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TOPEKA — Kansas’ premier digital self-serve, craft beer bar is consistently pushing the envelope, said Ryan Cavanaugh, making Brew Bank a culinary and drinking destination like no other.
“We’re always asking our distributors, ‘What’s rare? What’s local?’ We don’t ever want to see the same beers. We have beer that you can’t get in America. Guinness launched their milk stout in Brew Bank before it went anywhere else in the United States. Our customers really enjoy our selection because they know it’s always going to be something unique and fresh,” said Cavanaugh, founder and president of Brew Bank in Downtown Topeka.
Click here to check out Brew Bank and its current tap list.
The concept for Brew Bank started out as an idea written on a napkin. In 2017, childhood friends and craft beer-fanatics Cavanaugh and Dusty Snethen entered TopTank Topeka (a one-time, Shark Tank-style pitch competition) with their idea for a self-serve beer bar.
“We ended up being chosen as the winner of the competition,” Cavanaugh recalled. “It gets a little tricky here because their original idea was to be an equity investor and put $100,000 into our business. … From the first presentation, we told them that we were an LLC. They too were an LLC — and an LLC can’t have equity ownership in another LLC — so we got a $100,000 loan at eight percent. We didn’t really win a prize per se. We won a lot of debt.”
Winning TopTank Topeka gave Cavanaugh and Snethen the credibility to get other loans, allowing the duo to secure a building in Downtown Topeka.
In the midst of preparing to open Brew Bank, Cavanaugh and Snethen campaigned to change Kansas legislation to allow self-serve taps in the state. The liquor law permitting self-serve beer and wine passed in January 2019, and Brew Bank was the first self-serve beer bar in the state of Kansas when it officially opened in September 2019.
“We were busy,” Cavanaugh emphasized. “We were on path to be profitable in the first year, have all our loans paid off and be ready to roll, and then obviously — COVID happened.”
Pouring up new paths
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Brew Bank closed its doors for two months. During that time, a local news channel had inaccurately reported that the business had permanently closed, and they are still suffering from that report, Cavanaugh noted.
“Even last week, we had a group of people come in telling us that they thought we had closed for good,” Cavanaugh said. “We’ve never really recovered from that.”
But rather than throw in the towel, Cavanaugh and his team got creative. Brew Bank opened during the pandemic for to-go beer, cocktails, pizza and other brown bag specials. When a limited number of people were allowed back in the building, Brew Bank hosted private cocktail classes.
“Sometimes, that would be our revenue for the week,” Cavanaugh said. “We were always asking, ‘What could we do next? What isn’t anyone else doing?’”
Over three years out from the start of the pandemic, the Brew Bank team is still coming up with new ways to serve the community and make their experience unforgettable, Cavanaugh continued. Mondays are Service Industry Nights, which is a 20 percent discount for service workers, and Fridays are Steak Night, featuring fresh meats from local farms.
“The steak is never frozen; it’s unbelievable quality,” he said. “We’re constantly trying to be creative and drive traffic.”
Intentional relationships with staff, community
In 2022, Cavanaugh’s co-founder, Snethen, decided to leave Brew Bank and solely focus on his teaching career. James Lucatero —who started as a bartender when Brew Bank first opened — stayed with the business throughout the pandemic and worked his way up to bar manager, front of house manager, general manager and now serves as the vice president of Brew Bank.
“I’ve seen how passionate Ryan is about this business and the goals and ideas he has with it,” Lucatero shared. “I was just on board with it from the very beginning. I was a bartender in Kansas City, and Ryan has really let me build up our cocktail menu.”
“You’ll be hard pressed to find a better cocktail,” Cavanaugh said. “He really worked to take our cocktails to the next level.”
Brew Bank prides itself on paying its team highly competitive wages and creating a friendly, safe work environment, the duo said. The team also prioritizes high levels of customer service, Lucatero added.
“We have a lot of regulars, and I truly believe that it is because our staff takes the time to spark up conversations and get to know people,” Lucatero said. “And it’s not a gimmick; we are part of this community and know how important community is. Our original shirts say, ‘Powered by Community’ because without them, we wouldn’t be here — especially everyone who supported us during the pandemic.”
Historic Downtown Topeka
The building that houses Brew Bank sat vacant for 25 years before the craft beer bar moved in and remodeled the space, following the guidelines from the Historical Society. Patrons who visit the Brew Bank can see a refinished version of the building’s original ceiling, as well as wood from an old high beam that was repurposed into the wood at the top of the beer wall.
“This used to be a sandwich shop called First Bite; when we were looking at the building, there was a little chalkboard that said that a sandwich, chips and a drink was $2.29,” Cavanaugh said, laughing. “First Bite closed in the mid-‘90s, but this building has been around forever. My dad was actually a dishwasher at whatever restaurant it was in the late ’50s.”
Other empty buildings still neighbor Brew Bank in Downtown Topeka. Cavanaugh would like to see them filled with more living options to bring more people downtown, he said.
“It would be awesome if we had a variety of apartments and condos down here,” Cavanaugh noted. “On top of that, if they put a Trader Joe’s or grocery store here, it would be amazing.”
Revitalization of Topeka’s downtown is happening slowly, Cavanaugh acknowledged, noting COVID put a temporary halt on progress.
“I’d love to see our business and others here grow back to those pre-COVID days,” Cavanaugh said. “We learned a lot from COVID and are going to use that to continue to create the coolest things. Topeka has a lot of potential and hopefully we will see it grow and be part of that growth in the upcoming years.”
This series is possible thanks to Go Topeka.
Go Topeka seeks economic success for all companies and citizens across Shawnee County through implementation of an aggressive economic development strategy that capitalizes on the unique strengths of the community.