Landon and Janie Wilcox share a laugh while taking a break from gutting a former downtown Exeter coffee house. The couple plans to renovate the space and turn it into The Rock Yard Tavern, which will specialize in craft beers on tap and sold in bottles and cans. Photo by David Castellon

published on October 3, 2017 - 1:36 PM
Written by David Castellon

Landon and Janie Wilcox of Exeter don’t know Dustin and Traci Franklin of Friant, but the two couples happen to have similar dreams.

They want to secure their financial futures for themselves and their children by starting their own small businesses, both of which are hitched to the growing popularity of craft beers.

On Sept. 8, the Franklins opened their business, The Tap House, a wood-fired pizzeria in a former Subway sandwich shop in the 2100 block of N. Schnoor Street in Madera, in the Home Depot Shopping Center.

And while pizza is intended to be the main attraction despite the business’ name, Dustin Franklin — who continues working as a regional beer salesman for a Bay Area craft beer brewery while helping run the restaurant and bar — said The Tap House has a dozen beers on tap and 22 others in cans and bottles for sale.

The Wilcoxes aren’t that far along yet. The former downtown Exeter coffee house they’re leasing — with plans to eventually buy — is in the process of having its counters, wall coverings and other remnants of the old business torn out before the couple and the contractors they’ve hired start next week the renovations that will transform it into The Rock Yard Tavern.

Janie Wilcox described the tavern as a “tap room” that will serve 15-20 beers to start, most of them craft beers.

Landon Wilcox said he and his wife briefly considered serving hot food and decided against it, as “Just being a beer bar with pre-packaged snacks, that seemed to be the place to go.”

And while bars and restaurants selling alcohol aren’t hard to find in Exeter or Madera, both couples said bars with wide selections of craft beers are hard to find in their areas, and that’s the niche they plan to fill.

“We’re looking for somebody who wants to try something different,” Landon Wilcox said of the customers he and his wife want to attract.

“We were born and raised in Exeter, and we wanted to bring something new to Exeter,” Janie Wilcox said.

“Craft beers have started picking up a little bit [in popularity]. It seemed like a nice little investment. Something we enjoy ourselves — going to these other establishments and trying different beers and kind of just more of a laid-back kind of atmosphere” than some traditional bars, her husband, Landon, added.

Dustin Franklin said that based on his own experience selling beer to bars and restaurants, “The craft beer scene is growing really fast, and there’s no place in Madera for people to enjoy it. We wanted the people of Madera to not have to drive out of town to enjoy good craft beer.”

And statistics back them up, with a recent Fortune Magazine article calling craft beers the “darling” of the beer industry.

Craft beers — most made at small breweries rather than at the big breweries that mostly produce traditional beers — grabbed a 12.3 percent share of the U.S. beer market in 2016, up from a 5.7 percent share in 2011, according to the Colorado-based Brewers Association, a not-for-profit trade group representing small and independent brewers.

The Wilcoxes and the Franklins have some other things in common: Neither couple has ever run a bar or restaurant before, yet both are heavily investing their savings and incurring big debt on the gamble that their businesses will be successful.

Dustin Franklin said most of the restaurateurs he makes contact with in his job selling beer warned him that running a restaurant is hard work, but he also sees it as a good way to build up a nest egg when he and his wife retire.

“There’s always the fear of failure. We dumped our whole savings into this,” Dustin Franklin said. “I don’t ever think about our stress, about the business failing. But at the end of the day, we have to be concerned. Everything in our life is in that building.”

His wife, Traci, a self-described stay-at-home mom, said whatever her concerns about getting into the restaurant and bar business were displaced by her husband’s passion.

“I jumped on board with him.”

But not before the two did their homework, which included attending a workshop put on by the City of Madera on starting small businesses and a free California Department of Alcohol Beverage Control workshop on complying with state liquor laws that included training on how to deal with drunken customers.

Traci Franklin also noted that her husband has a degree in business management and has used his contacts in local bars and restaurants to pick their brains about running the new business.

“Once we did the research, I felt comfortable jumping in with both feet,” she said.

Her husband added that a manager with restaurant experience is running The Tap Room’s pizza kitchen and also is the chief cook, while a friend of his who works as a hospital chef designed the whole venue.

And so far, their preparation and planning seems to be paying off, “because we are packed ever night,” Dustin Franklin said.

As for Landon Wilcox, he said opening a bar was less a passion than a means to earn extra income to allow his family to live comfortably in the years to come, as well as to give him something to do when he eventually retires from his job as a Southern California Edison lineman.

“I think it was more of an investment opportunity, I guess, rather than shifting gears in a career,” Wilcox said, adding that the storefront at 132 N. E St. in Exeter’s quaint downtown being owned by the church he and his wife attend helped reinforce their belief that they’re on the right path.

In fact, because the Wilcoxes didn’t have enough money to buy the downtown Exeter storefront and pay to convert it into a contemporary beer bar, the church agreed to a lease-to-buy deal, he noted.

“Any time you are going into business for yourself, I feel it is absolutely a risk,” Landon Wilcox said. “That’s why we’re leaning on other people. We have family members that worked in the industry, that are just as excited as we are to get to work. They will help in managing and acquiring stock.”

As for his wife, Janie, she said that once The Rock Yard Tavern opens, she plans to forgo her current role as a stay-at-home mom and help run the business day to day, while her husband will help around his lineman job schedule.

Part of the reason he doesn’t plan to quit after opening the bar is to have a financial cushion should the business fail, as well as to keep his work benefits.

“It’s kind of hard to walk away from that,” Landon Wilcox said.

And as he sees it, now is a good time to get into the bar business, as consumers are spending again following the recent recession.

Landon Franklin agreed, noting that restaurants and bars he visits on his sales route had lost a lot of weekday customers during the recession, but he’s seeing a resurgence of weekday customers.

And despite the heavy emphasis on selling various craft beers, both couples said they want their businesses to attract families.

Certainly selling pizza is likely to draw parents with their children to The Tap Room.

For his part, Landon Wilcox said he doesn’t see a beer bar as a deterrent for drawing in adults and their children as customers.

“We want to be a family business with the packaged snacks and craft sodas on tap — something that kind of attracts a family atmosphere,” Landon Wilcox said. “Stop in with the kids. Let them have a root beer — something a little bit different.”

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