The tasting room in many cases is the only way distilleries can connect directly with consumers outside of the three-tier system. Other than the design of the physical space and the products, the most important thing you can do for the tasting room is have a great team. Often what makes a brand special is difficult to translate into a retail setting, which means one of the most important factors is hospitality. The tasting room is an extension of a brand’s identity and should be treated as such. Retail operations can add great value to the brand while at the same time adding to the bottom line.

Phase 1: Prioritize Hospitality

Craft distilleries are hospitality companies. If that sounds strange, think of it this way: Distilleries make a product using commodities; the only way to be successful is to maximize customer engagement and sell to the largest number of people. Hospitality exists to ensure customer engagement. The best tasting rooms not only look great and are fully stocked but are built on hospitality and service. The tasting is often the only chance to make an impression, so it is important to create a lasting experience for the guest. The worst thing a brand can do is to have a poorly trained, apathetic team member behind a table pouring spirit with little knowledge or customer service experience.

Make the tasting experience count and engage every guest like they are the only person that matters. Pride in the product is imperative, and when it comes with a great story and unforgettable service, it becomes a memory for the guest.

Customer service is often overlooked in beverage operations. Breweries and distilleries should take a page from the wine industry. Walk into any winery in Napa, Walla Walla, Finger Lakes or Livermore and the message is clear: Please stay and spend money. Comfort, luxury, accessibility, hospitality, sense of place and opulence impress the visitor right away.

However, great customer service is doable without marble columns and waterfalls. Hors d’oeuvres and tuxedos are never a requirement, just smiling faces and a welcoming demeanor. Organic growth comes from people who have a story to share with friends or family. That story comes from the experience they have coupled with their willingness to share it. Yelp, Travelocity and social media are the guides of today, and the under-40 crowd almost exclusively gets tips, ideas and recommendations from crowdsourcing on these platforms. Good-bye, Frommer’s; hello, Facebook.

Phase 2: The Hard Part: Staffing and Training

It’s true that there is no ambassador better than the founder or owner of a company, the person who best understands the very reasons a company exists. There is no employee or partner that an owner or founder can bring on that will care about the company, its history and the bottom line more than the founder or owner unless they feel a stake in the company. This does not always mean money. In fact, it is more often about the possibility for growth, personally and professionally.

Perhaps one of the most frustrating and headache-inducing aspects of any business is hiring, training, mentoring, managing, leading and motivating employees. Great employees do exist but are usually found only after exhaustive vetting. In today’s marketplace, new hires are younger and younger and less inclined to remain loyal over the long term. That is not to say that there are not employees who once hired won’t stay on for a decade, but given the gig economy it’s going to become more and more rare.

The decision to trust the future of a business is not an easy one, but much of the risk can be mitigated if distilleries employ some basic techniques.

Proper vetting. This takes time, energy and effort away from running the business, however, if not done you will spend much more time rehiring and retraining in a constant cycle. Businesses that find a great candidate and then let that candidate grow into a great employee who has a mental stake in the business will be far better off. Loyalty comes from a sense of being valued.

Don’t skimp on the training. Distilleries cannot assume that new employees are going to know everything about the process, the products and the people, which is why detailed training programs must be implemented. The more the new hires are trained, the better the chances of them sticking around. Send employees home with bottles, books and proper training manuals. Hiring people and letting them figure it out on their own is always a bad idea.

“Hire low and train high. Make the investment in new employees by hiring green, inexperienced but trainable [people],” says Stephen Gould of Golden Moon Distillery. His Colorado distillery puts hospitality first, and now they are preparing for a massive expansion.

Training can be easier than you think

The Employee Manual. Write a standard new-hire manual with rules, expectations, behavior requirements and benefits. The HR person can do this or download a template and customize. Everything from hours of operations to dress code to termination polices to benefits needs to be made explicit and very simple to understand. This should be given on day one with signed proof that the employee received it. Go over it with each new hire immediately.

Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). Document the company standards, clearly spelling out expectations for daily activities and how things are done. Make the message easy to understand: Service and hospitality come first. Do not skimp on the details. Mistakes get made when people are not on the same page, which is why everyone gets the same book.

Team Hierarchy. This is often neglected. Make sure people know who to go to with questions, complaints and concerns. Include a welcome letter from the founder/owner outlining a few key points about why the company was founded and how important the brand is.

Training Guide. Include your products, how they are made, how they should be sold and loads more information such as cocktails, bitters, shrubs, recipes and tips for service. This is the deep dive and time to geek out on technical specs, distillation 101, aging procedure and tasting notes.

Answer the difficult questions.

Why should a young, talented, educated and motivated person come work at one brand over another? Or even worse, go into banking!

  • Does the brand offer benefits?
  • Is there growth potential?
  • Is there trust?
  • Learn to let go

Letting go and trusting others is perhaps the most difficult thing the founder or owner of a distillery can do. But every business owner at some point, if growth is in the cards, must let their people do the job they were hired to do.

Spending time and effort to hire the best and then not giving them all the tools they need to succeed is a mistake. Maintaining certain controls is one thing, but holding onto power when it would be better for the company to let someone else manage it is an enormous mistake. Hire the best, train like the company’s life depends on it and give new hires the tools, respect and decision-making power that will grow the company the fastest and for the longest term.

A couple other quick leadership tips:

  • Do not fear the team dynamic — Hire the right team members and the best team leader and give them freedom to make decisions appropriate to their roles.
  • Do not shy away from long-term goals with the team — Nothing makes for great brand hospitality better than retaining staff for years, so bring them into your long-term strategy.
  • Do not micromanage — It’s one thing to check in or help run the place, but eventually the focus needs to be growth and not spending every day on the hustle.
  • Do not fear making changes — Do well by the staff and generally they will stay, but sometimes hard choices must be made.

Ultimately, the heart and soul that launched the brand can translate to the employees if the best are hired and they are trained well. Hire low, get good people and mold them when possible. When hiring the best, let them do the job they were hired for and beyond. Train well, make certain that new hires have every tool they need to be successful. Pour knowledge into them with properly written manuals, time spent with veteran employees and as much technical exposure as they can handle. Do not let the guest leave without an overwhelming desire to come back or the desperate need to share the experience with everyone.