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Wrecking Bar Celebrates One-Year Anniversary

Inman Park brewpub and eatery shares what it takes to be a successful, viable business.

It's been a year since Bob and Kristine Sandage took the old, graffiti-coated mansion at 292 Moreland Ave. and painstakingly .

The Sandages, of Inman Park, restored the historic house to open the .

In a year's time, the Wrecking Bar has built quite a following of devotées, being named best brewpub in Atlanta in 2011 and it vyed for the title of .

But the beer is just one side of the business. Of course, there's the food.

Our personal favorite: the Schweinshaxe (pork shank) and Jemmy American Stout.

East Atlanta Patch asked Bob Sandage about what it takes to open a small business and what he and his wife have learned over the past 12 months.

Q: It's been a year since the Wrecking Bar opened. What has the experience been like?

A: It has been a great evolution and fun to watch us grow and see constant progress.  We have an excellent team in place that I feel is firing on all cylinders now.  Our first 6-8 weeks was the "honeymoon phase" where we were constantly busy.  Then school started back and fall festivals and events cut into our business pretty significantly, as people were still just finding out about us.  The holiday season was great for us - with The Marianna events space upstairs we had several thousand people exposed to our food, beer, and ambiance.  We expected a significant lull in January, but that really only lasted the first week and business has been steadily building ever since.

Q: As business owner with a year under your belt now, what would you say are three things every new business owner should know to be successful — and why — but that no one is necessarily going to tell them?

A: Although not a restaurant, I did own an engineering company for 15 years prior to the Wrecking Bar, and that experience was crucial to hitting the ground running more so than an inexperienced business owner.

  1. It is critical to have a well thought out and well documented business plan, but also equally important to write it in pencil. If you don't have documented justification for your ideas, your market, your financial plan, etc., you will not only have a difficult time getting any funding to get started, but you won't really have any "checks and balances" or a "frame of reference" to look back on.  Write it in pencil because things are going to change. There will be both unexpected hurdles and good surprises as well, and you need to be willing and able to adapt.
  2. Design your business plan so that you are not the only person or main person involved in several areas if at all possible. I grew my previous business from the ground up - just myself for several years and slowly adding engineers, accounting, etc., and it wasn't until the late years when I decided to position the company for sale that I started adding personnel such as VP of Marketing, VP of Sales, etc. If your goal is to sell (which mine is not in this business at this time), you either won't sell a company that can't exist without you there, or it will be seriously devalued. In the case of the Wrecking Bar, we brought in a restaurant consultant who helped us recruit and hire key positions of General Manager, Assistant Manager, and Head Chef. I briefly toyed around with filling one or more positions to save expenses, but realized that although I had run a business, I didn't have the needed restaurant experience. This allowed us to hit the ground running and for me to keep my eye on the big picture and design the vision for the future of the company on an ongoing basis.
  3. Have meetings at least weekly with all of your key staff involved. Communication is critical and you should (at least I do) strive to manage progress and decide strategies but with balance so as not to be micromanaging. There are several more points I could discuss!

Q: A lot of businesses start from the some passion or deep interest of the owner or owners and in your case, it's beer. How do you keep that passion alive and not having it turn into just work?

A: Have obtainable goals and try to make it fun to obtain these goals.  We don't just have three run of the mill beers on tap and a burger and fries on the menu. That may be the goal of some brewpubs (not any in Atlanta), but I would seriously have to question why bother? Be creative and get your staff involved. I challenge my Assistant Brewmaster to come up with new beer ideas. We "research" with our GM tasting different combinations of wine and spirits with different beers.  Some don't work, but some become our next great specialty beer. Same in the kitchen - we challenge our staff to come up with new and creative ideas that integrate and complement our beer. A lot of this comes back to education - for example we have beer class each week where we discuss aspects of the brewing process and try new beers. I'm guessing it is pretty neat for a server to come up with a new beer name, a line cook to design a new dish, or Assistant Brewer to come up with a recipe. Fun and makes them a true part of the team.

Q: The Wrecking Bar was nominated for and a strong contender for best brew pub in the nation. That's quite an honor even to be in the running. What do you think caught everyone's attention about what you guys are doing?

A: It is definitely an honor to be in that group.  I'm not 100 percent sure because that contest was a bit sparse on information, but I believe they used ratings and reviews from sources such as RateBeer, Beer Advocate and Yelp. Customers have given us great reviews on these sites.  A colleague in the Atlanta beer scene made a comment to me a couple weeks ago that confirmed that we are achieving my goal. He (like me) has visited many hundreds of brewpubs around the world.  His comment: "There are brewpubs with great beer and crappy food, with poor beer and good food, poor beer and poor food, but very rarely do you find good beer and good food in the same brewpub. The Wrecking Bar not only has good beer and food, but both great beer and food."  I feel like I have learned the best and worst from the 500+ brewpubs I have visited and used this experience to shape great beer and food with a killer-cool environment to make a very unique brewpub.

Q: With this being an election year at the federal, state and local level, we've been hearing a lot about what small businesses need to grow and thrive. One thing we  hear is too much regulation. But from your perspective, what are the things government should do at the local and state level to encourage small business growth? What about at the federal level?

A: I honestly have been so immersed in Wrecking Bar goals for the first year that I can't speak on a general business level. But, Georgia's alcohol regulations are antiquated prohibition-era laws that most states either never had or have moved past decades ago.  It is exactly the reason why Asheville is getting three MAJOR breweries to locate Eastern operations there. I love Asheville, it is one of the coolest towns, but if you compare cost of living and doing business and the logistics of transporting many raw beer ingredients and finished product in/out of the city, Atlanta is a much better choice in my opinion. The East and Southeast are booming in the craft beer market and the cost of getting quality product from the far West has become prohibitive and more breweries are going to need to make this move.  With Georgia's outdated and prohibitive alcohol laws, opportunities will go elsewhere. Specific to the Wrecking Bar, growler sales are one of the biggest hot issues. Georgia has a huge demand for craft beer and residents are consuming growlers like there is no tomorrow. The two regulations that are killers are (a) if an establishment sells spirits, they can't sell growlers (really, Georgia, are you afraid we are going to go out to our still and fill them with moonshine?), and (b) the three-tier system as it relates to brewpubs would require us (if the spirit regulation wasn't there) to sell our growlers to a distributor who would then sell them back to us so that we could sell them to go. Distributors are almighty powerful in this state, and without changes it will stifle much new business and keep GA as a craft beer consumer state and not a craft beer producer state. No offense to the breweries and brewpubs here, but there are states with 4-6x breweries and brewpubs per capita. From a Federal perspective, I don't see much that needs to change. For alcohol operations, we had to go through the Tobacco and Trade Bureau (TTB, used to be ATF). It was a bit tedious and we had to wait quite a while for approval, but it was pretty easy. After that, the Feds just want their tax revenue and don't have much restriction. They leave that to the individual states, for which GA does a good job.

Q: A lot of businesses get suggestions from their customers about changes or improvements they'd like to see. What would you say is the best suggestion you received from a customer?

A: We did a survey at six months and will probably do one right after the one year anniversary. The overwhelming consensus at six months was that the quality of beer, food, and service was very good, but they wanted to see more variety. It took us several months to get the opening kinks worked out, and six months was about the right time that we could begin integrating a variety of special beers and food. I'm especially proud of our kitchen - we have different specials every day which are creative and leave myself and many customers just saying "wow."

Q: Do you and Kristine see yourselves expanding or franchising the business to other locations or do you want it to be a Little Five Points destination venue?

A: This project has been immense and exhausting to say the least. The sometimes insane efforts haven't diminished our passion at all, but we won't be expanding to other locations. Our desire is to be able to spend more time together with our 8 and 6 year old boys, be an integral part of the business, and focus on making the Wrecking Bar as top-notch as possible without diluting those goals by expanding too quickly or beyond our current property.

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