"With less than two hours left on a court-ordered closure,
I was able to save the beerhall from being padlocked...."
Marquis “Marq” Williams, TC’92, is the Owner and Operator of The King's Beer Hall in Brooklyn. Initially an investor in the business, Marq then jumped at the unexpected opportunity to take over the establishment and bring it back to life. We asked him to tell us about what it was like to make such a big career shift, the ups and downs of the food and beverage scene in New York, and how he turned The King's Beer Hall into one of Brooklyn's hot spots.
Tell us about The King's Beer Hall.
The King's Beer Hall - “The KBH” - is a large, 4000-square-foot beerhall in downtown Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood. It is four short blocks from the Barclays Center and near most major subway lines, plus the LIRR. I am the owner and operator of the establishment and often times spend 60-80 hours a week working there.
What makes your idea unique?
Beerhalls are not unique, but beerhalls in the USA have recently come into fashion. However, my beerhall is more of a hangout spot with our huge communal tables that can seat 20, a variety of games to allow for fun and competitive interaction (we have air hockey, billiards, hoop fever, giant Jenga, board games and much more), and the wide open space to mix and mingle. So, I like to think of it as the extended living room, game room or backyard that many of us in NYC don’t get to have with our “modest” sized apartments.
Furthermore, we do love beer! We have 30 lines on draft and 30+ in bottles/cans. We bring in new beers often and rotate the draft lines with seasonal offerings, special releases and just beers we think are awesome and that our customers will like. But for those who don’t share the same enthusiasm for beer, we have wine and a full bar to satisfy any taste bud. We also have a full kitchen where we serve up some great food from crispy brussel sprouts, to chicken & waffle tenders, to the typical bar offerings of chicken wings, burgers and bratwursts.
Tell us about the journey from concept to execution.
Quite simply, The KBH was originally a German-themed concept that only sold German beers and food. It originally launched in 2012. At that time, I was a minority investor with no say in the operations. Unfortunately after several years of woes and no returns, I was faced with the option to take a loss on my investment or take over the establishment.
Although I was already busy with construction, property management and investments, I decided to take over the beerhall. Since I believed the beerhall had great potential, I had to quickly phase out much of the other work I was doing so I could focus on saving it and turning it around. With less than two hours left on a court-ordered closure, I was able to save the beerhall from being padlocked, only to feel that I just fell down a rabbit hole. Next came a slew of creditors, past debts and violations that had to be resolved. Then almost all of the equipment had to be overhauled or replaced…not a cheap undertaking. Finally came angry investors who felt they were wronged by the previous business partner (whom I won’t name). But amid all of that turmoil, I created a strategy to build a successful business:
a. Provide great products - From beer to brats, I revamped the product offering. Because we are located in Brooklyn, and Brooklyn has an international mix of inhabitants, I immediately decided to make the beerhall a reflection of the international mix. Thus, I decided to start carrying great beers from all around the world…no longer just German beers. Also, the food needed to be great bar food…keeping some of the great German staples like pretzels and brats. The requirement for me was that the food was popular and profitable.
b. Provide great service - This is easier said than done in the flighty restaurant/bar business. Having to screen, interview, hire and train people who decide not to return after a couple of days was too often the norm. But over time, and with lots of patience of seeing who sticks, I was able to build a great team who wanted the place to succeed almost as much as me. This team now understands the importance of providing great -- make that consistently great -- service, as we have a strong repeat customer business.
c. Advertise, advertise, advertise - Once I became happy with our products and service, I had to get the word out to potential customers. I segmented them into three groups of customers:
1) Regulars - people who would visit several times a month, typically because they lived or worked in the area but liked what we had to offer.
2) Occasionals - people who would visit several times a year, typically because they only came to friend’s birthday parties, showers, etc. or came to events at the Barclays Center. 3) One-timers - typically from out-of-town or out-of-the-country and probably won’t be back in Brooklyn in the foreseeable future, but have other friends/family who may come visit us if this group had a good time and recommended us.
Since I don’t have unlimited funds, I’m selective with my advertising budget. I try to target my key segments and highlight my core competencies: big space, great location and fun to hangout. So far, the strategy is working, as we are building our first time customer metric and repeat customer base.
Who was a notable mentor?
Aaron Dean has been an excellent mentor to me (although he graduated Harvard undergrad AND business school). Aaron and I have been business partners in other investments, so I naturally turned to him for advice during the bar rescue and turnaround. However, he DID NOT want to invest in the beerhall from a business perspective, but he was willing to help me personally. Although he has no restaurant or bar management experience, he understands business and finance, has been a sounding board, and helped me to keep my focus on strategy and execution.
What experience at Yale most impacted where you are today?
The turning point for me at Yale was when I fell in love with the Economics program and my desire for business was spawned. I had entered Yale on the Pre-Med track having already taken 5 years of advanced science and medicine courses during middle and high school. So my parents were not exactly thrilled when I decided to go into business rather than become a doctor after my first year at Yale. Nonetheless, I remain happy of the path I took.
What’s your favorite food, aside from what you can get at your own place?
Fresh SUSHI!!!!…the type that melts in your mouth like butter. And NYC has so many great places to find deliciously, fresh sushi.
What was your favorite eatery in New Haven?
As a poor, broke college student, I enjoyed the Commons (ha! ha!) or the common eateries such as Naples, York Street and even WaWa’s for the late night hoagie. However, I loved being able to cook at our off-campus apartment or friend’s places… when we had time.
What about the food/drink industry is exciting to you right now and why?
This industry is a hard one; definitely not for the faint of heart. However, as the saying goes… “If you can make it in NEW YORK, you can make it ANYWHERE!” I find the challenge tough, but at the same time rewarding.
It is exciting to have a place where I love hanging out when I’m not working, and where a lot of my friends love to hang out… with or without me. Secretly, many times I will hang out as a customer and my staff is instructed to treat me like a customer and not to bother me about business unless it is a real emergency that only I can resolve. I often end up chatting with and hanging out with customers who may never find out that I am not just another customer, but I am the owner. Some end up buying me drinks, and then I’ll buy them drinks. That is what it is like hanging out at the KBH. And that’s fun!
What is your best advice for recent grads?
Work hard, play harder - because the journey matters as much as the destination.
Invest in your future - I advise everyone to put their available money into something that generates passive cashflow. Real estate has been a great vehicle for me.
Don’t be afraid to fail…and definitely don’t be afraid to try again, and fail again.