In the late 1980s and early ’90s, Columbia was noticeably devoid of brewpubs and local beers. Then, along came Tom Smith. A St. Louis native, Smith came to Columbia to attend the University of Missouri, then worked in California briefly before settling back in Collegetown, USA. A frequent visitor to Colorado, Smith began to notice and appreciate the small pubs there that brewed their own beer. He also noticed a lack of such establishments in Columbia.
Many success stories begin with some fortunate networking, and in Smith’s case, support came through a friend of a friend who was interested in bringing the brewpub business to mid-Missouri. A Colorado brewpub called CooperSmith’s Pub & Brewing was interested in expanding this type of eatery, and offered help to give craft-brewed beer a home in Columbia. Although CooperSmith’s helped Flat Branch get on its feet, once the pub opened, the fledgling business was on its own.
“CooperSmith’s Pub & Brewing helped write a business plan, and they agreed to partner with us,” Smith says. “The deal happened in 1992, and we opened in April of 1994.”
On April 18, 1994, Flat Branch Pub & Brewing opened its doors. From the get-go, Smith had his work cut out for him. The restaurant was one of the first businesses to open in a mostly run-down corner of The District, but as more businesses moved in, the area came to life. The brewpub’s building was a former car dealership built in 1927.
“We liked it because it was kind of upscale industrial,” Smith says. “But one of the first things we had to do was power wash 50 years of car exhaust off the ceiling.”
Smith latched onto some traits early on to make Flat Branch stand out. For starters, the restaurant brews its own beer. “We approach the whole menu like we do the beer,” Smith says. “We make almost everything ourselves.”
“You can walk in and see young professionals sitting next to seniors sitting next to families with small children,” Smith says. “We get a little bit of everybody.”
Although the business is currently flourishing, Smith says he was quite inexperienced in the hospitality business when the pub first opened. “When we opened, the only food service experience I had was from delivering pizza in college,” he says.
The Flat Branch of today compared to the Flat Branch of 20 years ago shows practice makes perfect, Smith says. “It took a few years to find our groove, but we’ve got 20 years’ experience behind us now,” he says. “Everything we have on the menu is there because people like it and it sells.”
This customer-centric philosophy has helped Flat Branch maintain its position as a Columbia hotspot. And the future doesn’t look much different for the pub, Smith says he plans to continue delivering great beer, satisfying food and top-notch service.
“When you’ve got a line out the front door six or seven days a week, why mess with that?” he says.
Although the food-service formula works, Smith is still looking for subtle ways to evolve. The restaurant is making a conscious effort to be greener and more energy-efficient, and is currently working with the University of Missouri to implement a composting program.
“At the end of the day you have to have a convincing argument for why someone should spend money in your establishment,” he says. “You just have to listen to your guests.”