What happens when a record-setting year turns into one of mere survival? When you’re hit by a challenge no one (except maybe psychics and Bill Gates) saw coming?
Steve Revare knows. The self-described serial entrepreneur, Kansas City native and co-founder of Tom’s Town Distilling Company reflects on the past 15 months and what he learned that could help other entrepreneurs gobsmacked by the unexpected.
“You’re staring at the ceiling thinking, what are we going to do?”
Steve Revare admits now that last spring was “a bit of panic time,” wondering if his business, which had been enjoying its most profitable year, would survive. Revare runs operations for Tom’s Town Distilling Company, a craft distillery and restaurant he co-founded in 2015 with longtime pal David Epstein. They drew inspiration for the company’s name from KC political boss and bootlegger Tom Pendergast. In 1920, Pendergast dealt with Prohibition. One hundred years later, Revare and Epstein faced a greater challenge — a pandemic. COVID-19 closed their Crossroads restaurant in mid-March last year.
“We were kind of like a deer in the headlights for a month,” says Revare. With the restaurant closed indefinitely, its employees lost their jobs. Those on the distillery side kept working, producing gin, vodka and other spirits for grocery and liquor stores. One activity not given up by a stressed population during the pandemic was drinking booze. Still, the profit from the distillery sales wasn’t enough to make up for revenue lost from the shuttered restaurant, and all the activities and events associated with it.
Lesson 1: Perfect the Pivot
When faced with the loss of a huge chunk of its business, Revare and his team looked at other ways to generate money. The distillery added a new product: hand sanitizer. The learning curve for making it was high. “The only similarity it has to distilling is that it uses alcohol,” explains Revare. “The market just exploded. People wanted as much as we could make as fast as we could make it.” And Revare says the sanitizer, along with loans and grants from the state and federal government, helped keep Tom’s Town from going under.
Lesson 2: Get Creative
When presented with lemons, Tom’s Town made… to-go cocktails. When allowed to gradually and partially reopen last June, Tom’s Town converted its adjacent parking lot into a tented lounge, seating a limited number of guests and hiring local outdoor performance artists. Co-founder Epstein developed holiday-themed events in the upstairs space. The team launched a socially distanced speakeasy. “The creativity of coming up with those ideas and making them happen is what saved us,” says Revare. “We relied on creativity to reinvent ourselves when needed.”
Lesson 3: Stay on the Sunny Side
Revare urges other entrepreneurs who find themselves, like he did, “looking up at the ceiling” and wondering what to do when confronted with the unexpected, to embrace optimism. It’s a trait Revare believes is hardwired into most entrepreneurs. “Don’t let the optimism become clouded, and don’t make permanent decisions based on a temporary problem.” That’s guidance Revare says he got from his father, and advice he never forgets.
Some of the changes at Tom’s Town born of necessity during the pandemic may become fixtures at the restaurant, even as restrictions have fallen away. Revare would like to see outdoor seating remain, along with to-go cocktails and a more limited number of guests in the restaurant and bar. He credits a hardworking staff and the support of Kansas Citians with helping Tom’s Town survive a difficult and uncertain stretch of time. Revare says the strategy for the company remains the same as it was pre-pandemic—to build a strong regional and national brand.
Back to the guy who inspired the business’s name. Tom Pendergast ignored laws against alcohol during Prohibition to help build his fortune and power. His grip on the politics in Kansas City was so strong that KC became known as “Tom’s Town.” So, what would Tom do if he were around today and told to shut down during the pandemic? Revare doesn’t hesitate to answer, “Tom wouldn’t have closed down. And he wouldn’t have made anyone wear a mask.”