As a local business owner, Kent Couch is used to thinking creatively to enhance his offerings.
One of three co-owners of the Stop and Go Mini Mart gas station and convenience store on Bend’s east side, Couch, 53, is the brains behind the store’s old-fashioned employee uniforms, its tasty breakfast sandwiches and, of course, the lawn-chair balloon launches that landed him on “The Tonight Show.”
“Anyone can be a gas station,” said Couch, who owns the Stop and Go with his son Kizer and business partner Mark Knowles. “You have to carve a niche and separate yourself from the competition.
“We’re always looking to provide ways that make the store more fun and enjoyable,” he said. “Heck, even the balloon launches, that was a way to draw attention to the business. It was a bonus I got to have a little fun.”
Couch’s latest innovation, though — the Growler Guys growler-fill station — has taken his business to heights beyond his wildest helium-filled dreams.
“We had no idea if this had wheels or not,” Kent Couch said about the concept of a growler-fill station, a place where beer connoisseurs can fill 32- or 64-ounce take-home containers with craft beer, wine or cider. “Reading one of the trade journals, we saw on the East Coast a gas station had a few taps. We got to talking, and with Bend being ‘brewing central,’ we thought something like that would be a good fit for us.”
In the spring of 2012, the Couches and Knowles installed a custom-made wooden bar in the Stop and Go that featured eight taps for beer and four for wine.
“We always seem to go bigger than we should,” deadpanned Couch, noting that the East Coast gas station offered six taps in a fairly simple setup.
“If we spent a couple (thousand dollars) and it didn’t work, it didn’t work,” said Kizer Couch, 29, about the initial trepidation of offering high-end craft beer at a gas station. “We anticipated it might be one more thing to help the bottom line and make us different from our competitors.
“But,” he added, “it was pretty clear within that first month, this thing was an animal of its own.”
The first Friday and Saturday the station was open, beer lines overtook the convenience store. On Fourth of July that year, Growler Guys’ first experience with a major holiday, they sold almost 300 growlers of beer.
“Those first few weekends, we only had a few people that had (OLCC) server permits,” Kizer Couch said. “We realized pretty quickly that everyone who was working the register (inside the gas station) needed to have the training to be able to serve beer.”
Less than six months after opening, Growler Guys took over a 1,500 square-foot space in the Stop and Go that had long been a revolving door of fast-food options. The current setup has 36 beer, sangria and cider options, as well as 12 kombucha tea choices and one craft root beer from Rogue Ales.
“We’ve had Chinese food in there, Mexican food, seafood,” Kent Couch said. “But I don’t think we’ll ever go back (to leasing it to an outside party). This is a great fit.”
The Couches and Knowles have set the bar high for an ever-growing list of growler-fill stations, a market that did not exist two years ago. Growler Guys offers a savvy mix of hard-to-find, out-of-area brews like Great Divide’s Chocolate Oak Aged Yeti — which won the Denver brewery a gold medal at this year’s Great American Beer Fest — and small-batch specialty beers from local brewhouses, like Worthy’s Hop Gusher Fresh Hop IPA. Growler Guys has also collaborated with several regional microbreweries to make their own special in-house beer, most recently the Mo Hop Head Dolly Triple IPA in partnership with Silver Moon Brewing.
“The whole point of being a craft brew drinker is the diversity and trying the unique, fun stuff you’ve never had before,” Kizer Couch said. “You want to come back and see a new tap list at Growler Guys and do that whole process over again.”
Building on the success of their initial fill station, the Couches and Knowles have begun franchising out the Growler Guys name and concept, the first of which opened in July at the Chevron gas station in west Bend near Central Oregon Community College. Kent Couch said another franchise should open this month in Richland, Wash., and more could be in the works in Portland and Astoria. The Couches and Knowles also opened a stand-alone Growler Guys in Eugene — no gas station — that they own and operate from Bend.
“We’ve been selling craft beer in packages for the 15, 16 years we’ve been here and had a decent amount of knowledge about the industry,” Kizer Couch said. “But none of us knew how complex and diverse craft beer really is.
“It’s like wine,” he added. “People enjoy the quality, diversity and craftsmanship of it. In the beginning I had no idea.”
Since taking that initial plunge into the world of craft beer, the Growler Guys have emerged as some of the area’s leading advocates for the microbrew movement.
“We’re about spreading the word of craft beer,” Kent Couch said. “Getting fresh from a tap at a growler-fill station is about as fresh as you’re going to get it. A bottle’s just not the same.”