Variety is the Spice of Life

Variety is exactly what you will get at the Dram Shop in Missoula.  The Dram Shop has the distinction of being Montana’s first dedicated growler fill station and tap room, catering to the strength of the local craft brewing industry with more than three dozen regional craft beer and wine offerings on tap. 

Zach Millar was raised by entrepreneurial parents in Pennsylvania and moved to Missoula in 1995 to attend the University of Montana.  After graduating in 1999, he spent some time as a musician touring around playing music, then got his first introduction to the craft beer industry working for Big Sky Brewing in Missoula.  After over a decade working for Big Sky Brewing, Millar was having trouble getting ahead in the industry. He was working for the largest brewery in the region at the time - coupled with a very specific skillset handling all forecasting and logistics for the regional giant, which really limited his ability for advancement and expanding his career. He and his wife Sarah contemplated moving but really wanted to stay in Missoula. So, doing what any entrepreneurial minded folks would do, they decided to launch their own business. 

Millar had seen similar business models on the west coast, but tap rooms were a relatively new movement in the craft brewing industry.  Knowing there was nothing like it in Missoula or in Montana for that matter, the couple decided to jump in and the idea for the Dram Shop was born!  They spent a lot of time doing market research, comparing the Missoula market to other cities in the northwest in terms of population, demographics and breweries.  Then they took their business plan to Paul Gladen at Blackstone Launch Pad who helped formulate the numbers into a format that was presentable and was how lenders would want to see it.  Knowing they would need to seek financing, this was the most vital piece of the business plan.  Gladen not only fine-tuned the financials, he was also instrumental in introducing the Millars to business professionals in the entrepreneurial world like lenders, lawyers and accountants who would be integral to the Dram Shop’s success.  Taking advantage of the free advice these folks were willing to offer was incredibly valuable and a critical step in the process. 

The financing piece for Millar was the biggest obstacle and the scariest.  He admittedly didn’t know what to expect and didn’t know what was expected of him from the lenders' point of view.  After a couple ill-fated financing attempts, Millar approached First Security Bank of Missoula, where Scott Burke and Greg Halls spent hours helping troubleshoot his business plan and navigate the entire process.  Due to the small amount of collateral in the project (since the business was going to be located in leased space), the bank recommended getting an SBA guaranteed loan to mitigate some of the risk.  This proved to be a great solution for financing, as it not only shored up the collateral piece, it offered a longer repayment period for the business keeping their monthly payments manageable.  “Being able to work with wonderful people like Zach and Sarah Millar and helping them with their dream of opening a business is why I am in commercial lending,” said Greg Halls, Commercial Loan Officer at First Security Bank in Missoula.  “There are challenges with financing new businesses, such as collateral, which is why we turned to an SBA loan to mitigate some of the risk.  Zach and Sarah Millar have created such an amazing place in Missoula.  They have opened their second location and have continued to grow their relationship with the bank. It is great to see the success they have achieved with both locations.  I look forward to the relationship in the many years and beers to come,” added Halls.

The growler fill station/tap room concept provides the Millars with extreme flexibility to adapt to the craft beer industry and peoples tastes.  Unlike bar owners who like their customers to have consistency and the ability to have the same drink every time, the Dram Shop rotates their kegs on a regular basis.  When one keg is empty there is always a new selection to offer their customers.  Millar says, “It has been an interesting experiment though, because people will come in and have a couple beers they really like and then return the next week to find it has been replaced with something else.”  The beauty of this model is that it offers customers variety, a chance to try something new and explore.  New and exciting experiences make life more interesting and in a small way, the Dram Shop helps customers to do just that.

In just four short years, the Dram Shop has solidified its place in downtown Missoula as a family friendly gathering spot where locals and the like can choose from the many microbrews, draught wine, cider, soda and nonalcoholic brew options.  Due to its popularity, the Dram Shop recently opened a second Missoula location in the Southgate Mall complex, again with the help of First Security Bank.  The new location has more storage space, more outdoor space and two entrances and exits from behind the bar, something they were unable to have with the downtown location due to the space and layout.  The Dram Shop was lured to the mall location by its new owners to become one of the anchor tenants.  The new mall owners want to recruit local businesses to locate there to create a lifestyle atmosphere where people will want to come and hang out.  Perhaps it will become Missoula’s new “Hip Strip”. With the opening of the new location, the Dram Shop nearly doubled the number of employees to 17.  Zach was quick to point out that number doesn’t include one of the most important people, his wife Sarah, who single handedly behind the scenes maintains the books and marketing for the company.

Today, although there are only a handful of true growler fill stations/tap rooms in Montana, others have sprouted up and morphed the concept into a restaurant/tap room atmosphere but are also gaining steam and popularity.

Competition doesn’t scare Millar though, and he realizes there will be a saturation of the market at some point.  Like most things, the strong will survive and those less experienced in the industry will likely not. 

Millar’s best piece of advice for new entrepreneurs…don’t be afraid to ask!  Glean from the free resources that can help and support you along the way to your new venture.  It’s a great way to garner community support and get people to feel like they have an investment in your business.  As far as future growth plans and opportunities for Zach and Sarah...let’s let the dust settle at the new location and stay tuned.

This article does not constitute or imply an endorsement by the SBA of any opinions, products, or services of any private individual or entity.