To get to the new Tallgrass Brewing Co. factory, you take Kansas 18 west out of Manhattan and keep going until the buildings run out and the prairie resumes. Then you take an exit near the airport and make your way to the intersection of Wildcat Creek Parkway and Dry Hop Circle.
The first thing you notice when you pull in is two giant grain bins. One holds new grain, the other spent grain that a local farmer picks up and feeds to his cattle.
The second thing you notice, at least on a recent Friday, is employees playing wiffle ball on the lawn, practicing for a showdown later between Sales and Production, complete with costumes and luchador masks.
Inside, owner Jeff Gill, 40, chats with the baby sitter who has stopped by with his three kids, Lauren and Evie, both 12, and Porter, 6. Porter wants to know how “my office” is coming along.
A staffer in a ball cap and cartoon T-shirt walks up to say the conference room is ready to go for a big meeting later with all the company’s out-of-town sales reps to plan strategy for the launch of a line in the fall.
Gill, tall with an athletic build and smile crinkles around his blue eyes, thrives on the jumble of fun, family and high-stakes business that his life has become.
Not content with growing his beer business from home production to the largest brewery in Kansas in less than six years, Gill is expanding his company, now in its eighth year, again.
In March he invested $7.5 million in the new 60,000-square-foot factory and doubled production from 15,000 barrels a year to 30,000. The glass-walled factory, which offers breathtaking views of prairie hills and swooping barn swallows, has a large area for a tour center/tasting room/event space. It’s set for completion in spring 2016.
Two weeks ago, Gill opened a restaurant in downtown Manhattan, Tallgrass Tap House. The restaurant was a way to reach new people, Gill said.
“I would rather just brew beer. But I know I need to grow the customer base beyond craft beer enthusiasts. The tap house gives me a way to put our beers in front of uninformed customers,” he said.
It’s working. Sales of Tallgrass beer in Manhattan are up 75 percent since talk of the new tap house started circulating late last year. Tallgrass sales in the region also are soaring: up 45 percent over last year in Wichita, up 25 percent in Kansas City and up 30 percent in Johnson County. Tallgrass just added a 14th state, Tennessee, to its contiguous Midwestern market.
And this fall the company is launching an Explorer line of limited-production beers. Some in the series will be aged in used whiskey barrels from Lenexa’s Dark Horse Distillery.
The cans of Tallgrass’s regular production beers are being redesigned to emphasize the Tallgrass name. Last year, the trend among craft brewers was to create brand image for individual beers (8-Bit or Velvet Rooster) and downplay the brewery name.
But, Gill notes, “The craft beer industry changes so fast that a year ago is ancient history.” With walls of refrigerator cases in liquor stores covered floor to ceiling with colorful, arty logos of craft brews, a prominent brewery badge can give an edge to good brewers.
Gill’s wife, Tricia, who encouraged her husband to quit his previous job and start the brewery, said that except for many more meals eaten out at the Tap House, life at home hasn’t changed that much despite the company’s rapid expansion.
“Jeff always works hard, and he still works hard, but he might be a little less busy now that he has hired more staff,” she said. “He includes the kids in his work life, so nothing much has changed there, either. He’s still goofy old Dad.”
Tricia, a part-time physician’s assistant, is Jeff’s sounding board, he said. “She asks the hard questions. I’m the gas and she is the brakes.”
Gill said he spends a lot more time dealing with personnel issues and staff development now, and managing 20-somethings — the bulk of his staff — has been an adjustment.
“I’m Gen X, and I’ve got a bunch of millennials in here. I was not a big texter before, but I quickly realized that is their form of communication, and it has become a very important part of how we communicate.”
But when it comes to employees looking at their phones during meetings and conversations, Gill isn’t going there. “They know if they are talking to me they better not be looking at their phone,” he said.
Boss and staff also share a common sense of mixing fun with purpose. The fermenting tanks at the new plant, like at the old factory in Manhattan, bear the logos of “American Gladiators” characters. Staff meetings often are peppered with quotes from “Team America: World Police,” such as “Too bad the Canadians beat us to it” or “Manhattan should try this.”
The movie lines and wiffle ball games stem in part from Gill’s personality, but also from his observation that, while in his generation it was common for people to put their nose down and tough it out at jobs they didn’t like because they needed money, millennials are less interested in money and more interested in quality of life. Gill’s fun work environment is a competitive advantage.
One victory was bringing his former part-time graphic designer, Neil Camera, on staff as full-time creative director after Camera got a job offer from Topps baseball card manufacturer in New York. “They wanted to move him to the Big Apple and we were able to keep him in the Little Apple,” Gill quipped.
He also put a glass-walled quality control office right in the middle of the factory, to help the staff harness energy and maintain focus.
“They don’t have the life experience yet to focus exclusively on what’s important. My job is to make sure they are working on the right things and not the wrong things,” Gill said.
Asked if he aspires to nationwide status, Gill said he doesn’t look beyond the next three years. “I want to be a major, regional craft brewery,” he said of his plan.
At the same time, he admits to being predisposed to growth. “I always am looking to protect the downside if we make a deal, but I don’t sweat the details. There’s no substitute for action.”