Success Stories with Southwest SBDC
COALTOWN TAPS of Richlands, VA
At the center of many memories for people growing up in a small town are the family gatherings that take place at local restaurants. Weekly gatherings of family and friends before Friday night football games. Dinners to celebrate birthdays, graduations, and anniversaries, mixed in with let's go out to eat and catch up meals. These occasions are not only about family, friends, food, and good times but also about being somewhere that there is a familiarity. Being somewhere that you feel welcome and treated like family.
Owning a restaurant cannot just be about the food. It must also be about connecting with people in a way that the dining experience is intertwined with their families and lives. This is the relationship that Blake Ray, owner of Coaltown Taps in Richlands, VA wants with his patrons when they enjoy a meal and a craft-brewed beer at his restaurant and taproom. Bobbie Ray, COO of Coaltown Taps expresses the mission of their business as, “Our goal at Coaltown Taps is to provide excellent service to our patrons while creating a fun atmosphere the whole family can enjoy! We are blessed as we continue to build our success one step at a time as we work to build strong relationships with those who enter our front door.”
With the support of the Small Business Development Center at Southwest Virginia Community College, and despite the economy being shaken by a world-wide pandemic, Blake’s dream of opening a restaurant in his home town of Richlands, VA came true in June 2020.
Although Blake’s plans of offering locally brewed draft beers, great food, and friendly service in a place that values and demonstrates the highest level of cleanliness never changed, his approach and attention to new hurdles brought on by government shutdowns and mandates would require perseverance and a willingness to pivot from normal operational standards to a new way of doing business that had never been explored to this extent before.
Living in a small town, you often find that your dining out options are limited to big fast-food chains with standardized menus. The options for a mid to upscale dine-in experience with specialized revolving menus are normally few and far between. This was something that Blake Ray recognized and wanted to change for his hometown. His vision was to utilize a vacant commercial property in town to open a taproom that would serve up to twenty different draft beers from Southwest Virginia breweries, as well as offer food produced on-site in an attached customized food truck.
With the help of the SBDC at Southwest Virginia Community College, Mr. Ray was able to locate and contract with distribution vendors, specialized system installers, as well as find and take advantage of local and regional funding avenues available to his business. After circumventing months of organizational paperwork, licensing, and contractor delays, Blake’s vision was about to become a reality when the COVID-19 Pandemic hit.
After delaying the opening for two months in hopes that the pandemic would end swiftly, Blake decided to push forward and Coaltown Taps opened for business on June 25, 2020, with 12 Full-time and 19 Part-time employees. However, as many small business owners were forced to recognize, to be successful, adjustments in operational and managerial standards were required. This is something that Mr. Ray understood early on during the pandemic and therefore was able to achieve success during the uncertainty of COVID-19.
Using his rule of thumb to “not concentrate on the problem but to instead look for ways to be successful in every situation”, Mr. Ray continues to tackle each challenge brought on by the pandemic with an attitude of positivity and inventiveness. Out of all the challenges presented by COVID, Mr. Ray feels that the primary struggle of small businesses today “is to find ways to make the customers feel safe while visiting your establishment.”
Beyond the required stringent cleaning regimens necessary, the virus brought about additional challenges. The most significant of these is the social distancing aspects in confined spaces. An issue that restaurants have had to find ways to overcome.
To circumvent this situation, the plan to provide efficient outdoor space for Coaltown Taps had to be accelerated. Although the added outdoor space helps meet COVID mandated requirements and aids in maintaining a revenue flow, the unfavorable weather hampers how effective the space is in providing additional seating due to patrons having no protection from the elements. This is the primary issue that is driving plans for the restaurant at this time. In an attempt to manage this issue, Coaltown Taps has been forced to move forward on making the outdoor dining space usable year-round. To aid in the continued success of the business, this issue must be addressed now instead of in 4 to 5 years down the road as originally planned.
Undertaking such a large expansion is financially daunting to any business but for a new startup in the middle of a pandemic, it can be overwhelming. As restaurants continue to struggle in a post COVID world, business owners have had to branch out to find new lines of revenue. Under the realm of pivot thinking, Coaltown Taps has introduced an apparel line and has also added an online ordering system. Although these lines have added to the gross revenue of the business, Mr. Ray is continually looking for additional funding opportunities. With the assistance of the SBDC at Southwest Virginia Community College, the restaurant was successful in acquiring grants through both the VCEDA Seed Capital Matching Fund and also the Tazewell County Business Challenge. Mr. Ray contributes much of his success to the invaluable information that he received during these grant processes that included both training and funding.
Plans are to use these funds to make the outdoor seating more efficient and to open additional square footage over the restaurant as a bourbon bar that will serve high-end liquors and will also double as a party venue. When asked about how to survive in today’s economy, Mr. Ray says the key is to “keep finding ways to be successful” and to build valuable relationships with other vendors and suppliers and includes the Small Business Development Center at Southwest Virginia Community College as one of those valued relationships.