Last May, Bob and Shelle Campbell launched the Cleveland Brew Bus, a brewery tour company. Call to make a reservation for an upcoming outing and you'll likely discover that every seat is booked for weeks. Bob attributes his company's good fortunes to a combination of factors that include great timing, good relationships and an education-based formula. Oh, and beer, lots and lots of beer.
What's the origin story for Cleveland Brew Bus?
BC: Shelle and I have been beer fanatics for 30 years. As we traveled all over the U.S. we would always go brewery hopping. In one city, a tour bus pulled up with a bunch of people and we thought, "What a cool idea!" But when we asked how it works, we found out that they literally just pick you up and drop you off. We thought, "What a lost opportunity." I said, "Shelle, we're going to go home and do this smarter and better and more exciting."
What was the response like from breweries when you started to inquire?
BC: In the beginning, we got a lot of mixed responses because a lot of the busses the breweries had in there were party buses, and they were concerned about that. We are not a party bus; we are a knowledge fun bus. It was a trial-and-learn process for all of us — they saw how we operated, learned what we do.
Of course, a brewery tour bus needs breweries to be successful.
BC: The timing was perfect for us. There are 11 breweries in the immediate Cleveland area — 22 if you expand the boundary to include the surrounding areas. And more are coming.
How does a typical tour go down?
BC: Depending on what part of town the bus is departing from, we might hit Bottlehouse, Fat Head's or Brew Kettle before heading down to Ohio City. We guarantee at least one brewery tour per outing. We educate people about Cleveland, the breweries and the brewing process, and we talk about the history and growth of the industry.
How many stops are there? How many beers?
BC: The model that we follow — three breweries and 12 tastings — is literally perfect. We have found that two is not enough and four is too much. Guests are allowed to bring beer and food on the bus. They can bring or buy growlers to fill at the breweries to drink on the bus or take home.
What will guests learn during the tour?
BC: We try to educate you on all the styles of beer. We'll start with a lighter beer like a Kölsch or pilsner and work our way up, both by stop and overall, as much as we can. We'll talk about the differences between a porter and a stout, the difference between a single IPA and a double IPA.
What are people often surprised to learn?
BC: The No. 1 thing that people are amazed by is dark beer. They are perceived as heavy, high-alcohol beers. We convert 70 percent of women to dark beer — no bullshit. Once they taste those flavors, they love it. We follow a formula that we call L.A.S.T.: look, educate, smell and taste. We teach people how to drink a craft beer properly to maximize enjoyment.
What's the cost?
BC: We don't make a lot of money doing this, it's more of a passion for us. Tours cost $55 per person, of which I pay the brewery $30 per person, plus a 20-percent tip. They work their asses off for us.
Are you and Shelle surprised by how quickly the business has taken off?
BC: We never expected it to take off to the degree in which it has. Right now, we are two years ahead of our pro forma. We strongly believe it's a combination of being a new concept to Cleveland, but also 30 percent of our customers recruit others and take part in another tour group.
Are you concerned about competition?
BC: I think that what we do is unique; I don't worry about it. Could someone copy it? Yes, but we have built up very strong relationships with the breweries and are meeting and exceeding their expectations. One of the breweries just told me, "Thank god for Cleveland Brew Bus. We just had another beer bus in here and it was terrible. One guy threw up outside the bathroom."
Any plans for growth?
BC: We are already in the market for a larger bus. Currently, we have a 20- and 10-passenger bus. We're getting a 35-passenger bus to accommodate bigger groups.