In 1994, Tom Smith’s dream of owning and operating a brewery came true when he opened Flat Branch Pub & Brewing. Over the past 20 years, Smith has worked hard to make Flat Branch a CoMo staple. When it opened, the restaurant became Columbia’s first brewery since 1841, and a steady stream of customers coming through the door have kept to the idea that Flat Branch will be around for at least another two decades. We sat down with Smith to learn more about Flat Branch’s journey to the present and its trajectory into the future.
What was your inspiration for opening Flat Branch?
When I traveled, I would set out to find brewpubs. I would go to Colorado a lot to ski and every time I went to a brewpub there I’d say, “Columbia needs one of these.”
At the time you opened, the Flat Branch area of downtown was not as desirable as it has become today. Why did you choose to locate there?
We were one of the first to come into the area. There was an abandoned lumberyard, a meat packer and a number of dilapidated student rental homes. The park, which came along years later but has since been cleaned up, was effectively a toxic waste dump. We liked the building as it fit the nature of the pub — basically a beer factory. The first thing we did when we moved in was wash 50 years of car exhaust off the ceiling.
What differentiates Flat Branch from the other restaurants in Columbia?
The beer differentiates us, and the menu is good, hearty comfort food.
Other restaurants come and go but you’ve managed to build a loyal clientele and stay in the same location for 20 years. To what do you attribute your success?
I think what you need for success is a high-quality product, good value and exceptional service. Flat Branch appeals to just about everyone; you’ll see young professionals next to older people next to college students.
What have been your greatest challenges in this business, and how did you overcome them?
We know what we’re doing now; before, my only experience was delivering pizza in college. It took a few years to find our groove. We made things up as we went along; sometimes it’s tougher, and sometimes it’s easier. Eventually, you find the right people and take care of them.
What advice do you have for any aspiring restaurateurs?
You have to have a clear vision of your product and how it fits into the marketplace, a convincing argument of why someone should spend money at your establishment, and why they should keep going back. Listen and respond to what guests tell you because people need to want to be there.
What is your vision for the next 20 years of Flat Branch?
When there’s a line out the door six out of seven days a week, why mess with that? We’re where we want to be. We are trying to get greener; we are working with the University of Missouri to pilot a composting program to move kitchen and restaurant waste out of the landfill. We are also using all-natural ground beef from animals that come from one of the most cruelty-free processing plants in the country.
A Party 20 Years In The Making
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of Flat Branch Pub & Brewing, the brewpub is opening its doors for a celebration from 5 to 8 p.m. on Friday, April 18. Afterward, the party continues at The Blue Note, where Flat Branch owner Tom Smith is lining up some great bands to perform.
Tickets for the event go on sale mid-March and include entrance to the party, food, giveaways and entry to The Blue Note. All proceeds from the ticket sales will benefit the Blues In The Schools program.
Blues In The Schools is a national program with a local presence through the Roots N Blues N BBQ Foundation since 2007. Award-winning musicians and educators teach fourth-grade students about blues music origins, history, traditions and influential blues legends during special assemblies and class workshops.
Stay tuned to Flat Branch’s Facebook page and website, and The Blue Note’s website for more information on ticket prices, availability, and party details: www.facebook.com/FlatBranch, www.FlatBranch.com and www.TheBlueNote.com.