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Keith Schlabs: Craft Beer in 2017 (Issue 30)

Mike Hagan of Mike-Ro-Brewery and Keith Schlabs of Flying Saucer hoist a glass to craft beer in 2017.
Mike Hagan of Mike-Ro-Brewery and Keith Schlabs of Flying Saucer hoist a glass to craft beer in 2017.

Keith Schlabs is an eminent figure in the world of craft beer entrepreneurs as the founder and CEO of the Flying Saucer chain of craft beer-centric restaurants.

If you read our cover story on Schlabs last year, you’ll know about his background and his history of creating beautiful spaces where delectable cuisine and dope craft beer collide for all patrons and fans.

In this issue, we talked to Schlabs about a few more big-picture questions in the world of craft beer, and particularly, how those craft beer conundrums affect the greater restaurant business in general. Schlabs is forthright and creative, and most importantly, he knows his beer.

How do craft beer-centric restaurants differentiate themselves now that most restaurants offer good beer?

As a beer drinker I am certainly excited to see many of my favorite restaurants paying attention to their beer lists these days. While some restaurants have come a long way from those homogeneous beer menus of the past, many still have a ways to go. I think the key to differentiation is a thoughtful menu full of consistent product that offers something interesting for various palates and that is handled with respect. Not simply and superficially putting a few “high end” or local beers on your menu and labeling it “craft” because that’s what customers want. There needs to be a respect there. Our restaurants put an educated beer director in charge of the program and give them the tools they need to succeed. It's important to offer a diverse portfolio and support the breweries that have a consistently exceptional product. While we rotate beers regularly, we do not pick up beer from just any brewery that comes along. They have to be vetted first. I think it's also key to know what styles to order and when. Checking date codes and knowing what to cellar is important. We pay attention to line cleaning as well as line replacement and how long a beer has been on line. As a consumer, it is a painful thing to receive a beer that is long in the tooth or has been poorly treated. I think we work tirelessly to make sure we serve the beer the way the brewers intended.

Obviously it's important for restaurants to have their pulse on what's trending in the craft beer world. How does Flying Saucer stay ahead of the game in that aspect of the business?

We have a beer director who has worked with us for over 20 years and has learned this industry from the ground up. He is in touch with most of the breweries around the U.S. and abroad so that we can maintain a strong relationship with those breweries that are important to the craft beer world. We have to plan and program months ahead and anticipate brewer's release calendars. He has become very diligent with maintaining the integrity of our offerings. I believe our Beerknurds have come to trust our judgment when it comes to our beer decisions.

What’s trending in the restaurant business?

That seems to differ in each market we occupy, but we are certainly seeing a higher and higher quantity of [restaurants]. Almost every developer that approaches us is filling space with restaurants rather than retail. It is a very competitive market these days. And as we’ve been discussing, more and more restaurants are trying to tap into the craft beer culture – whether by investing in their beer menu or tailoring their food menu towards beer.


Keith with Flying Saucer Dallas GM Andrea Smith and Maui Brewing Co. founder & CEO Garrett Marrero.

How is Flying Saucer staying relevant in the craft beer world with such ever-shifting trends and styles?

We have a good team of beer-loving managers who have worked with us for many years. We don't franchise and we keep our culture strong. We talk every week about beer and what's happening in our market. While we appreciate and understand what consumers are trending towards, we also try to stay grounded by offering true craft beer from many of the great pioneers that brought us to this point. We have recently launched a new menu with strict oversight from our beer director. We pay homage to the breweries who we feel produce world-class examples of each style of beer. We have a Ghost Gauntlet program that allows new start-up breweries or breweries that may have been lost in the shuffle to get their product in front of people without pretense. We put their beer on tap and don't tell the customers what they are. Customers are given the chance to blindly taste and rate them on our app and if a beer receives favorable reviews, it generally makes the menu for a bit.

Did you foresee just how big (and how quickly) the craft beer business would grow?

Not entirely, but I have told many of our distributors over the years that this was not a passing fad. I always knew craft beer was here to stay. I think many of us are still surprised at how many breweries are coming on line. They are coming at us so fast that we have to say no more often than not. As much as we love to support local, I can't justify taking a world-class national beer off of our menu for each new brewery popping up. We like to stay loyal to the breweries that got us here. I think a lot of us in the on-premise side are still trying to wrap our brains around the idea that we are now competing with those local breweries that we once helped get going. How can we continue to help each other grow and carry the banner for craft beer so that there’s enough pie for all of us?

Any advice for burgeoning restaurateurs/entrepreneurs?

Raise more money than you think you will need and use a little of your own.

Do you have a favorite historical beer, perhaps one that isn't made anymore?

I was once a big fan of Young's Special London Ale and have fond memories of visiting with John Young at his family's historic brewery in Wandsworth, London.

What about current beers?

I appreciate Orval & will always consider Sierra Nevada to be among the very best. Don't judge me, but I can't get enough of Deschutes Sagefight Imperial IPA [brewed with sage and juniper] right now.

Any big plans in the works for Flying Saucer -- new locations, menus, etc?

We have recently renovated our historic site in Nashville, TN and launched a new food menu that includes some burgers from our award-winning Rodeo Goat Ice House. We are planning on releasing our new beer menu there very soon as well. Memphis is undergoing renovations as we speak and will have an incredible burger menu along with our new beer menu release. And as I mentioned, we’ve recently launched a new menu where we truly give the best of best the place to shine. You’ll find some old favorites on there, but you’ll also notice see top-notch offerings from brewers inspired by and following in the footsteps of the pioneers that you might not have noticed before.

Keith with the Flying Saucer San Antonio Crew.