If Tasha and John Johnson were like most people, two full-time jobs and a pair of toddlers would be enough to keep them busy. But Tasha, a local high school teacher, and John, a Marine Corps veteran, recently took on another challenge: opening Yelm’s first brewpub, the Nisqually Valley Brewing Company.
“For years, every time we’d go out, we’d talk about how awesome it would be to own a brewery,” says Tasha. “But there were always issues about time and money and starting a family. Finally, we realized if we didn’t do it now, another 10 years would go by. We decided to take the leap.”
The brewery is located on Yelm Avenue in a building where at least five other businesses — including a tapas restaurant, wine bar, Irish-themed pub, and live music venue — have come and gone in the past 20 years. Each attempted to navigate a small kitchen space in the back that made timely meal deliveries challenging and poor lighting in the parking lot, which made it hard for customers to tell whether it was open. The Johnsons are addressing the lighting issue and taking a different approach as a business model.
Instead of serving food themselves, the Johnsons allow patrons to bring in their own food, have food delivered, or purchase a meal from a food truck in the brewery parking lot on Saturdays.
“That means food is one whole side of the business we don’t have to mess with,” says John. “People have gotten pizza delivered here, and the El Rey Burro restaurant across the street has gotten a lot of business. People just call in and walk over there.”
Local restaurant Tacos Gaby provided a food truck for the March 3 ribbon-cutting ceremony, which attracted over 200 people, and has done so every weekend since. The couple plans to rotate trucks with various cuisines to keep customers interested.
“We’re working on getting different flavors,” says Tasha.
As for lighting, they’ve already made the parking lot brighter and plan to add more in coming months.
“A lot of people have told me they never knew if the previous places were open because it was so dark out there,” says John. “Some people didn’t want to come in during the fall and winter months because they were afraid of tripping and falling down.”
Yelm Mayor J.W. Foster believes the business has a good shot at success.
“I don’t think there’s a curse on the building,” he says. “They have a good model. Several taprooms have been very successful with concentrating on making great beer and allowing customers to bring in their own food. Top Rung in Lacey is a good example, and they’ve been open for three years now.”
The pub fills a niche, says Foster.
“Yelm has bars that serve alcohol but none that are brewing in place and reaching out to the craft-brewing crowd.”
Currently the pub serves six of its own beers on tap as well as a featured guest brew from a local brewery.
“We always want to do at least one guest tap from a style that we don’t have from a brewery that you don’t often see,” says John. The pub also serves wines from Washington.
The community has responded, with a steady flow of customers every weekend thus far. One group brought in a dozen board games and spent several hours playing them while sampling different beers; another couple brought a deck of cards on opening night. That’s exactly the ambience the Johnsons are aiming for.
“We want this to be like your local pub, a place to hang out, visit friends, bring some food in, and enjoy a good beer or wine,” says John.
He began brewing 16 years ago after discovering an ad for a home-brewing kit in the back of a magazine. As it expanded, his brewing operation moved from the kitchen to the garage to the driveway. In the meantime, Tasha spent summers as a server at the Scatter Creek Winery in Tenino and worked festivals.
“I’d bartended in college and for a few years in summer and on the weekends,” she says. “But also, when you’re a teacher, you’ve got to be ready to talk to people and interact. Certainly, those skills are applicable here.”
John developed leadership skills during his time in the Marine Corps, later managing million-dollar retail stores for nearly 20 years.
“Aside from the Marines, I’ve always been in roles that were geared toward customer service,” he says. “That taught me the business side, and brewing was a hobby. This seemed like a good way to bring the two together.”
As of this writing, the brewery has been open for less than a month, but the Johnsons are already planning to purchase more equipment to expand their production.
“Right now, we’re only able to serve six beers on tap because that’s what we have the capacity for,” says John. “We’d like to get that up to nine or 12.”
He also intends to offer several “cellar” beers from kegs stored below the tap room. “Those will be more of an English-style, warmer beer,” he says. “We’ll run the line right up through the floor.”
For now, the biggest issue is establishing work/life balance. The pub is open three nights a week, from 4 to 9 p.m. on Thursdays, and 4 to 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.
“A lot of people have asked us, ‘Are you going to be open more days?’” says Tasha. “We’ve got to figure out that balance of our personal lives. If the demand warrants it, we’ll hire an employee, but we’re on a learning curve of finding out where the market is going to take us. We’re hoping it takes us further and we need to be open more hours.”
In the meantime, she hopes people will give the business a shot.
“Please come give us a try,” she says. “You may find out that we’re your cup of beer.”