reevaluate as a business: Why did we miss the mark that day? What happened? What was going on with the bar? Why was our service not as good as it could have been?”
Receiving input from your community benefits your business, but critical reviews still sting. Instead of responding from a place of anger, Brandon recommends taking a step back to process those emotions offline. “Take your entrepreneur hat off—off of what you’ve built and what you’ve loved—and think about this thing from a consumer standpoint and from a business operational standpoint,” he suggests.
“I actually have a rule that if I ever find myself [letting it become personal], I take a two hour timeout. If I think I’m going to be too emotional about a review, I pump the brakes. I’ve got to make sure I don’t use the emotions and the love and the care that I have for this place that I built and reply back negatively.”
Interviews by Emily Washcovick; photos from SoCo Taphouse and on Yelp
These lessons come from an episode of Behind the Review, Yelp & Entrepreneur Media’s weekly podcast. Listen below to hear from Josh and Brandon, or visit the episode page to read more, subscribe to the show, and explore other episodes.
Community spotlight: San Angelo, Texas
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