Alumni-owned Business Up and Running
By Ben Fogelberg (B.A. ’94, M.A. ’98)
Local craft beer and an active outdoor lifestyle go hand in hand in Colorado. Now they can go hand and foot. Last July, Colorado State University alumni Colin Anderson (’11), Ashlee Velez (’10), Dave Zakavec (’07)—and a few other minority owners—opened Shoes & Brews, a combination running shoe store and tap room/nanobrewery, in Longmont, Colorado. The business concept’s generating buzz locally and nationally—stories have run everywhere from beer blogs and the Longmont Times Call to Runners’ World magazine. Each article praises the “mullet concept”: business in the front (the shoes), party in the back (brews). But the concept’s much more than a totally awesome ’80s metaphor: it’s about creating community.
One of the first things customers see when they enter Shoes & Brews is a bean bag toss game in the middle of the sales floor emblazoned with a giant CSU logo. Fellow Rams might wonder how well the green and gold goes over in Buffalo country, but Anderson doesn’t worry about it. “This is neutral ground,” he says. Well, sort of. Rams are outnumbered in Longmont, but everyone’s welcome. And that’s the point of the game and the business strategy. Everything about Shoes & Brews says, “Come on in, hang out for a while.” That attitude, coupled with the owners’ college running experience and an all-hands-on-deck philosophy have the potential to turn an innovative idea into a lasting business.
Anderson, Velez, and Zakavec ran cross country for CSU, so they know about endurance and what it takes to reach a goal over the long haul. “Genuine growth takes longer,” says Anderson, who earned an economics degree at CSU before getting a master’s in applied statistics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In lieu of marketing gimmicks, they rely on word of mouth, an impressive list of local brews on tap, continuous presence at local events and races—and lots of social runs.
Every Thursday night and Saturday morning one of the owners leads a fun run that attracts participants of every ability, from casual walkers to perpetual age-group winners. “We get lots of beginners. It’s great to see people grow,” says Anderson, citing a group of women who started out walking and are now proud to call themselves runners. More competitive types can take the Run 4 Beer Challenge, an 800-meter run incentivized by the promise that your time is the price you’ll pay for a pint. Former Olympian Billy Nelson tops the leader-board and pays less than $2 per beer.
The runs start right outside the store’s front door on the St. Vrain Greenway bike path. Nearly wiped out by last fall’s severe floods, the path has returned to life as Longmont’s busiest recreational conduit. In fact, the path’s rebirth is a metaphor for the entire city’s renaissance. “We want to be part of the growth,” says Velez, ticking off several new breweries and other businesses on her fingers. “I thought the change would have come sooner,” adds Anderson, who grew up in nearby Lyons. “But it’s picking up. It’s a good time to start a new business and we knew we could fill a niche.”