111 West 2nd Ave, Hutchinson, KS
5612 Johnson Drive, Mission, KS

The great food sales saga of 2022

Sandhills Brewing is a small, very local-oriented pair of breweries and taprooms whose goal since inception has been to create a community-focused establishment that is family friendly and acts as a hub for community gatherings and public events, along with providing a low-key space for people of all walks to enjoy a beer or two. This is a goal that we have been working towards since before we first opened our Hutchinson, KS location in April of 2018.

We have continued to diligently build and improve our space since the first day we opened our doors, including the build out of an entire second taproom and brewery in Mission, KS, and each month we make incremental improvements to both of our breweries.

If you followed any of our social media channels last year or frequent either our Hutchinson or Mission taprooms, you may have heard about a challenge we encountered at the end of September, 2022 regarding a massive amount of food sales we had to generate, with the consequence of failure being that we would lose our license to operate as a taproom and drinking establishment in Hutchinson, KS.

In this post I am going to detail the entire saga of events to help add context and understanding for anyone that is interested. It’s a long roller coaster of highs and lows, a grand example of antiquated laws hurting business, and also a wonderful showcase of a community coming out in force to stand up and fight for something they want and believe in. There is also a certain amount of entrepreneurial spirit and determination sprinkled throughout too.

Introduction. What is this 30% food rule?

There is a law that’s been in place in Kansas since 1986 and it dictates that drinking establishments must sell food and that 30% of their gross alcohol and food sales combined must be food.

So, if an establishment sells a combined $100,000 of alcohol and food, $30,000 of that must be attributed to food sales.

This is a state-level law that each county within the state can elect to opt-out of via a vote during a general election. It is often referred to as the “food rule” and is a leftover from the prohibition era of drinking regulations.

Reno county, where Sandhills Brewing operates its Hutchinson taproom has never voted to opt-out of the food rue and, at the time of writing this, there are a total of 62 counties of 105 that have also not yet elected to opt-out of this 1986 ruling. Reno and McPherson county will, however, vote on the rule this upcoming November, 2023. If the majority of voters choose YES, we will successfully move beyond this outdated regulation, opening up a pathway to move economic development by freeing businesses os useless restrictions.

For a very detailed history lesson on this law, read this post by Jason Probst.

The Kansas Alcoholic Beverage Control, or ABC, only officially reviews the food sales of drinking establishments once every two years when an establishment submits its liquor license for renewal. During that review, only the previous 12 months of food sales are reviewed.

This is a very, very brief explanation this law, but having a general grasp of the law and how it affects drinking establishments, is important for the rest of this story.

Chapter 1. The first hint of a problem

The very first moment we had an inkling that there might be challenge on our hands came in the afternoon of Monday, September 12, when I received a call from the Kansas Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) department. They told me they were processing the license renewal application for our Drinking Establishment that I had submitted the week prior. This license is what permits us to sell beer by the glass to be consumed in our taprooms. We have one license for our Hutchinson taproom and a second, separate license for our Mission taproom. During a brief phone call, the representative for the ABC asked me if I was aware that we operated in a semi-dry county and thus were required to sell 30% of our gross sales in food, to which I told the ABC representative something to the following:

Yes I am aware and we have done the best we can. We have several food options available, but I cannot force customers to purchase food. Let us know what we need to do going forward, and we’ll be happy to make changes in order to be compliant with the regulation.

– Pippin Williamson, in answer to an ABC representative

For context, our Hutchinson taproom sells the following food items, along with occasional offerings from food trucks that set up in our parking lot:

  • Baked-in-house personal pizzas
  • Oven-baked soft pretzels
  • Beef jerky packages
  • Bags of chips
  • Granola bars and other small items

We are not and have never proclaimed to be a full-service restaurant. Rather we sell a few simple food items that we can prepare in a very small kitchenette to ensure customers have a food option along with their beers.

The response to my answer was the following (this is an exact quote):

You should go and re-do your figures.

– Unnamed representative for the KS ABC

I then explained that calculating our totals would make no difference because our Point of Sale system easily provides me reports to know what the dollar amount is for food and alcohol sales.

But then:

I will get to work processing your application while you go back and redo your figures.

– Same representative for the KS ABC

Not once, but twice the representative for the ABC instructed me to “redo” my figures. That made me uncomfortable because of what that could easily be interpreted as.

We had been through the renewal process once before, in October of 2020, and at that time our food sales were reported as 20%. We received our renewal without any comment or mention of the food sales. We knew that there was a decent likelihood of the ABC taking some form of administrative action against us for not successfully meeting the requirement, but at this point we really didn’t know what it would be. Would we be asked to build a full commercial kitchen? Would we be given a monetary fine? Would we be put in some form of time out? What would the penalty be?

We had no idea, and nor did anyone else that we talked to. Over the past five years I have looked for and attempted to find examples of what the consequences are for not fulfilling the 30% food rule and I’ve never been able to find a single one.

One way or another, I knew we were about to find out because our liquor license at the time was set to expire on October, 18, 2022, just 36 days from the first phone call from the ABC. If that license expired and was not successfully renewed, our business would immediately be crippled and unlikely to ever recover.

Chapter 2. What we believed would happen with non-compliance

Over the past five years, Jonathan and I have spent countless hours researching the 30% food rule law. Before opening either of our brewery locations, we talked to owners of just about every brewery in the state (or the ones operating at that time), various individuals at the ABC itself, county commissioners, city council members, and more. We did this because we had personally read the beer laws in KS front-to-back and back-to-front many, many times and were very well aware that this regulation existed. We felt that we understood the laws intimately.

Several very important understandings came from those dozens of conversations:

  1. Very, very few people even knew the rule existed
  2. No one at the county nor city level knew about it nor cared about it in the slightest
  3. No one could tell us what would happen if an establishment was not in compliance with the rule
  4. No one knew of any example of the rule being enforced or the consequences of enforcement
  5. There is no mention whatsoever of the consequences for non-compliance with the food rule in the drinking establishment handbook

These five points gave us a good level of confidence that the rule, while it could certainly be enforced in some way, was not something that would shut us down. Also given the fact that we personally educated just about every single person we talked to about what the law was and how it purportedly worked, including county commissioners and ABC staff, we felt that we were safe to proceed with our plans to open a taproom in Reno county that did not include a full-service restaurant.

So we were under the belief that if we were unable to meet the 30% requirement, the state would issue some sort of punitive action against us. For example, they could:

  • Give us a monetary fine for non-compliance
  • Require us to propose a plan for how to increase food sales
  • Require us to meet with county officials and then do whatever the county asked of us
  • Give us a written warning, perhaps with a deadline by which we’d have to become compliant
  • Do nothing at all

Remember, it is very, very much in the state’s interest to keep tax dollars flowing, and considering that the ABC is a division within the Department of Revenue at the State of Kansas, it was very well within reason that the ABC would be willing to work with us on some form of compliance plan if it became necessary. Drinking establishments pay thousands upon thousands of dollars in taxes every single month, and the state wants those tax dollars. It is in the state’s interest to provide us with a legitimate and legal avenue through which to continue contributing those tax dollars.

Chapter 3. What actually happened with non-compliance

On September 13, in response to the phone call I had received the day before, I sent the following to the representative at the ABC (same one quoted above):

Regarding food sales, we are trying our best. As everyone knows, the 2020/2021 pandemic reset everything. We are still seeing the long term effects of that on our business. The biggest impact that we still see is that it completely changed the trajectory of the business for years into the future, especially in terms of the amount of investment that could be put into the brewery. Our goal has been to build a full-service kitchen to dramatically expand our food options, but COVID delayed that plan significantly. We are just now getting back to a place where we believe it’s feasible and are currently in talks with several potential partners to increase the food offerings available. The current expectation is that we’ll have a dramatically expanded food offering by or before this time next year.

– Pippin Williamson to the ABC

The answer to that email came back on September 14, 2022 (Charles and Pippin are the same person – me):

Charles,  concerning not meeting the minimum 30% food requirement, You can submit a plan in writing on what you will do to increase your food sales to be in compliance. If the director approves it you will likely need to submit your sales numbers in 12 months again for review.

– ABC representative

That was actually what I expected to receive. The ABC appeared to be giving us an option to get back into compliance. While I wasn’t thrilled about the possibility of having to expedite our expanded food service plans, I knew it was something that we could do.

Two days later, on September 16, 2022, at 9:04am, I submitted a plan to the ABC representative for how we would increase food sales over the next 12-24 months.

You can read the entire plan that we submitted here. The plan was intentionally kept brief and to the point as we knew the Director of the ABC would be a very busy person. It was our belief that what she really wanted and needed was enough confidence that we were serious about our commitments to help her feel okay in approving an exception for our license renewal, but if we were incorrect and she wanted a very in-depth plan with projections and more, the ABC would inform us of such, and then we’d be more than willing to put together an in-depth plan with all the intricate details of a food plan and kitchen build-out.

We did not receive an answer back from the ABC until 3:13pm on September 19, 2022. This is what it said:

I am sorry but the Director denied your plan to keep the Drinking Establishment license.  We may have been lenient during the 2020 license renewal with the pandemic going on. Your food sales figures are farther off than at the 2020 renewal.

– ABC representative

No feedback on the plan, no requests for more information, no requests for better forecasts or detailed blueprints. Recognize that at this point, on September 19, our license was set to expire in less than 30 days and we were being given no recourse whatsoever for ways that we could keep the license. I immediately asked for additional information on why our plan was denied but received no answer at all for more than 24 hours. Phone calls to the ABC went unanswered. Again, realize that with just 29 days to go until our license expires and our business crippled, time was of the essence.

I put in a request to speak directly to the Director of the ABC, but received no acknowledgement of that request.

The next message I received came about 18 hours later from another person at the ABC with a manager title. They said:

ABC cannot renew a drinking establishment license that does not come close to meeting the 30 percent food sales requirement in which your county established. K.S.A. 41-2642(b) requires a drinking establishment to meet this requirement. K.S.A. 41-2646 provides the guidelines to repeal the 30% food sales requirement. I have included both statutes below for your reference.  When the 2020 renewal was processed, we did not catch that you were not meeting the requirement at that time. Although ABC tried to be lenient during the pandemic, it is possible your license would not have been renewed in 2020 when you were only at 20%. Now in 2022 , you are reporting 16%. Unfortunately, ABC does not have an option at this point to renew the license that does not comply with the food sales requirement.

– Manager at the KS ABC

My reply to that message:

If the ABC has no option to issue exceptions, why then were we asked to submit a plan for how we would increase food sales? Per (name redacted)‘s message to us last week, the request for a plan in writing came from the Director.

We put together a plan and submitted it. Again, if you’re telling me that there is no way for the ABC to renew a license that was not in compliance, I ask again, why were we asked to submit a plan?

The very fact that we were asked for a plan states quite clearly that there is indeed a way for the ABC to issue a renewal. If the ABC is unhappy with our plan or does not feel it is sufficient to increase food sales to 30%, that’s fine just tell us that. We will be more than happy to submit a more robust plan for in-depth projections and goals.

– Pippin Williamson to the ABC

And the reply to that:

Any drinking establishment renewal application we receive that does not meet the food sales requirement; the licensing representative will first ask for a plan to increase food sales. Once we have a plan, we provide that along with the application and previous renewal food sales figures to the Director to review and determine if ABC can renew the license. In rare circumstances when a license is at 28 or 29 percent, their license may be renewed and required to regularly submit sales figures. In this case, there is not an issue with the plan itself, the issue is how far from the 30% food sales requirement you are and that you decreased food sales from the previous renewal. On your initial application and both renewal applications you marked boxes indicating “I understand that I must meet the 30% food sales requirement during the license term” and this requirement was not met.

– Manager at ABC

Once again, my reply:

We only decreased from 20% to 16% because our primary business (beer sales) increased at a more rapid pace than our food sales. We are a brewery afterall.

In 2019, our food sales totaled just $7,000. In 2020, which we all know was anything but normal, our food sales totaled $12,400, an increase of 77%. And in 2021, our food sales totaled $17,200, an increase of 39%. Thus far in 2022, our food sales are $20,500, with an estimated $30,750, or an increase of 79%.

With the plan we submitted we are confident we can get to 30%.

To reach 30% all we have to do is add $68 in food sales per day. That’s it! Considering we frequently pass $500 / day in food sales, adding $68 per day is most definitely doable.

Given that the ABC at no point issued a warning of any kind with our 2020 renewal, it’s outrageous that the ABC would now, just ~30 days before our license expires, decide to be a brick wall.

– Pippin Williamson to the ABC

Ok so let’s step back for a moment and review some highlights from this email thread.

  1. The first representative told us they “may have been lenient” with our 2020 renewal, so they were aware that we reported 20% food sales at that time
  2. The manager said to us “2020 renewal was processed, we did not catch that you were not meeting the requirement at that time”, contradicting the comments of the other representative
  3. Improvement plans can be requested and leniency given when at 28-29%, yet we were still asked for a plan when at 16% food sales, even though we were well below the stated threshold for where plans could be asked for

So we are being told that leniency had been given in the past, and it was acknowledged that we had not met the 30% requirement before, but then we were told the ABC “did not catch” that we were not compliant? We were also told that plans can be requested when an establishment is 1-2% away from compliance, yet still we were asked us for a plan knowing full well that we reported 16% for the renewal period.

I’d like to be clear here that I do genuinely believe the people at the ABC wanted to be able to help us. They were polite and friendly throughout all of our conversations. If they were able to grant us an exception or accept our plan, I do believe they would have done so but their options were restricted by the letter of the law and internal rule books of the ABC, which I will elaborate more on later.

We know the ABC has made exceptions in the past because we are proof of it. We were issued a license renewal in 2020 when we reported 20% food sales, and the ABC did not say a word, not one single word. We were not given a warning, a citation, nor any notice of any kind regarding non-compliance.

Having non-compliance overlooked in the past certainly does not excuse or make non-compliance going forward okay, but what it does do is set a precedent and reinforces an expectation of what will happen in the future. Our expectation had been set, and reinforced through our many, many conversations during the research of this law.

It is important to note that there is a section in the Drinking Establishment Handbook that details what happens in the case of violations of statutes or regulations, and in that section it explains the opportunity to have a hearing and to receive written notice of the violation. Never once were we issued a citation, not even when we were clearly in violation of the food rule in 2020.

Chapter 4. Resigned to our fate

The email chain that I detailed above concluded on Monday, September 19. By that evening I had come to the depressing conclusion that everything we had previously believed and expected about how the rule would be enforced had been wrong. We weren’t going to be given a monetary fine nor allowed to make an improved food sales plan, we were just going to lose our license with no way back.

My only hope was that our state representative might find some back-channel avenue through which we could convince the ABC to grant us a license renewal, but the chances of that happening were looking slimmer than the odds in Vegas.

At this point I knew it was time to tell the team of the fate that awaited us. I told them basically this:

  • We will lose our liquor license on October 18, 2022, in just 28 days
  • We will be forced to put half the team on indefinite employment pause
  • We will limp along making beer for wholesale distributors and over-the-counter togo beer as long as we can
  • We will continue fighting for our license in every way that we can imagine, even if we have to employ a scorched-earth strategy

The reality was that we likely wouldn’t be able to survive for much more than 3-6 months without our on-premise beer sales. Our facility simply wasn’t designed to produce in larger scale for wholesale in a way that could keep the team paid.

So we all went to bed Monday in a very depressed state, and Tuesday started similarly.

Chapter 5. A ruling discovery

Through the work of our state representative, who was able to get in direct contact with the ABC and the Director of the department, we began to understand why there was not an option for leniency nor an option for a commitment to rapidly increases of our food sales.

Like every organization and governmental department, there are internal rule books that lay out how the ABC is to operate and what they are permitted to do and not do. Via deep dives by our representative, it was discovered that the reason we were being denied even an opportunity to try and increase our food sales was because of the internal rules of the ABC.

I mentioned earlier that in October, 2020, we received our liquor license renewal without any mention of the fact that we were well under the 30% threshold for food sales. At that time, and in the words of the ABC through the email chain shared earlier, the ABC was lenient with us. Also in that email chain they shared that they have used discretion in the past when an establishment is near 30%, perhaps 28-29%.

The internal rulebook of the ABC, however, does not permit them any discretion nor flexibility. Zero.

With the way the rules are written, it is not permissible for the ABC to ever issue a license to an establishment that reports less than 30% food sales when it is located in a semi-dry county. They cannot issue one at 25%, not at 27%, and not even 29.9%. There is zero allowance for discretion and no tolerance at all to make exceptions. Per the department’s own rules, they cannot issue a renewal for an establishment and then ask them to make an improvement plan.

Yet we know for certain that discretion has been used in the past and there have been exceptions. We know this for two primary reasons:

  1. We are living proof of it. Our 2020 license was renewed with 20% food sales.
  2. It was shared with us in writing that exceptions have been made in the past.

But the department is not allowed to make exceptions. To issue an exception of any kind is breaking the ABC’s own internal rules.

Discovering that explained why we were suddenly up against a brick wall, which also made it quite clear to us that we only had one option: scorched earth.

We felt there was a chance that if we brought to light the internal rule breaking of the ABC and exposed how rampant non-compliance is of the 30% rule, especially among certain classes of drinking establishments, we might succeed in drawing enough eyeballs to the issue to catch the attention of higher levels of government. Basically, if we made enough noise, we might be able to expedite a legislative change to resolve this problem. We really didn’t want to go this route, but if the option was to layoff the team and shut the doors or raise hell against still-around prohibition-era laws, the choice was straight forward.

Scorched earth was the plan we were preparing to enact when a different option presented itself.

Chapter 6. The inkling of a crazy idea . . .

I spent the morning and early afternoon of Tuesday truly depressed. The business that I and my partners, one being my twin brother Jonathan, had built over the last five years with our team of amazing people was about to be crippled. The very mechanism (our liquor license) that enabled so much of what was important to Sandhills Brewing in Hutchinson and what allowed it to be the community gathering space that it had become, was about to be taken away from us. And there was nothing we could do about it. If the literal rules of the ABC prevented them from issuing an exception, the likelihood of somehow convincing them to do so had lost all hope.

While taking a break from staring at my computer screen and wracking my brain for possible alternatives to our problem, I went shopping for beer ingredients for a small test batch of an Autumn Ale that we were experimenting with. As I was picking out vanilla, nutmeg, and other spaces and flavorings, I decided to place a call to another brewery owner and acquaintance. Just maybe he would have some insights or ideas that could be helpful to us, and if nothing else, it’d be nice to talk to a friend for a moment that could fully comprehend and appreciate what we were going through.

And in a five minute conversation, he asked just the right questions to spark an idea.

He asked:

  • How many dollars were we short of hitting 30%?
  • How many dollars of food had we sold in the previous 12 months?
  • Is it possible to get enough food sales yet this month to make up the difference?

Those three questions made me realize that there might just be a way to save us, though it was probably an impossible challenge.

Now, let’s pause for a moment and review what the license renewal process looks like for liquor licenses with the ABC.

The ABC asks all establishments to submit their application for renewal not less than 30 days before the license expires, and on that license application they require a form called the ABC-891 that consists of items:

  • An acknowledgement that the establishment is or is not within a county governed by the 30% food rule
  • A statement of gross sales of alcohol and food
  • A statement of gross sales of food
  • A statement of the percentage of which food sales represent of the combined gross

For the sales numbers, they ask for a report from the 12 full months prior to the license renewal application. So, if an establishment submits a license renewal on September 15, 2022, the 12 month period for reporting is September 2021, through August, 2022.

We submitted our license renewal application on September 8, 2022, which meant we reported food and alcohol sales for the time period September 2021 through August 2022. Our current license was set to expire on October 18, which meant that we technically had time to withdraw our license renewal application, get a crazy amount of food sales, and then, after the first of October, resubmit our renewal application with a new reporting period of October 2021 through September 2022.

And if we could succeed in getting enough food sales in the last few days of September to push us above the 30% threshold, the ABC would grant us our license renewal.

The possibility of getting even remotely close to success seemed to have slimmer chances than convincing the ABC to give us an exception, but this was something that we could do. It was better than sitting around waiting for our license to expire, so we hatched a plan, and quickly.

Chapter 7. The plan is made and launched

On Tuesday, at 2:40pm precisely, I ran into the brewery to find Adria, our Hutchinson taproom manager, and yelled “I need to talk to you!” and then proceeded to explain rapidly that I’d found a way to secure our liquor license renewal.

If we could devise a way to sell $14,700 in food before 11:59pm on September 30th and then resubmit our license renewal application on October 1, 2022, the ABC would have to give us our liquor license. That number, $14,700, was what I had quickly calculated that we needed in order to have 30% of our sales be from food for the 12 month reporting period. Bear in mind that in the previous 12 months, our total food sales were $27,466.07.

So we needed to make up 50% of our annual food sales in just 10 days.

I pitched this plan to Adria just 20 minutes before we opened the taproom for normal Tuesday service, and at that time we had less than $500 of food inventory to sell in the building. A few pizzas, a few pretzels, a few bags of chips, and a few cans of soda. Remember, we are not a restaurant and our typical food service is pre-made pizzas baked in a conveyor oven and soft pretzels, also baked in that same oven.

Adria, can we do it?!

– Pippin Williamson to Adria Snyder, 2:41pm Tuesday

Uhhh . . . Yes.

– Adria Snyder, 2:41pm Tuesday

Ok let’s go! Oh, and all beers, all sizes, are $1 until we hit this goal.

– Pippin Williamson to Adria Snyder, 2:42pm Tuesday

Without a moment of further explanation or planning, I told her that I was going to go write an email, fire up the grill, and then figure out what food items to sell in the case that anyone showed up to support our cause.

I first drafted a plea for help and sent it to our entire email list at 3:40pm, Tuesday, September 20.

Sandhills Brewing desperately needs your help

Our Hutchinson taproom will close in 27 days unless . . .

Unless we sell $14,700 in food before September 30, 2022 at 11:59PM, our Hutchinson taproom will be forced to close its doors.

That is ten days from now.

This is happening because of an antiquated liquor law regarding food sales. The short version is that we have not sold enough food in the last 365 days to satisfy the KS department of Alcohol and Beverage Control and they will not grant us a renewal on our liquor license unless we successfully sell $14,700 of food in the next 10 days.

Please, we need your help.

How you can help

Buy food! Lots of it!

You can come to our taproom in Hutchinson every day between now and September 30 and purchase food. We have numerous options available at varying price points.

You can also pre-order pizzas for pick up at a later date online. See button below.

Every food purchase counts!

This is not a joke. I wish I could tell you that this was a joke or poorly formed marketing ploy, but it’s not. This is really happening.

If we do not successfully sell a huge amount of food in the next ten days, our taproom will close unless by some other miracle. And if the taproom closes, it is unlikely that we will ever be able to re-open.

Please, if you value Sandhills Brewing and what it offers to Hutchinson and travelers from across the state, help us. Share this with everyone that might be willing to help.

We will be in the brewery every day from now until then with specials, music on the patio, grilled food items, pizzas, and more!

Oh, and every beer is $1 until September 30 at 11:59PM.

– Email sent to customers of Sandhills Brewing

You can read the original email here. In that email I quickly explained that we would lose our license if we did not sell $14,700 in food within the next ten days and I explained how customers could come buy food, and lots of it. Oh and every beer purchased on-site is just $1. We also gave people an option to purchase pizzas online for pickup on a later date.

So I just told people to buy food and lots of it, but recall that we had less than $500 of food inventory in the building. I called one of my team, Cord Jenkins, apologized profusely for calling on his day off, and asked him if there was any way he could go to the store and buy as many hot dogs and buns as he could carry because we were about (I desperately hoped) to need them. Moments later I called our pizza supplier and asked if he could expedite some orders for us and fast.

The key to this plan was literally that we were first going to ask people to come out and support us and then, if they did, we were going to make it up as we went.

And just 25 minutes after sending the email, the first order came through our online system. Then a minute later, another one. Two minutes later, another one. And another, and another, and another. Online orders were coming in faster than my Apple Watch could process the alerts.

And then something even more amazing happened. By 4:45, just barely more than an hour after sending our email plea for help, people began flooding into the taproom. Here’s a snapshot from our security camera at 4:44pm:

And then 5:42pm:

And then 6:16pm:

The line out the door stayed that way for several hours straight, all because the local community heard our plea for help and came out to support us.

Never in our wildest imagination did we believe that the community support would be so strong and so fast. We had expected that a good number of our regular customers would come out right away, but we never expected to see so many new faces. People that had never before been to our taproom came out in droves, and people from across the state and even across the country voiced their support by buying pizzas online.

But people did not just show their support through their wallets and their appetites for way-overpriced $10 hotdogs. They showed their support by stepping up and asking “how can I help?”.

When we were inundated with customers, it became very apparent we were severely understaffed for the sheer number of people that had come out, and friends and regulars that were there that night saw it too. Friends, family, and customers started volunteering to wash dishes, run food orders, operate the grill, pick up trash, buy supplies, and so much more.

Orders were coming in so fast online that we realized we were going to have a problem: if even a fraction of these people tried to pick up their pizzas that night or the next day, we wouldn’t be able to provide them because there were zero pizzas left in the building. So we quickly changed the online system to tell supporters that the purchase was for a “pickup at a later date”. Shortly after doing that we realized that the vast majority of orders being placed online were coming in with comments like “donate this” or “give to a school”, so we changed the online system again to instruct people that all online purchases were to be donated to a local charity, school, food bank, or non-profit.

Over the course of five and a half hours, on a Tuesday, with the help of hundreds and hundreds of people, we processed $16,710 in food sales, smashing our ten day goal of $14,700 into obliteration.

That night we realized that we had pulled off the impossible. In the twelve months prior to this, we had sold ~$27,000 in food, and now, in less than six hours, we had sold $16,710. The sheer enormity of this achievement was overwhelming, but it wasn’t us that had made this happen: it was the rapid and immense outpouring of support from our community far and wide.

Euphoria and sweet, sweet relief took over and we went home happy and exhilarated.

Chapter 8. Day 2 and the gut-wrenching discoveries

In our initial plea for help, we told people that we would be in the brewery every day until September 30th with grilled food items, pizzas, and live music on the patio. Even though we had just smashed our goal on the first night, we still had an obligation to follow through with our promise, and we knew that we also needed to keep food sales moving in order to build a cushion, just in case we got any calculations wrong.

Throughout the morning we were being overwhelmed with calls from local and regional news stations wanting to do interviews with us about our amazing success and community support. We completed four different interviews and then, shortly before preparing the taproom to open for another day of service, we discovered a problem.

There had been an error in our calculation and the amount of food we needed to sell to secure our liquor license was not $14,700. It was actually closer to $29,000.

The error happened due to a simple misunderstanding of how the formula for tallying food percentages is set up.

We believed it was the following: Food sales must equal 30% of the gross alcohol sales.

What it actually is: Food sales must equal 30% of the combined sales of food and alcohol.

That was a gut-wrenching realization and it resulted in us still needing an additional $12,952 in food sales. It felt awful to have to share that with all of our supporters, literally just hours after sending out emails celebrating the amazing achievement of the night before. But hey, if we could do $16,710 in one day, surely we could do $12,952 in the next nine, right?

So day two began with a food truck set up to serve Arabian food and pizzas and soft pretzels in our electric oven until they ran out. And once again the community of Hutchinson and beyond came out in force. By 3:15pm, just 15 minutes after opening, we again had a line of customers out the door and it stayed that way for hours on end.

The day was filled with euphoria and excitement as we recognized that the community was really here for us and we were likely to reach our new goal quickly, ensuring us success in our mission to secure our license renewal.

Late in the evening, as I was checking on our goal progress, I had a feeling that something else was wrong, or that I had missed something again in how the formula for calculating food sales worked. I was looking at our food sales report and calculating the percentage of food sales compared to the combined alcohol and beer sales, and even though we had passed the $21,000 mark, we were still (according to the formula) a long ways from 30%. It didn’t make sense until we realized the following:

For every dollar of food sales we make, the goal post is pushed further, and further away.

So our success in selling thousands of dollars of food was making it so we had to sell even more thousands of dollars in food.

It was some form of cruel irony. We attempted to do the math to calculate what we actually needed to sell, but we couldn’t quite figure it out, at least not in our sleep-deprived, exhausted state. It actually required calculus to determine the real figures as it’s a curve and we needed to calculate the point of intersection between food sales, alcohol sales, and when the food sales equal 30% of the combined total.

Wednesday night ended in a mix of exhaustion, euphoria for another great turnout, and sheer terror of how much further we had to go. We also knew that if we shared that we were wrong again on how much we needed to sell, we ran the risk of alienating the very people that were supporting it. We’d look awfully foolish and dumb if we told people we had yet again calculated wrong, but that was the truth.

We now believed the amount of food sales required to be successful was close to $38,000.

Chapter 9. Day 3, making noise

In the early hours of Thursday morning, I sat in my truck in the Walmart parking lot and sobbed. I’d gotten maybe two hours of sleep the night before, woken up at 4:30am, and was at Walmart before they opened so I could buy a tent to put over our grill and smokers on the patio. It was pouring down rain and we really needed the smokers to work properly and have pulled pork ready to sell by 3-4pm.

The weight of the past few days and the great distance we still had to go were too much for me. I broke there waiting for Walmart to open. Late the night before we had worked the math backwards and were pretty certain that we would need to sell $38,000 of food in order to actually reach 30%. Just 48 hours before we had been under the impression that $14,700 was what we needed, and now it was $38,000 . . . It was too much for me.

The support we had been shown so far was utterly astonishing and the most humbling thing I’ve ever experienced, but asking our community to buy another $16,000+ of hot dogs, pizzas, and grilled sandwiches just seemed like an absolutely impossible ask, especially after they’d already bought nearly $22,000 worth in two days. How could we possibly ask Hutchinson to do that?

But the simple truth was this: we had to. If we didn’t, the taproom would close and all of the effort and support shown over the last 48 hours would be for naught, so with tears still running down my face, into Walmart I went to buy a tent.

With the dedication of two amazing friends, we smoked pork butts and ribs on the patio under the pouring rain for the next 7 hours and had them ready to serve at 4pm, when yet again, the community came out in force to buy 119 pork sandwiches, 50 rib meals, 34 hot dogs, 21 pizzas, and 16 soft pretzels. And that is just what people purchased and consumed on-site. We also sold nearly 200 bags of beef jerky and 74 pizzas for donation to a local food bank, school, or other charitable organization through our online ordering system.

And around 5pm, something unexpected happened. I was working behind the bar and my wife came up to me and whispered “Jason just told me to tell you that the Lt. Governor is on his way and will be here in 20 minutes.”

Oh snap! We had made headlines across local and regional news channels on both TV and radio, and the word had spread, and apparently spread far enough and fast enough that the Lt. Governor of Kansas decided to take a lengthy unplanned detour and see what it was all about.

Left to right: Pippin Williamson, state representative Jason Probst, Lt. Governor David Toland

The Lt. Governor gave me nearly a full hour to share, in my own words, who we were as a business, what we were about, what our current challenge was, and how he could help.

He listened carefully and, through a number of comments, made it clear that we were an example of a type of business that should have barriers removed for it instead of put up. Obviously if so many people had come out to support us multiple days in a row, we were doing something special and valuable.

Thursday morning started as one of the worst, most overwhelming days of my life, but it ended feeling confident again. I knew that if we had gotten the attention of the second highest office in the state, then we had a good chance of triggering positive changes for breweries around the state after this was over.

The day ended with $29,604.80 in food sales since our initial plea for help went out Tuesday at 3:40pm, and a reinvigorated confidence that we could succeed.

Just $8,395.20 to go to reach $38,000 . . .

Chapter 10. Day 4 – 5, and finally goal achieved

By Friday our confidence was restored again. We’d had our moments of horror and opportunities to cry and break under the strain of what we needed to accomplish, and we’d found resolve and reassurance. We had gotten the attention of the Lt Governor and beyond and we knew we could do it. We still had Friday and Saturday, our two busiest days in a typical week, and that was just in our first week. If we needed to, we could continue (and had initially planned) a food sales push into the following week, all the way up until Friday evening, September 30, at 11:59pm.

So we entered Friday with a plan to open at noon with hamburgers and hotdogs on the grill, followed by BBQ chicken and steak sandwiches beginning at 3pm. Also throughout the day we were, once again with the time and help of even more amazing volunteers, smoking another round of pork butts in the smoker in preparation for food service all day Saturday.

Friday ended up being a day for the record books.

During the day Friday, we poured 705 pints of $1 beer, and sold over $8,062 in food. It was the busiest day we’ve ever experienced, and by the end of the day we had officially reached our goal with just over $38,000 in food sales since start of day Tuesday.

What our patio looked like all evening Friday.

The amazing turnout on Friday pushed us over our goal and gave us a buffer zone that allowed us to go into Saturday much more relaxed and worry free. While Saturday turned out to be yet another record day for us that far exceeded our standard weekends, it was notably quieter than the days prior.

Our Saturday ended with an additional $2,782 in food sales, bringing our total for the week to $40,614 in food sales. That was enough to securely put us at 32.1% food sales for the past twelve months, thus ensuring that the ABC would grant us our liquor license renewal when we submitted it for renewal a few days later.

Chapter 11. Receiving our license renewal

The Hail Merry plan that we set out on in order to save our liquor license set the goal of getting enough food sales before September 30th and then having the expectation of submitting our license for renewal on October 1, the very first day on which we’d be able to include September 2022 in the 12 month review period.

Late Monday night, on September 26, 2022, however, I sent off an email to the ABC telling them about our success and the exact dollar amounts that we had then sold in alcohol and food, and the 32.1% that was represented by food sales. I did this with the intention of giving them a heads up that we had been successful and to let them know we’d be submitting the final paperwork at the earliest possible time, on October 1, 2022. But also in my message I included a mention that we would be closed for the remainder of September in order to give our team a break, and thus our sales numbers would not change, so I’d be happy to submit the forms early if that was allowed.

The ABC said yes, we could submit the forms early.

So five minutes after receiving that message from the ABC, I sent over the updated ABC-891 forms with the new numbers from our food sales campaign.

I said earlier that I really did believe the people at the ABC wanted to help us, and the rapidity with which they processed our license renewal after our sales numbers were confirmed supports that.

Exactly two hours and three minutes later, I received an email from the ABC with the subject line:

Drinking Establishment License Renewal Approved

That was one of the greatest moments of relief I’ve ever experienced in the last fifteen years I’ve been operating businesses.

Chapter 12. What is next: food rule vote

First and foremost, the food sales campaign and the securing of our liquor license, ensured that Sandhills Brewing in Hutchinson was here to stay. We have been building and working on this community space for the last five years and the community for which it was built, through its amazing support, gave us a tremendous testament to their agreement that we should be here. They shared loudly and clearly that we are a value add to the community of Hutchinson. The outpouring of support we saw was the most humbling and honoring experience we’ve ever had.

That week in September also gave us a huge momentum to push for positive change. We are going to continue to use the momentum and the extra visibility around the 30% food rule to work towards improved liquor laws in Reno county and the wider state of Kansas. Shortly after the conclusion of our food sales marathon, we met with the Reno county commissioners regarding the issue. In response to our plea and the tremendous outpouring of support, the commissioners voted unanimously to place the food rule on the upcoming November ballot, allowing the residents of Reno county to cast their vote for or against changing the rules in 2023. If the vote passes to opt out of this food rule, Reno county will have removed a significant barrier to economic development. Through our efforts and the contributions of the community, we aim to ensure its success to the best of our ability. But we do not intend to stop there. Through collaboration with state legislatures, we intend to also fight for state-wide law changes that will lessen or remove this barrier for breweries and other establishments state-wide.

See our Vote Yes page for more information about the upcoming vote.

It is well past time that antiquated laws from an era long gone be removed so that small businesses and the people that build them can get on with building for better futures and better communities.

To every one that has supported us along the way, thank you!

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