Two UIndy MBA graduates are pouring themselves into new ventures catering to the growing number of “locavores” (consumers who seek locally grown, produced, and sourced food and beverages) throughout greater Indianapolis.
Thanks to entrepreneurs Brian Willsey ’10 (at left) and Jeremy Hough ’0 (below), local residents can enjoy small-batch, artisanal spirits and make their own craft brews with no fuss or muss. Brian, who left a job in real estate banking and securities, is a partner at Hotel Tango Whiskey, Indiana’s first veteran-owned and operated artisan distillery. Founded by Travis Barnes—a close friend who served in the U.S. Marine’s elite First Reconnaissance Battalion for three Iraq tours—the distillery’s name is a play on military-style phonetics. Spirits like Victor Vodka, Golf Gin, and Romeo Rum are named accordingly.
Located in historic Fletcher Place, the pet-friendly distillery and tasting room opened at 702 Virginia Avenue in September.
“It’s been interesting,” Brian said. “I liken it to a constant business case study from one of my MBA classes, with a lot of on-the-fly decisions to simply figure it out as we go along.”
There were 24 U.S. craft distilleries in 2001, according to the Economist. The American Distilling Institute estimates there will be 450 by 2015—and Hotel Tango is one of them. MBA studies were helpful for all the financial planning, forecasting, data tracking, and market research to convince investors their concept will be profitable. A new, 150-gallon custom-made copper and stainless steel still produces in one day what previously took five. “It will enable us to reduce inventory and labor expenses,” Brian said, noting three smaller, 25-gallon stills are also in operation. Ingredients include handcrafted Ohio molasses and high-quality grains grown in Indiana and surrounding states. Brian hopes to find more Hoosier farmers from whom corn, wheat, rye, malt, and barley and oaken barrels for aging can be secured.
Originally intending to sell their product by the bottle, a tasting room was built so customers can sample the spirits. Its centerpiece is a huge, two-sided fireplace (built by Travis’s father from Indiana fieldstone) flanked by comfortable seating. Along with seasonal spirits like hot spiced rum, signature drinks include the Cuban Missile, which is mixed in a Ball jar, shaken, and served sans lid. Artisanal syrups made by Wilks & Wilson and natural sodas by Handcrafted Beverages, both of Indianapolis, are used as mixers. Growing sales is the goal and operations are ramping up for broader distribution, including establishing a presence in some of the city’s trendiest restaurants. Of six full-time and three part-time employees, two (including Travis) are veterans. “By the end of 2015, we hope to have five more full-timers,” he said.
Brewing up a new business
Just south of County Line Road and SR 135 in Greenwood, entrepreneur Jeremy Hough is opening Indiana’s only brew-on- premise operation for making handcrafted beer. Located at 3021 Meridian Meadows Drive, the start-up will feature a brewing room and retail area for equipment and supplies, which also can be ordered online. It is slated to open in December.
“We will have fresh ingredients, great recipes, all the equipment, and a temperature-controlled fermentation room. It’s just like making beer at home—only more quickly, with less expense, and no mess,” Jeremy said. Customers can choose from 16 recipes to make their own ales, ambers, blondes, lagers, porters, stouts, and specialty brews, including seasonal varieties, with guidance from experts. After the fermentation period, which averages two or three weeks depending on the recipe, the finished product is ready.
“When you break down the cost of a Brew-By-U batch, it’s less than a grocery store six-pack,” Jeremy said. One batch will cost about $160 and yield cases of 24 12-ounce bottles. “Cost depends on bottling and other factors, but containers are recyclable if they don’t use twist-off caps,” he noted. Director of business operations for the Franciscan Physician Network since 2011, Jeremy has no plans to quit his day job. According to his business plan, solid first-year revenue is expected, but Jeremy isn’t planning to take a salary himself any time soon. It has taken twice as long as he thought to open, especially since it takes time to research laws regarding licensed brewing operations. It’s difficult to quantify how many similar businesses are actively across the U.S., but Jeremy estimates there were about 50 in 2013, so the concept is in its infancy.
As a healthcare executive and entrepreneur, Jeremy says his UIndy MBA has served him well, crediting the program for sparking his interest in small business ownership. “Brian and Jeremy are prime examples of how the UIndy MBA program successfully blends clear understanding of market demand with creating genuine business opportunities,” said Stan Osweiler, executive in residence and instructor of marketing and entrepreneurship in the School of Business. Over the past seven years, nearly 70 percent of students indicate they are “extremely interested” in starting their own businesses. “The depth of that interest has been so keen that we wrote a curriculum plan and course descriptions to offer an entrepreneurship concentration in the MBA program. To my knowledge, UIndy will be the only university in Indiana to have such a track,” he reported.
Plans call for the entrepreneurship concentration to be available by the end of this year.
—Photos and story by Susan Sullivan