Research: The Competition

In my last post, I wrote about restarting the start-up process for the business I want to open.  First I wanted to open a brewery, but now I want to open a taphouse.  Dreaming up these businesses was the easy part, but understanding what to do next was less clear.  My instant gratification personality told me to go find a location, but my advisers steered me in a different direction.

One of the first things to do, they said, was to get to know my competition. As an avid beer drinker, I already have a good idea of which businesses I’ll be competing against, so I put a few of their names down on paper:

There are hundreds of pubs, taverns, bars and restaurants around me, so why did I choose these particular ones?  1) They offer products and services similar to what I want to offer. 2) They are geographically situated near locations I’m considering.  3) They have proven to be popular with customers.  4) I have been a repeat customer at each of these businesses.

I entered the business name and city into Yelp’s search engine and examined the results.  In addition to reviews, Yelp provides basic information that a customer would want to know, like business hours and amenities, so I built out a template in Excel to keep track of some of the common information I wanted to compare.

Competitors Template

I love data!

Qualities List


Then I plugged through every review for every competitor on the list and I recorded each time a quality was mentioned positively or negatively.  I built the list as I went along and the template filled out substantially.

Tallying reviewer comments took some time, because you often have to interpret what someone is trying to say and tie it to a specific label.  Certainly, it’s not a scientific process, but I’m sure some marketing company somewhere has turned it into one.

Many of these qualities were common to all of the competition, but some were specific to one business.  Finding unique qualities and quantifying the number of people who talked about those qualities really helped me understand the identity (or story, as a marketer might call it) of that business. It also became clear very quickly which common qualities, like friendly and attentive service, customers look for in their pubs.

competitors - data

Lots of pretty numbers.

Using this template, I can move on to profile businesses within a more specific geographic location, or ones that have not met their customers’ expectations, or ones that share the same “unique quality”, all of which can help me better understand how I might be more successful with my own business.

What I Learned

A few clear facts emerged during this first run at competition comparison: 1) People expect pub food at a pub, and having good pub food means they are more likely to come back.  2) If you’re going to serve food, people really notice if you also offer vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options.  3) People will come back if they feel they are getting a good value.  4) People want to have entertainment options.

I suppose none of this should come as a surprise, but it changed my thinking about a number of things:

I didn’t want to open with an in-house kitchen, but now I’ve heard it loud and clear: People expect to have food with their beer.  I knew this, really, but my answer was to locate in an area where there were plenty of take-out options from restaurants nearby.  These kind of off-site food arrangements seem to be awkward for the customer, though, and I would sacrifice a lot of potential revenue if I wasn’t providing the food, myself.  If John Taffer is right, customers are likely to spend 52 minutes more in my taphouse if I have food available.  So, in addition to profit on the food, that would typically include another beer.

I was blown away by the number of comments related to diet-specific concerns.  I should understand this because, hey, I’m lactose intolerant.  I tend to avoid certain menu items when I eat out, so why wouldn’t someone else do the same?  My real takeaway from this, however, is that having good and plentiful diet-specific options really makes you stand out.

One business in particular received props again and again for the value they provided.  Their food is cheap and easy to prepare, which allows the business to keep prices low. The tantalizing preparation options really engage the customer and encourage them to come back for more, which they will because it’s such a great value!  This will be a challenge for me:  How can I create a similar value?


Entertain me.

Finally, people want to have entertainment options at the pub.  Originally, I envisioned a quiet place with nooks and crannies for people to tuck themselves away with a book or a tablet or for a quiet conversation.  Well… that’s what I would want, but I think I saw maybe one comment about how great it was to be left alone in a bar.  Instead, dozens of reviewers talked about shuffleboard, pinball, pool, darts, TV and movies.  “I loved that we could play a game of Boggle!” said no one, ever, apparently.

And that’s a perfect example of why research is important — it encourages you to compare your expectations against real data.  What you like isn’t necessarily what will sell.  Your niche may not be much of a niche.  Your target market might not be what you think it is.

Next up: Where should I set up shop?

Kefir: It’s What’s for Breakfast

A few people have expressed surprise that this blog is not dedicated strictly to the brewery.  The brewery will have its own space, but for now there’s just not enough business going on to keep me writing and this blog interesting, so I throw in other topics that are meaningful to me.

Kefir, which is fermented milk, is an interesting cross-over topic for this blog.  Kefir is brewed with live cultures, similar to yogurt, but kefir culture also contains yeasts that convert milk sugars into alcohol.  The product is only slightly alcoholic, about 1% or so, so it’s not like it’s a beer substitute.

My first experience with kefir was completely unexpected:  This past holiday season, I purchased a quart of egg nog from the grocery store.  I decided to treat ourselves by getting one from a Western Washington dairy that doesn’t homogenize, and sells their products in returnable glass bottles.  I checked the expiration date, which was still a week or so off.

A couple of days later I decided to have some, so I pulled it out of the fridge, and as I did I noticed that there was some schmutz around the cap.  The tamper seal was still intact, so I pulled off the plastic ring and the lid popped open on its own!  Something was clearly amiss.  I sniffed it, and indeed something was amiss, but it didn’t smell rotten, it seemed to be only slightly off and had an odor closer to sour cream or yogurt.

I had heard of kefir and understood the concept of fermented milk, but don’t remember ever trying it and didn’t really have a point of reference.  This egg nog seemed far enough from rotten that I decided I’d give it a go — it’s not like I’d never tasted bad milk before.  It was thick, even for egg nog, and it had little chunks in it that I passed off as clotted cream.  It was also pleasantly effervescent!  It gave just a little tingle on the tongue.  The sweet richness of the egg nog combined with the tingle made it wonderful!  I drank the whole glass.

But then I started getting paranoid.  I still didn’t know it was kefir, or if it was safe for me to keep drinking, so I dumped out the remainder of the bottle and washed it down the sink, chunks and all.

A few hours later when I didn’t find myself running to the bathroom, I started to regret dumping the bottle.  When I say it was tasty, I mean it was addictively tasty.  I liken it to those little bottles of Starbucks Frappuccino, which I can hardly keep from downing in four gulps.  Willpower is barely enough to overcome my desire to just Hoover that stuff down, because my inner caveman just tastes an amazing combination of fat and sugar and wants more, more, MORE!

Where was I?

KefirpilzeOh, the egg nog kefir was damn tasty, and I wish I had taken the time to think about it little more before I dumped it.  Kefir cultures start with “grains” which are colonies of bacteria and yeast that clump together for their mutual benefit while they feed on the milk sugars.  The little clumps that were in the egg nog might have been kefir grains, and if they were I’m particularly sorry that I wasted them, because once you have some you can farm them for perpetual kefir production.  It’s very similar to mother of vinegar and sourdough — feed them, and they will continue to do what they do:  Produce some tasty eats!

So today I am heading out to Meadowwood Farms to pick up our weekly supply of eggs, but also to get some kefir starter.  Starter is a little different than the grains, in that it’s missing some of the critters the grains do have, but it should give me something to work with until I can procure some.

I’m excited about kefir for reasons besides my egg nog experience.  For as much as I enjoy dairy foods, I’m actually lactose intolerant.  Recently I’ve been trying to find foods that could help me work around some of those issues, and it’s been suggested that the probiotic properties of kefir might just do that.

Kefir is just another example of how fermentation can be fun, tasty and nutritious!

Project Porker: The Curing

packaged pork 1

I bought a pig from a local farm for a few reasons:  I want to support local agriculture, I love the versatility of pork, and I enjoy learning how to cure my own foods.  Another reason I wanted to try a local pig was freshness.  I’ve never bought pork that didn’t come in a plastic bag or under plastic wrap.  That freshness could work against me, though, so for a couple days last week I spent my time trimming and curing.

The easiest to start with was the guanciale. Guanciale is made from the cheeks and jowls of hog, a part that I never would have known to ask for were it not for the recipe provided in Charcuterie.  The cuts are about the size of a  beef steak, but they need to be trimmed of the lymph glands.  Having never sought out lymph glands before, I had to learn what to look for.  My first surprise was their abundance, and the second was their distribution.  It took some effort to track them all down.

The cure consists of salt, sugar, garlic, peppercorns and thyme.  I was pleased to use garlic and thyme out of the garden.  I rubbed the cure generously over both of the jowls and put everything into a plastic zip-top bag which went into the fridge, and have been flipping the bags every couple of days, making sure the meat stays in contact with the cure.  After almost a week, they are ready to be hung for drying.

The next cuts to get the business were the tenderloins.  They were smaller by about half than what you might buy at the grocery store, so I adjusted the recipes accordingly.  One loin was to be dinner and the other Canadian bacon.

packaged porkFor the spice rub, I used ground pepper, cayenne, chili powder, ground coriander, dark brown sugar, oregano, paprika and salt.  I rubbed the spices thoroughly into the tenderloin and tossed it into a bag to refrigerate and marinate for a couple of days.  I cooked it outside on the grill over indirect low heat to bring it slowly up to temperature.  The loin recipe called for hot smoking the loin to cook it, but I didn’t have the patience to set up the smoker, and the pan of chips I put on the grill didn’t put out much smoke while the loin was on.  The finished dish was tasty, but didn’t have the smoked flavor I hoped for.

The other loin was brined in a solution of water, salt, sugar, sage, thyme and garlic.  The recipe also called for pink salt (nitrites) which I decided to leave out.  I was stoked again to use our own sage, thyme and garlic in this brine.

The loin was submerged in the brine for about three days before I removed it and placed it on an open rack in the fridge.  It now has a nice pellicle and is ready to be hot smoked.

I had two bellies to work with, again about half the size of what you’d get from the store.  One belly was dedicated to pancetta, which is cured, rolled and dried.  The other belly I cut in half so I could do a “plain” bacon and a savory bacon, both of which will be smoked.

I veered pretty far away from the original recipe for the bacon, which called for salt, sugar and pink salt.  Last time I made bacon I used salt, dextrose and pink salt.  The dextrose is really meant for dried cures, like salami, which bacon isn’t.  I think it made the bacon sweeter but it also seemed to brown and blacken (caramelize) faster when cooked, which I didn’t like.

This time I intentionally left out the pink salt and dextrose, but I simply neglected to include granulated sugar.  Essentially, I dredged both belly halves in salt, put one into a zip-top bag as “plain”, then added garlic (from the garden!), bay leaves and peppercorns to the another and called it “savory”.  I put them in the fridge and flip them every couple of days  They’ll be ready to be smoked very soon.

PancettaPancetta is basically rolled and dried bacon that’s seasoned but unsmoked, so its treatment was similar to the bacon, but also included garlic and thyme (from the garden!), dark brown sugar, ground pepper, bay leaves, nutmeg and juniper berries.  I added about half the amount of pink salt suggested.  I’m a little concerned because pancetta is rolled before it is dried, which seems to me would increase the chance of a cure going bad.  I decided to use a little bit of nitrite just to hedge my bets, perhaps for no good reason.  I’ve been flipping the pancetta in its zip-top bag to keep the cure in contact with the meat.  Soon it will be ready to be rolled and tied up, then hung to dry.

Most of the cuts required little to no trimming, but the hams needed some work:  Both needed to have the hip bone removed (the “aitch” bone).  It took a few minutes per ham, but it wasn’t too difficult to trim off the meat around the bones to expose the hip joint, which was then severed.  I took both of these bones and the spine and turned them into pork stock.

The two hams received the usual treatment:  Liberally salted and rubbed, stuffed into a kitchen garbage bag and refrigerated with pressure applied (in this case, all of the other curing meats were stacked on top).  I’ve been rotating them like everything else.  They’ll probably need another application of salt and another week in the cold before I’ll hang them.  The country ham will be smoked and dried, but the pancetta will simply be dried, both for nine months or more.

Finally, the hocks.  Lacking any sense of creativity, I simply applied a liberal amount of salt, put them into a zip-top bag and refrigerated them, rotating the bag every couple of days.  Sound familiar?  I think these might need another dose of salt, too, before they’re hot smoked and ready for use in beans, soups, stews, etc.

Though I wanted to Q them fresh, I ran out of time and chose to freeze the baby back ribs.  I also froze the Boston butts, but they’ll all get what’s comin’ to them soon enough.  Just as soon as I get us some applesauce, we’ll try the chops.

“Yeah, right, Lisa, a wonderful, ‘magical’ animal… hehehe”

Project Porker, Part I: Going Where So Many Pigs Have Gone Before

In 2012, my wife and I committed to buying an entire pig from our local CSA, Whistling Train Farm (who also happen to be WordPress bloggers).  I love supporting this farm, because they embody all of the things I appreciate in food and business.  I can walk around freely and explore all aspects of what they do (beef, pork, chickens, flowers, veggies, etc.).  I can see the way the critters are raised; I know they are treated with care and fed a diet appropriate for their critter kind.  They are very close to my home — slightly more than 3 miles away.  Perhaps most importantly to me, they farm because that’s what they want to be doing, and it shows.

<a href="">Three Pigs</a> by Petr Kratochvil

Not the actual pig(s)

Shelly let me know that the piggy, for which I had placed a deposit last August, was slaughtered last week and in the process of being butchered yesterday, and I could pick up the pieces, as it were, as soon as they were ready.  I drove over to Lind’s Custom Meats and walked into the butcher shop, where I was able to learn more about what we’d bought into.  Shelley and her husband Mike were there to wrap. In between cuts, Shelley was kind enough to field a bunch of questions.

We had purchased a winter sow.  I knew this going into it but didn’t know what that really meant.  As it turns out, from a weight and cost perspective a winter sow means less.  Winter pigs naturally put more of their energy into staying warm, and that reduces the amount of fat and weight they put on.  If I want the most meat and fat, I need to buy a summer male who’s had ample time to grow and no opportunity to use the energy he’s stored away.  Noted for next time.

When Shelley contacted me about the slaughter, she asked for my cutting instructions.  I tried to be as specific as possible about what was important to me:  I wanted whole hams, whole sides (bellies), whole tenderloins, shoulders (Boston butt), the cheeks and jowls, baby back ribs, and all the fat that could be mustered (especially the “leaf lard”).  Everything else was less important to me, but that list still included chops, loin roasts, ground pork and sausage, spare ribs, bones, and hocks.  I was able to dictate the size of cuts I wanted, too.  For an additional fee, the butcher could cure and smoke just about anything on the list.  Since I wanted to do that myself, we opted out.

Pig tastiness chart

Couldn’t draw it better myself.

If you think you want to buy a whole or partial animal from a farm, I suggest scouring the Internet for some basic animal anatomy and butchering cut charts.  Learning how an animal’s muscles are organized and seeing how they make up the cuts of meat we see packaged in the store will help you understand why your pork chops are smaller if you want the tenderloin whole, and why asking for baby back ribs means your chops will be boneless.

With me to the butcher, I brought along a giant cooler with a few one-gallon jugs of frozen water inside.  Everything fit perfectly, even the awkward hams.  I wasn’t headed straight home, but that didn’t prove to be a problem, as it all stayed nice and cool with the frozen water jugs in there.  Since I got home, I’ve been keeping the cooler out in the garage and will occasionally swap out a couple of the jugs for new ones to keep it as cool as possible.  This lifts the burden of space from my refrigerators and freezers, which all seem to have beer in them, for some reason.

This pig had never been frozen or vacuum-packed, and I wanted to take advantage of that freshness.  A few months ago I bought a book called Charcuterie:  The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn.  Just about everything I want to do with this pig is included in that book and I’m using their recipes as a starting point for all of my projects.

The list is long:

  • Canadian bacon – 1 tenderloin
  • Spicy pork loin – 1 tenderloin
  • Baby back ribs – 2 racks ribs
  • Savory bacon – 1/2 side belly
  • Plain bacon – 1/2 side belly
  • Pancetta – 1 side belly
  • Guanciale – 2 jowls
  • Prosciutto – 1 ham
  • Country style ham – 1 ham
  • Pulled pork – 2 shoulders
  • Pastry dough – leaf lard
  • Sausage – back fat and shoulder roasts

Sounds tasty, no?  We’ll be enjoying a lot of this stuff over the next few weeks, but some of it is truly an investment.  The two hams might be ready in time for Easter 2014.  The good news, if you’re into this kind of thing, is that I plan to document these projects here, starting with my very next post.

Plans, Vol. 1

Despite my lack of posts, I’ve been keeping an eye on the site traffic and recognize I have a lot of work to do.  I intend to break up a few of my earlier Blichmann posts to provide more thorough reviews and better pictures.  I also have a few reviews I haven’t started yet.

I find myself with more time on my hands than I expected to have right now, so I’ll be out in the garden making improvements and documenting that work.  Next week I’ll be picking up the butchered hog I purchased this year and will be making prosciutto and country ham with it, plus sausage, bacon, pulled-pork, ribs and so much more!

Plus, I have more than a handful of brewing recipes I want to work on, so you’ll see a bit about those in the coming weeks, too!

Garden 2013

My wife and I are preparing our 2013 garden.  The weather this time of year is rarely sunny, but at least it didn’t really rain this weekend.  As a matter of fact, it appears that our area of the country is in the middle of the most boring winter in recorded history.  It’s been under average daily temp of 50 F, though, so we bundled up and took on a few chores.

We had ten yards of soil and soil conditioner delivered on Friday.  I appreciate having it delivered in bulk, and Sawdust Supply did the job this time.  We got seven yards of their planting soil mix, and three yards of GroCo.


Nicely done.

The asparagus are fully geared-up.  It’s been almost two years since I planted them and we have taken no harvests in that time.  We’re hoping to harvest a bit this year, and today we weeded the beds and topped them off with some of the planting soil.  The moles have devastated the inside edges of the beds, so we packed them down and back-filled them.  Later this year we’re going to dig up one of the beds and put down a mole guard, then we’ll do the same thing next year to the other bed.

A couple of weeks ago we dug out one of the original beds and put down mole guard.  We’re using metal lath from Home Depot.  Two sheets covers the bottom of a 4′ x 8′ bed with overlap in the middle and along the inside edges.  Last time we did this to a bed we stapled the lath to the inside of the wood wall and wound some wire along the middle seam, but this time we did neither.  The boards we used were not cedar, so they’re slowly deteriorating.  We’ll replace them in time.

There’s only one other bed we’ve treated this way and there the moles dug around out the outside of the bed instead of the inside.  I can deal with that, as long as they don’t get to the roots of the plants.

The blueberries are next to the asparagus, so we weeded them and put down some planting soil with acid fertilizer.  We also pruned them a bit.  The deer pruned them last year.  They’re pitifully small, so I’m forcing the long-term view onto myself.

My wife started a number of gopher spurge plants last year, and today she planted a few of them around the asparagus beds and our lower lazy bed.  She planted some around the upper lazy bed late last season.  The gopher spurge roots are supposed to repel burrowing animals.  We’ll see.

I weeded out the hops planters from last year and topped them off with planting mix.  We’re still trying to decide what to do with the hops this year.  We have the skeleton of a shed in our backyard and are considering sending them up the supports for a lazy trellis, but we aren’t sure if we’re willing to give up the option of taking the structure down this summer.  Just like the asparagus, I saw this year’s hop shoots already well-formed and ready to go before I topped them off.

We bought some seeding mix this weekend.  I think it’s time to get some brassicas started.

My wife planted Spanish Roja garlic this weekend.  I failed to plant them last fall when we received them.  We’ll see how they perform compared to last year’s crop, which was abundant and more than sufficient to last us until now and beyond.  Some of last year’s harvest has started to sprout, but much of it continues to store well.


Today I submitted three bottles of my Oktoberfest Märzen (actually brewed in May, so…  Oktoberfest Maien?) to Larry’s for an upcoming homebrew competition.  Join me in Enumclaw next Saturday to indulge in some beer, food, and good times at Oktobeerfest, and check out the awards ceremony if you are around Saturday evening.  Git yer tickets here.

A personal plug for my favorite folks at Lind’s Custom Meats, who will also be at the festival.  Lind’s sold me the pork bellies I used for my bacon and pancetta project a couple of months ago.  Over the summer they were also a regular stop on my Saturday morning Kent Farmer’s Market runs.  Pepperoni sticks, beef jerky, steaks, sausages and smoked cheese are just a few of their regular offerings.  I was stoked to find out they are also “processing” the piggy I recently purchased from Whistling Train Farm.  Locally-produced pork, raised and butchered within five miles of my home, is what I call a recipe for sustainability.