*This is the first in my new series Remarkable Managers: What They Do, an in depth look at the actions of managers whose work I know and appreciate.
Polly Watt’s dad fulfilled his lifelong dream to operate a bar in retirement when in 1987 he opened The Avenue Pub. Polly, who was living in Kentucky during Katrina, came in to help and ended up working and living in the bar, one the few places open after the storm, for three months. Her father passed a year after Katrina and she then took over the pub moving her family back to Nola.
Polly spent the next several years reworking, renovating, and replacing most everything in the building which dates from 1845.
Business floundered post-Katrina and she was looking for a customer base. Half the regulars left after the storm and Nola newbies didn’t yet value neighborhood bars. During that time there was not much destination drinking. It became clear to Polly that to survive, something had to change because there wasn’t enough decent business to go around.
Although not a beer drinker, Polly began noticing craft beer and suspected it could be big. In late fall 2008, a rep from NOLA Brewing stopped by. Polly wondered who would pay $5 for a beer but wanted to support a new local company and held a tap in anticipation of the NOLA beer.
After Mardi Gras 2009, the bar received two slims of NOLA and in less than two hours it was gone. She ordered more which sold just as fast. Even more, she thought the beer tasted fabulous. Polly realized that craft beer was something to take seriously and began toying with the notion of ‘if you build it they will come’.
She gives credit to her Shelton Bros Distributors’ rep who generously shared knowledge and contacts and also later for American Craft Beer Week 2009, guided her to the ten beers you had to have. She decided craft beer was a bigger niche than first realized, knew she needed to learn, and turned to local beer expert, Dan Stein who was generous with his beer knowledge and expertise as well.
Polly discovered she liked craft beer and decided that because of its complexity, the experience she wanted to offer customers required she and her staff have a certain level of knowledge and sophistication. She is an avid learner and explorer and in this spirit embarked on a craft beer journey.
The Avenue Pub caters to and has captured the small craft centric market and regularly receives recognition and awards. Early on, Polly saw beer geeks starved for attention who were so happy that someone was just trying to understand them. This led her to start on social media with a kind of a religious zeal helping people learn. And it happened that she was in the right place at the right time.
When asked what she wants her customers to experience and how her people management style makes that happen Polly said “I want my customers to feel experimental when they are here, welcomed of course as well.” She went on to explain that what they do well at the pub is to be experimental and have fun with the product line. Early on Polly worked to develop a reputation for always having good product and knowledgeable staff.
Post Katrina when locals with old habits had gone and new people were in town, beer was becoming a high end option. Part of The Avenue Pub experience is an ever changing variety of beer which Polly says would not be possible without volume. She is also unwavering in her willingness to throw away kegs or sell at a discount rather than serve unfresh beer. It is interesting to note that the Pub has a max of fifty taps but only operates at capacity 30-40% of the time which mostly includes Zwanze, Mardi Gras, and Craft Beer Week.
She says one of her keys to success is lack of business background without which she hasn’t overly focused on profit percentages or worried that everything had to sell. Because of her product mix, she learned a straight percentage markup doesn’t work although business people sometimes get glued to that concept.
Sharing her vision.
Her decision to not sell Abita Amber or Blue Moon was intentional as they are widely available. The question for her was how to give customers an experience unavailable elsewhere. She realized high end beer drinkers are a sophisticated market and that she needed to travel to learn the story behind the beer and to know the brewer. In this industry, preserving a craft is important, especially in Germany and in Belgium.
In 2010 soccer mom Polly, along with Vicki, a thirty year employee of the bar traveled to Belgium to check out the breweries and hear the stories. Her rep from Shelton Bros distributors in New Orleans wrote letters of introduction. They were treated like family, like sisters or aunts, and as members of the community. The European brewers got a kick out of two middle-aged women so interested in beer and brewing and the stories behind it.
On that first trip, relationships began that had less to do with beer, and more to do with brewers in Belgium who wanted to help, including Jean Van Roy of Cantillon. The relationship with Cantillon has continued and The Avenue Pub is one of the select locations around the world to receive the Cantillon Zwanze, a small batch of experimental beer released across the globe with a coordinated simultaneous tapping. (My husband and I attended the pub’s first Zwanze in 2011 and have since watched the amazing evolution of both the bar and the event.)
In summer 2016, Polly took ten of her staff to Belgium. This required buying locks for pub doors because as a 24/365 operation they had not been needed before. Part of the trip was hearing and sharing stories together. Before one brewery tour the group was served coffee on the fourth generation brewer’s grandmother’s china in the old family home on the property. This kind of learning creates expert bartenders who provide unbelievable customer experiences.
Deep understanding of the product line is important because the craft comes from the generational history. Watts says the US craft beer industry does not yet have that depth and passionate love of craft. The next Avenue Pub staff trip will be to Denmark and Sweden where she says, the industry is more like the US, dominated by young men.
Female in a traditional male business.
The European beer community accepted her as a woman bar owner in a way that the American community did not. If she wasn’t taken seriously at home she said it was as much because she was female as that she was offering a completely new model for both New Orleans and Louisiana.
At her first beer bar owners’ summit years ago, Polly made good connections and over the years has found bar owners to be helpful and generous with what they know. Many people have graciously served as mentors from whom she has learned much. Polly believes lots of people make good beer but it’s the relationships that endure. And these days, many more beer options are available than tap lines.
The importance of relationship extends to her staff as well. The Pub offers full time employees health insurance coverage in addition to the very rich employee development opportunities. When asked what three words capture her philosophy of people management, Polly said “Care about them. It really all boils down to this: people who feel invested and like they matter give that back to you.” She also told me that “If the only way this bar can be successful is on the backs of my employees, then I don’t want to be in business.”
At the core of her success are her relationships and friendships.
My thoughts: This management story exemplifies numerous smart business and professional development actions. First, Polly has a true growth mindset – that is the belief that abilities can be developed through learning and work. Also, her years as a bar owner/manager have involved ongoing testing and trying of ideas, i.e., she puts her hypothesis out there, gathers data, and based on findings decides on next steps. Finally, Polly recognized her need to learn and connected with many excellent mentors. She in turn is generous with her knowledge.
What do you think makes a great manager? Who do you admire as a manager and why? Please share in the comments section below.