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Bob Leggett: Founder of Artisanal Imports

Innovators Series Issue 24
Bob Leggett, CEO of Artisanal Imports


Taking the Reins

Flash back to the spring of 1978 – after about a year Bob’s father and his business partner weren’t getting along, and became disillusioned with the business, so Bob brought in a friend, Marshall McHone, and together they bought them out and took over. Very quickly, they ran into trouble.

“After the first springtime, the brewery told us they were probably going to discontinue making Shiner Bock because the only place it really sold was in Austin,” said Leggett.

 Aside from Shiner, their portfolio consisted mostly of Mexican lager – Dos Equis, Superior and Corona.

“Of course [Shiner Bock] sold pretty well for us and we were desperate for stuff to sell, particularly stuff that looked and tasted different than the normal lager beer, because at the time 99 percent of the beer, whether it was American domestic or even if it was German, was the same style of beer.”

“We went down to the brewery and begged them to continue to make it because we needed it. We were desperate to have stuff to sell and interesting things to sell, because that was our only marketing [angle], selling something different. They ended up continuing to make it for us and within 10 years Shiner Bock had become their biggest seller. So, it was fortuitous for us and them that we were so desperate, which really chronicled a lot of our history.”

1979 was a big year for Leggett’s business, marking his first foray into the world of imported European beer, along with the future owner of one of the biggest names in craft beer – the Gambrinus Company.

“Jim Houchins, a soon-to-be friend and business partner of mine walked into my office one day and plunked down a bottle of Duvel on my desk, late 78’, and said “I’ve just come back from Belgium.' He had gone to international law school and fallen in love with Belgian beer, Duvel in particular, and talked the Moortgat family into allowing him to import Duvel into the U.S. So he walks into my office and says 'I’ve got the best beer in the world and I need a distributor in Austin.'”

“It was something different – 8 percent beer that was richer and would stand out and had this funny stuff floating in it. He explained that it was yeast and it was supposed to be there, and I don’t know how many times I had to explain that [to people] when I put a bottle of Duvel in front of them. ‘What’s that funny stuff floating in it? It’s bad.’"

Aside from bringing some of European most storied beers to America, Leggett was an early supporter of craft in Texas.

Leggett relied on the story of the brand to introduce it to a new market, assuring them not only that the yeast was supposed to be in the beer, but that it was delicious. It was also around this time that he met Carlos Alvarez, the future owner of Gambrinus.

“We had Corona, but it didn’t really sell, it was in a small squatty brown bottle with a blue paper label and we had Dos Equis which sold very well for us, but about early ’79, the Dos Equis brewery – the Montezuma brewery out of Monterrey pulled Dos Equis off the Texas market. We were doing well and they said we were one of their best distributors – primarily because we were desperate and hungry, and we had it in every Mexican restaurant in town. That was devastating for us, and we started hearing rumors that we would lose it to another distributor, so we started thinking ‘we need to get another Mexican dark beer in the meantime.’”

So Bob called Modelo and asked for a brand to replace Dos Equis.

“We said ‘Hey, we’ve done a good job with Dos Equis but it’s off the market. We’d love to bring in Negra Modelo.’ We got a visit from a young export manager by the name of Carlos Alvarez who went on to fame with Corona and owns Shiner, Bridgeport and Trumer. He came to visit us and said ‘We don’t do any real business with the U.S. but we should, because we’re the number one brewery in Mexico...’”

Shiner of Austin became the first wholesaler in the country for Negra Modelo, and after seeing the success they were having, Alvarez gave them another challenge.

“He came back about six months later and said ‘You guys have done a pretty good job with Negro Modelo but Corona is our number one brand in Mexico. What can we do to make it sell?’”

“We needed something interesting to talk about, something different. It either had to look or taste different. Negra Modelo has an interesting bottle, which is the same as we started with in ’79. There’s nothing else like it. So we said ‘We’ve seen Corona down on the Texas border in this clear 7-ounce bottle with a painted label.’”

Alvarez liked the idea of a unique bottle, but felt that packaging in a 7-ounce bottle wouldn’t be wholly practical. So they settled on a 12-ounce version, and Corona Extra was born. For the first decade the brand relied on word of mouth, largely focused on the eye-catching bottle. Now it’s the top imported brand in America.