What does it take to run a successful local business in Sarasota during a global economic recession?
It’s a difficult question and there are a lot of different answers that will always depend on who’s being asked. There’s one sentiment, though, that every answer will likely have in common: It’s not easy. That’s why this reporter, who has lived in Sarasota for almost six years and has seen a lot of businesses come and go, is embarking on a mission to gather as many of these answers as possible.
This article is the first in a series, called “This Business in Sarasota,” that examines the area’s favorite local businesses –– bars, restaurants, cafés, shops, art galleries, etc. –– from the perspectives of the people who are living out their dreams by serving customers and giving people a place to come together. Each piece will focus on what the owner or manager feels makes his or her business unique and successful, what attracts customers and what the business offers the community.
Growlers Pub, the first business to be spotlighted in this series, is a recent favorite of college students and professors, musicians, artists and anyone in the neighborhood who just wants to relax with a cool craft beer after a long, hard day.
Growlers somehow manages to offer the best of both worlds when it comes to the bar scene: It presents customers with a hip environment that fosters creativity, art and intellectualism, but does so in a way that doesn’t convey any of the pretentiousness many associate with the bohemian lifestyle. It’s got an almost Cheers-like atmosphere –– you know, the place where everybody knows your name –– and everything about the bar emanates vibes of humility and inclusiveness that make everyone feel welcome. Even the sign out front is modest, reading “PUB” in big, plain letters, indicating to any passerby that “this is the place, just come on in.”
Last Tuesday, This Week in Sarasota sat down with Sherry Kolyno, who shares ownership of Growlers with her husband Kevin Kolyno, to discuss how the business is run and what what she thinks has helped make it a success.
The most important step, she explained, is making sure that customers feel comfortable. “I tell all of my new bartenders that you just treat everyone with respect, and just be gracious,” she said. “I think that’s the main thing. We just accept everyone here and we don’t put up with any negativity toward each other.”
Aside from the polite, attentive bartenders –– who do actually try to remember your name –– Growlers strives to avoid conveying the pressure that franchised bars often place on customers. “You don’t have to have a beer every second,” Kolyno explained. “Somebody’s not going to come over and go, ‘Oh, you want another beer? You want another beer?’ So, you think, “Gosh, well I ought to be leaving, I’m not drinking fast enough,’” she mused. ”We just want people to come and hang and just be happy.”
And customers recognize that Growlers is more than just a place to buy a drink. Kolyno explained that she is very open to ideas and suggestions from customers, who often make requests to use the bar as a space for certain projects, such as concerts or original art or film showings. “Those are the things that I’m just so open with, and it pulls people in to where it’s their place,” she said. “I hear a lot of people go, ‘Oh, that’s my bar,’ and I guess that’s our philosophy. We want everybody to have it as their bar, or their living room, as it’s getting to be now.”
Customers who walk into the bar at any time will likely notice the “living room” ambiance in the environment, which includes couches, soft lighting, music, parlor games and, of course, camaraderie. Come in on a night, usually Friday or Saturday, when the bar is hosting a local show of some kind, and the feeling is unmistakable. For example, during a recent event on Friday, Sept. 21 –– a fundraising concert featuring intimate solo sets put together to help local band the Send-Offs record their first album –– the main bar area was furnished with several big comfy sofas that audience members had sprawled out on, turning the living room metaphor into something more literal.
But how did Growlers get to this point? How did the owners turn a small space in a strip mall off of Tamiami Trail into a place that many view as a second home?
It wasn’t easy, and it didn’t happen overnight. When someone opens up a new business, Kolyno explained, there’s always a lot of uncertainty and anxiety. “To give advice to anybody that’s going to be starting any kind of business, I think the trick is patience. It’s not one of those things where you just put the sign up and people come,” she said. “You have to work at it, and you just have to be patient, because even though you work the hardest you can, still people don’t come in and all of a sudden, they … do. There’s no rhyme, there’s no reason, there’s nothing, they just come. Then you’re good.”
None of this would have happened, Kolyno said, without the patronage of students in the area. “I think a lot of it has to do with acceptance. If the colleges hadn’t accepted us, we’d be sitting here empty,” she said.
But the students, professors and frequent customers didn’t just start coming on their own. “That’s the hardest part of this business,” Kolyno explained. “Especially when we first opened up. It was extremely difficult to get people to actually walk through the door.”
To get things moving, Kolyno and her husband put a lot of effort into organizing creative events that would attract people on a consistent basis. “There’s open mic on Tuesdays, trivia night on Wednesdays, we have the pretzel truck on Thursdays,” Kolyno said, listing just a few of the activities Growlers puts together every week. “If there’s just a reason for you to come, once you’re here you’re going to either know somebody or you’re going to meet somebody. If you can come in once, I think I’ll have you as a customer.”
Of course, none of this would be helpful if customers couldn’t afford the beers that are served on tap, in cans or in bottles, so the owners have been careful to make sure that everything is reasonably priced. “Our price structure stays the same across the board, so whatever the distributor charges us, we mark it up the same,” Kolyno said. “Whether it’s a rare item or it’s run-of-the-mill, it’s the same price structure, and we keep it low.”
And the beer selection isn’t just determined by what the owners feel like ordering when the time comes to request a new shipment. Growlers gladly takes suggestions from customers on what beers to put on tap, and Kolyno said that these requests are seriously considered and are often filled.
It seems that gestures like these, that offer up more choices and involvement for patrons, are a key strategy for success in a time where streamlined franchises and corporations are taking over the service industry and pushing small, local businesses out of the running. Locals know that they can come to Growlers, get to know other customers and get to know the owners. They know that they are being listened to, and that the bar is a part of the neighborhood.
If there’s a local business that you would like to see highlighted, please leave a comment below and it will be considered for the next article in the series.