Growing up, Nathan Robinette wanted to open a sports bar called “Nate Dogg’s,” named after the rapper. “It’s a silly name, I know, but I think I’ve opened the adult version of that,” he jokes, decades later. The Tennessee craft-beer franchise he opened with his father, The Casual Pint, not only fulfilled Robinette’s dream but is a rapidly expanding chain.
The Robinettes opened their first store in 2011. Today, The Casual Pint boasts eight locations in Tennessee (five in Knoxville), with out-of-state openings on the horizon. The Casual Pint offers beer for consumption both on- and off-premise. I spoke to Nathan Robinette about the company, its plans for the future and his love of beer.
KS: What has propelled your business?
NR: I really feel like it’s the atmosphere in which we present beer. We wanted to have a coffee house-like atmosphere. People can come in and have a pint in our stores. We have a very comfortable environment. We don’t play any loud music.
And we’re craft-beer centric. It’s our only product. People know us for that. You can come in and have a pint, or get a growler from any of what we have on tap. You can buy six packs, bombers, or make a mix six from our single selection. We’re a one-stop-shop for craft beer. When customers are looking for first-to-market products, we have that. And customers can always come in and find someone knowledgeable in our stores who can help them with their questions.
KS: Your stores seem to be in line with the craft-beer boom of recent times. What is behind that boom?
NR: I think it’s the passion that exists in the industry. The people in the craft-beer industry are so creative and skillful that they have made brewing beer into an art form. They’re pushing the boundaries of brewing and seeing everything that can be done to and with beer.
It’s because of all that that a place like my store can exist. All we do is craft beer.
I don’t think my store could have existed 10 years ago. It’s all attributed to the many great breweries being built, and all the new products that are out there.
I think consumers are looking for a better product – a higher-quality product. And the customers are also looking for variety. They like all the different flavor profiles that are out there and continue to be developed. That’s why the customer demand exists in this market.
KS: Will this ongoing boom eventually lead to a craft-beer bubble burst? What’s the future for the industry?
NR: All of our research indicates that the market will not slow down anytime soon. We expect the next ten years to be as robust as the last five. And the short-term looks really good. Sure, there will come a time when breweries stop growing and building, but not for a while. There is such demand from consumers for new beers. This certainly bodes well for a concept like ours.
As for future developments, craft breweries are going to get more into cans. It allows them to reach more people over a broader spectrum. And canning ties into the green movement that’s part of craft beer, because cans are easier to recycle. The community likes environmentally-sound products, and is into activities like hiking and camping — so cans and craft beer are also big. A lot of smaller breweries don’t have canning machines yet, though, because they’re expensive.
KS: What are your plans for business expansion?
NR: We do franchising; that’s our model. We have three stores that have already sold in Ohio, and we hope to see the first of those open by the end of the year. That will be our first outside of the state of Tennessee.
We’ve also had interest in Florida, Texas and the Carolinas. We’re looking to grow regionally first, but if we have opportunity in these other states, then we’re going to look seriously into it.
KS: You mentioned that your business sells growlers?
NR: Our growlers are very popular. They were a newer concept when we first installed then a few years ago. They’ve grown, and now we have a growler reward program that gives people a free refill our other rewards after a certain number of refills.
Each of our locations does about 600-800 growler refills per month.
KS: Selling beer both on- and off-premise is a novel concept. Have you encountered legal obstacles?
NR: In Knoxville you cannot legally serve beer unless you also serve food. It doesn’t matter what food or how much — you just have to serve some. So we developed a small food concept. All our Ohio branches will also start with this.
Another law that we’re dealing with is that in Tennessee, anything with an ABV above 6.25% is considered liquor. And we only have licenses to sell beer. We’re not a liquor store. So we can’t sell anything above 6.25% ABV. That really limits the offerings we can have. When we go into other states, though, we can obviously have much greater variety. However, it does look like that law could change in July of 2016.
The government at all levels has been very supportive of craft beer. We’re about to change our third local ordinance so that we can do business the way that we do. Knoxville leadership has been great and responsive. And the state government is becoming more and more open to changing things to make Tennessee more brewery-friendly.
KS: What’s your favorite style of beer?
NR: Brown ale. I’ve always liked the rich, chocolaty, malty character. Because of that, we have a house brew called the Casual Pint Dirty South Brown Ale. Saw Works Brewing Company makes it for us. We’ve been aging our brown ale in used-bourbon barrels. Obviously, in Tennessee, there’s a big bourbon market. Our beer takes on strong vanilla notes and a little oakiness from the barrels. The vanilla goes especially well with the chocolate flavors of our brown ale.
Normally a lot of beers that get aged in bourbon barrels are high-gravity, or high in alcohol content. But ours is more sessionable.
We did our first batch of brown ale in 2012, and the new batch is just about ready to come out. We age the beer in the barrels for about two to four weeks. I don’t know the exact scientific reasoning behind it, but beer takes flavor from cask wood much, much quicker than spirits. You don’t have to age it nearly as long.
KS: You have strong ties with micro-breweries?
NR: As we open new stores, obviously we’ll want to continue supporting local breweries. That’s the thing about craft beer. It’s local, it’s regional. A lot of it is people being able to know where their beer comes from, what’s in it, and who’s making it.