The RumChata Diaries: A Guide to Succeeding as an Owner & Operator

Thomas Maas delivering his keynote "The RumChata Diaries" at the 2017 Nightclub & Bar Show. Image: Getty

If you’re reading this and you’re a bar, nightclub or restaurant owner, congratulations – you’re that and so much more! You’re an entrepreneur. You’re a small business owner. You’re an independent thinker and decision maker. You’re a leader. You’re an integral member of your community.

And if you’re an aspiring owner or operator, you’re about to embark on an adventure wherein you’ll have to wear all of the above hats and more. You’re among amazing company. One of the members of this entrepreneurial family to which you belong is Thomas Maas, the founder of Agave Loco, LLC and creator of and master blender at RumChata. His story is fascinating and inspiring, and he shared it during his keynote at the 2017 Nightclub & Bar Show in Las Vegas.

Maas had actually retired from the liquor business in 2005 and was unemployed when he created RumChata. Contrary to perception, RumChata was not the overnight success many believe it to be. Rather, as Maas puts it, his creation was an overnight success that took 50 years to be realized. He had to leverage his experience to succeed, and that’s precisely what you have to do as an operator.


Learn how to “Cook”

Retirement, Maas will tell you, sucks. He finally had the time to spend time with his friends but they were still working. He had nobody “to play with” and he needed something to keep him active. Maas decided to enter the liquor market, meaning he would have to overcome competition that was 200 to 300 times his size, like Diageo and Pernod Ricard. He had heard about horchata before he left Jim Beam while they were doing market research, and he decided to learn more about it. He tasted 6 different horchatas and began working on his own creation. Maas was working in his own kitchen, so he had to learn how to cook. If you’re going to succeed in business, you’ll also have to learn how to “cook.” That is, you’re going to have to create a concept that differentiates you from your competitors. There are thousands of bars, nightclubs and restaurants – how is your venue different? What’s your recipe for success?


Learn from the Best

Maas learned marketing from one of the best in the spirits business: Jack Daniel’s. He also learned how to make whiskey from his father, who was involved in distillation. In fact, Maas made his first batch of whiskey at the age of 11. You should be learning all that you can from the best teachers you can find, whether that means working at the best bars and restaurants in your area, attending hospitality school classes, joining organizations like the United States Bartenders' Guild, or reading operations articles and profiles here on the Nightclub & Bar Digital website. We’re not patting ourselves on the back; our mission is to provide you with the tools to open your doors to the greatest odds of success possible. And we strive to help you keep your doors open and your ledger in the black.


Learn that all Goods are Worth the Price Charged

If you make something cheap, you can’t make it cheap enough – someone will make it cheaper. Maas recommends going the other direction: use the best quality ingredients and processes to make the best product. As an operator, the experience and your service is your product, so deliver both the best you can. Pull your threads tighter than your competitors pull them. Train your staff to deliver exceptional service every shift. Provide the best beer, wine, spirits and cocktails you can to your guests. Learn how to stay ahead of trends and blow your guests’ minds constantly.


Learn how to Market

“Share it,” says Maas. “Don’t shout it.” Sharing your brand’s message will motivate people to accept your concept and share it with others. Constantly shouting about your brand will, quite frankly, get on people’s nerves. We’ve gone over this time and time again as it relates to social media marketing. You can’t just talk about yourself and always try to sell your regular and potential guests something. Mix up your posts and your marketing efforts so that you’re not an irritating broken record.


Learn how to Sell

Years ago, Maas worked with the salesman who sold the first bottles of Heineken in the Midwest. Yes, the Heineken you know now had to fight to get into markets across the United States. Back then, Blatz cost a quarter and Heineken was thirty cents. How could the salesman overcome that nickel difference, an amount that probably sounds trivial to some reading this but was a big deal many years ago? Easy – he sold Heineken for fifty cents and said that it must be twice as good as the competition. It worked.


Learn to be Patient

In 1984, Captain Morgan was introduced. After 5 years on the market it seemed that nobody wanted Captain Morgan. Seagram’s was ready to dump the brand and move on. However, before they pulled the trigger on getting rid of Captain Morgan the decision was made to taste test it in airports in the Caribbean. The result? Suddenly, Americans wanted Captain Morgan. You will very likely not be an overnight success. The odds say that you will struggle, and you’ll probably be tempted to close up shop. That decision is ultimately yours, but give yourself and your brand a fair chance at success.

Learn to be Passionate

During his keynote, Maas said, "Never do today what you can get someone else to do for you tomorrow." Some may interpret that as passing the buck. Not so. What Maas was actually saying is that you need to learn to be so passionate about your concept that it’s contagious. Yes, you can sell your brand on your own to a handful of people who come into contact with you. But you can also learn to be so passionate that you create an army of grass roots brand ambassadors who spread your passion and brand to dozens more people. Take the time to get others excited about your concept and brand and the next day – and the days following – they’ll get even more people excited for your doors to open.


Learn the Craft of Innovation

You are going to experience failure. I want you to be clear about that; you’re not going to breeze through a life of entrepreneurship unscathed. During Maas’ 16 years at Jim Beam he saw 55 brands introduced. Ten of those brands are still around. Did Maas and his peers at Jim Beam give up when a brand failed? No, they learned from the failures, pinpointed what went wrong, and used those lessons to create brands that succeeded. You are going to fail, but you’re going to learn more from those failures than your successes. You’re joining the ranks of entrepreneurs, and entrepreneurs, says Maas, drive all of the innovation we see. Learn from your mistakes and trust your instincts; market instinct is sometimes more important than market research.

You have a hard road ahead, but Maas’ story and his approach to entrepreneurship can keep you inspired to overcome the obstacles you’re going to face. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, either. Your friends and family can do more for you than just provide you with a possible cash infusion, so keep that in mind when things get tough. Above all, don’t give up on your dream or your business at the first signs of trouble; beg, scratch, do whatever you have to build your brand, and remember that we’re rooting for you. Welcome to the business.

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