By Matt Kuhnen
Craft beer sales continue to rise – they currently account for about 17% of beer sales nationwide. With breweries across the country expanding their distribution foot print, it has become easy for the average Joe Six-Pack to pick up a not-so average six-pack at their local Walgreens. Even though quality brew is at our disposal, many craft beer enthusiasts are seeking out the independently owned craft bottle shops to stock their fridges and cellars. Support for local breweries runs deep, and the same goes for local bottle shops. Getting to know the people behind the counter, talking beer, and, oftentimes, sharing beer has become the norm.
Enter Julie and Patrick Bisch of The Open Bottle, the South Suburbs’ newest bottle shop. Co-owners and drinking buddies for life, Julie and Patrick aim to deliver the world of craft beer to the small town consumer. I was lucky enough to share their company (and a few tasty brews) one evening after they closed up shop for the day. I learned a lot about what inspired them to take the leap from their day job to entrepreneurship, how they curate their shop, and what they hope to contribute to the craft beer community.
ManBQue (Matt Kuhnen): Tell me a little bit about yourselves. Where are you from, how did you guys meet, and what brought you to where you are today?
Julie Bisch: We’ve been together for 7 years – we started dating back in 2007. I am originally from Palos Heights and we met at UIC. After UIC we moved in together downtown around 2010 and just recently moved back to the area in Orland Park.
Patrick Bisch: I grew up in Mokena and went to Lincoln Way East. We got married in 2013 and we opened the shop in January of this year. Living downtown, we became regulars at Hackney’s, which had a pretty solid craft beer menu. One day back in 2010, we noticed they had bombers of Bourbon County Vanilla on the menu. We decided to be adventurous and give it a try based on the description of vanilla and bourbon notes.
JB: We had heard about it briefly so we kind of new what it was. We were definitely blown away and from there our interested in craft beer grew.
MBQ: Until opening the shop, what was your relationship with beer, and what led you to take the plunge to open the store?
JB: As Patrick mentioned, Hackney’s was our gateway to craft beer. From there it really blossomed into seeking out and trying new beers. We went to New Belgium in Colorado and had La Folie straight out of the Foeder – we were hooked on sours after that. Back then, La Folie was not distributed here which freaked us out. If it was, we had no idea where to find it. Our interest just kept building over time and then we started going to The Beer Temple back in 2012. We met Chris and Margaret [Quinn] and they really helped guide us along with our craft beer dream. So from there we just really wanted to open a bottle shop. At the time we really liked City Beer Store in San Francisco because they do the on/off premise thing – serving beer there and taking beer to go, and we thought that Chicago needed something like this. So this was always an idea in the back of our minds, but life kept getting in the way.
PB: Yeah, we were getting married, trying to buy a condo, and entertaining the idea of moving to Colorado.
JB: Then it got to a point where things were just not going our way. I had gotten my master’s degree, but wasn’t advancing in my career, and Patrick was having other issues at work. We tried buying a condo twice and it fell through both times. Again, just life getting in the way. We then went t a screening of “The Michigan Beer Film” at the Good Beer Hunting studio hosted by Michael Kiser, and it was a mix of watching this film and hanging out afterwards for the Q&A with Michael and the director, and all the other stuff going on in our lives that really pushed us over the edge. We got in our car after the screening, looked at each other and said “Let’s do this!”
PB: it sounds super cliché, but that is actually what happened.
JB: Starting in March 2014 we began working on the business plan, and sitting down with Chris from the Beer Temple and Dave [Hawley] at The Beer Cellar in Glen Ellyn who were both a huge help in getting us started.
PB: Chris especially. We emailed back and forth and had a meeting over beers at the Map Room where we just asked questions and chit chatted about opening the shop and picked his brain for advice.
MBQ: Why this specific location?
JB: Well at this point, we knew we were not going to open in Chicago. With so many shops in the city and Dave at The Beer Cellar in the western suburbs and others in the north suburbs, we knew we wanted to target the south suburbs because there was nothing like this down here.
PB: The Chicago market was so saturated, and hearing the stories of how hard it was to obtain a liquor license and dealing with other red tape regarding serving beer on-site led us to open down here.
JB: Before we started the legal process, we wanted this exact location. The proximity to the highway, and to the hotel and convention center behind the shop, was appealing. I was in hotel sales prior to this, and I knew it would potentially draw a lot business. We met with the Village in April of last year and finally signed the lease in October of 2014. We were just dead set on this location and our concept.
MBQ: Walk me through the process of opening a bottle shop.
PB: At first there was a little hesitation regarding our concept of serving beer on-site and selling beer to go. I don’t think they fully understood it at first. Once they caught on, there were a few stipulations regarding food being served on-premise and our operating hours.
JB: We do have some packaged food here and we also allow people to bring in their own food, but we had to stick to “retail” hours. Once that was agreed upon the village unanimously voted “Yea” in favor of our liquor license and approved the project. We signed the lease and started construction.
PB: Construction began immediately and we did a complete build-out in about 2 months which was really quick considering this was a huge empty space. It was basically a storage unit for the restaurants next door.
JB: We finished construction mid-December, had the final inspection in early January and got our liquor license, and then started stocking the shelves.
JB: Yes, very true. I quit my job about mid-July of 2014 a few months after we started the process and focused on getting permits, licenses, the construction crew, etc., and Patrick kept his job up until the week we opened.
PB: I worked as an IT customer support manager so my background was on the client side dealing with people, which I really enjoyed. But we realized after the first week that Julie could not run the shop on her own. We really needed to both be here full time in order to make the shop run smoothly. We do have our friends help out once in a while, but right now it’s just the two of us.
MBQ: How important is local beer to you?
PB: Local Beer is extremely important to us. Right when you walk into the store we have a whole section dedicated to Illinois beer. We’re all about the mantra of “A rising tide lifts all ships”. Our neighbors 350 Brewing across the street and Hailstorm Brewing nearby have been great and have supported us from day one, and the feeling is mutual. It’s all about supporting the beer community and it’s a win-win in our opinion.
JB: Some of our customers who are not as educated about the craft beer community assume we must hate the proximity to the breweries, but it’s the complete opposite for us. We view them a friends, and we’re either at their place or their over here enjoying a pint at the bar.
MBQ: What is it like to be able to walk across the street and interact with brewers from a retail side?
PB: It’s actually really great. I love that. I wish every brewery we carried was right down the street. The same goes for any local brewer that comes into the shop. I try to get them engaged with our customers and that is what I like to see.
JB: The best is when Brandon [Banbury] from Hailstorm Brewing comes in and someone orders one of his beers and they mention they really like it. We’re able to make that introduction to the customer which is a really unique experience.
JB: Fresh beer is equally important. We check the bottling dates on everything we get and we code date every bottle that comes into the shop when we receive it. We realize this is important to the consumer and we wanted it to be consistent throughout the shop. We’ve had to send beer back to the distributer because it was too old, as well as proactively send beer back when it’s approaching its best by date.
PB: It also gives us the opportunity to educate our customers who are new to craft beer on why freshness is so important to the overall taste of a beer. Don’t get me wrong, it can be a pain to tag every single beer, but in the end it’s worth the extra effort.
MBQ: Who are your customers?
PB: In this area, our customer base varies greatly. We get a complete across the board mix.
JB: We have everyone from people coming in the day after their 21st birthdays to couples in their eighties who bring in lunch and who are just so excited to be here, and everyone in between. We are family friendly as well, so you will see parents in here with small children. We do serve craft soda and popcorn which the kids love.
MBQ: What sets you apart from other shops in the area and big retailers like Binny’s?
JB: The number one thing that sets us apart is you can drink here while you shop. We’re also a specialty shop dedicated to only craft beer and cider. With that said though we are primarily a retail shop. 60-70% of our sales are to-go which is why our retail hours work so well. I like to describe it as a home away from home in the sense that you can come in and relax, talk to your neighbors while enjoying a beer from the bar or the cooler almost as if you were at home.
PB: We do have people who come in and sit at the bar by themselves and after a beer or two they begin to talk to their neighbors and that’s the social aspect of beer we are trying to promote. I always try to spark up a conversation behind the bar among customers.
JB: We also offer a daily tasting which you won’t find in other stores in this area. It’s a mix between stuff that may not be available in this area, or items we get in the shop that we are curious about tasting.
MBQ: How do you acquire bottles for the daily tasting that may not be regularly available?
JB: A lot of our regular customers will bring them in, and we always try to give a shout to the people that do donate beers via our social media. It’s an awesome feeling when a customer drops off a bottle right when we open with the excitement that we will feature their bottle as the daily tasting. It really echoes that sense of community.
PB: We list the beers on the menu from lightest to darkest so right off the bat you know what the beer will look like and an idea of what it will taste like. So if you are accustomed to lighter beers you would start at the top of the list and if you like darker robust beers you would start at the bottom. So we try to put on a variety to satisfy the two extremes and then fill in the gaps.
JB: And it doesn’t always work out this way depending on when a keg runs out, but the “Beer Here” coolers in the back lend more variety when someone wants to drink something other than what is on tap.
PB: Technically you can drink anything in the store. Some items are not chilled and we can chill them behind the counter, but our next step is to get a dedicated bottle chiller that will essentially chill anything in the store faster for immediate consumption. As for our shelves, we do have a new arrivals section for beers that have just come in. Anything left over from this section by the next day will migrate to our regional shelves. We chose to organize the shelves by region rather than style.
JB: We have had really good luck with getting exclusive items from our distributors from the start. Our first week open we were able to get a few exclusive beers including Firestone Walker Sucaba and Bell’s Hopslam in bottles and on tap. From the beginning it seems our distributors are on board with what we are doing and it shows in the products we have been able to move out the door.
PB: Getting the special beers are great, but we also like to carry a good snapshot of the brewery itself. We have plenty of other Firestone Walker beers, but when Parabola was released a few days ago, it was gone in minutes. We didn’t even have a chance to properly put it on the shelf. It went straight from the box to the customer.
MBQ: What about some local breweries that self-distribute – most notably Pipeworks Brewing? How did you develop that relationship so quickly?
JB: Pipeworks is actually very specific in who they distribute to. We’re actually one of the few places who Pipeworks will distribute to in this area. We reached out to Pipeworks and they did not respond at first until we had our first press article written. They finally sent an email back to me and they said “We saw the article. Let’s talk.” They are a great group and we love when they come in because they are very conscious and concerned with how their beer is selling
PB: We’re definitely proud to say we are one of the few places that has Pipeworks on draft outside the city.
JB: We actually allow people to break up six and four packs they want and the remainder goes on the mix six shelf. We find that it allows people to take chances on beers they may not be familiar with.
PB: Yeah the customers really choose what ends up there, which we think is kind of cool. If someone if going to break up a six pack of something it’s likely someone else would do the same thing and they are able to pick up the remaining beers.
JB: As far as inventory goes we price everything as a pack, a single bottle to go, and a single bottle to- stay. I spend a lot of time keeping this organized as well tracking what sells. We also update our beermenus.com page daily so there are always real time updates of what we have in stock and what we have on tap. I usually do this before we post anything to social media so it’s truly a real time update.
MBQ: Tell me about your grand opening party last month?
JB: The response was great! We knew the bottles we were tasting out would possibly draw a response, but we kept our tap list secret. So we had a feeling once word got out about what we had on tap that we would draw a big crowd. About a half hour before we opened a line started to form outside just based on the bottles list we released.
PB: We purposely did not release the tap list because we didn’t want to draw a huge crowd right off the bat. We wanted our regulars to have the chance to enjoy the space and be rewarded with the beers on tap. Unfortunately we had to cut it off for occupancy reasons, but were able to get people in and out throughout the day.
MBQ: You were tasting out some pretty rare beers that day.
PB: Yes. Believe it or not, these came from our personal cellar. I felt like this was the best opportunity to share these beers and to my surprise lines formed within the shop to taste these beers. We had two stations in the shop and every half hour two new bottles were opened. It got to the point to where a new line would form in anticipation for the next bottle. It was crazy, but we loved the enthusiasm.
JB: At the end of the day it was really well organized. Aside from the lines for the bottle share, no one really had to wait to get a beer on tap or purchase beer.
MBQ: Any beers you don’t currently carry that are on your wish list?
JB: Perennial Artisan Ales comes to mind. When we were first placing orders before we opened the doors, their price point was a bit high for us as a new shop, but we will be getting them on the shelves as early as next month. We want to build on our imports section as well.
PB: It’s hard not to mention 3 Floyds. We don’t carry 3 Floyds at this time, but not because we don’t want to. In fact, we requested them from day one. They do have an approval process and they have been in the shop to check the place out a few times. We have gotten good feedback from them, but currently they are working on an expansion to increase their production. Once this is in place we’re told that we will be able to carry their beers on the shelf and hopefully on draft too.
JB: Obviously we’re new, so we don’t have everything, but recently a customer walked in and immediately asked if we had Allagash Black. It really caught us off guard, but we made note of that and included it in our next order.
PB: I have a little notebook I use to jot stuff down like that, and we now have Allagash Black on the shelf for that reason. The guy came back the next week, saw it sitting on the shelf and was just so happy to see that.
MBQ: What are your future plans for the shop?
JB: We do plan on expanding internally by adding more coolers and shelf space as well as hosting private events.
PB: There is a space next door that may be opening up that would allow us to expand our bar, but the long term goal is multiple locations.
MBQ: What is the best part of your job?
JB: I do spend a lot of time in the office doing paper work, or updating inventory so definitely being able to enjoy a beer at the end of the day is the best part for me.
PB: Two things I really enjoy about the job is Interacting with customers and finding what they like about beer or what brought them into the shop, and secondly, and more selfishly, having access to incredible beer!