Welcome to our eighth entry in the Look Back/Look Ahead Series for 2013-14. This series is designed to give a recap, from the breweries themselves, of 2013 while also previewing all that is to come in 2014. We have already visited La Cumbre, Bosque, Kaktus, Marble, Sandia Chile Grill, Broken Bottle, and Tractor, so click the links if you missed the stories.
After a couple of minor, business-related delays (including a never-ending conference call), owner Ken Carson sat down with me, Stoutmeister, to talk about a busy and successful 2013 for Nexus Brewery and some of his plans for 2014.
Oh, and PROGRAMMING NOTE: There will not be an edition of The Week Ahead in Beer this week. It should return Monday, Tuesday at the latest, in time to help you prepare for your New Year’s Eve festivities.
Reflecting on 2013
How big was 2013 for Nexus? So big they even ended up on television.
“It’s been a very good year,” Ken said. “It’s another record year for sales for us. Our food has gone very well, it’s been really good on the food side. The beer has also kept pace with the increase in sales. Our beer sales are about 30-to-35-percent of our overall sales. Our food usually runs around 65. We still sell a good amount of beer. We started the year with some really nice articles that were written up in the Venue (section) and a couple of other places in the Journal, things like that about our food.
“Then kind of our highlight for this year was being featured on (The Food Network’s) ‘Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.’ They had picked us originally because of the Crackling Cornbread and the Chicken Fried Chicken which was made with collard greens that had red chile.”
With celebrity chef Guy Fieri in the house, Nexus managed to impress both him and all the folks watching at home.
“I think that’s really attracted ‘Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives,’” Ken said. “The fact that I was doing Southwest (fusion) with Southern, (Fieri) kept saying over and over again, ‘I can’t believe you’re doing red chile in collard greens.’ They’re little tiny tweaks that don’t make a big difference but it does spice it up a little bit which makes it a little more appealing to our palates out here.”
All of it has led to Nexus being busy almost every day of the week.
“It used to be that Monday through Thursday were pretty slow,” Ken said. “Now, starting Tuesday, it’s busy all week long. Monday is the only day that we kind of just have a lull. But all the rest of the days are starting to fill up. We’re finding that we can’t do much more business than we do on Friday because there’s not any more room. What’s happened is the recent positive articles and things that we’ve gotten on our food and our reviews on Yelp and Urban Spoon have been filling in the other days with additional sales.”
While Nexus’ menu of Southern and soul food dishes might be attracting the big crowds, it is not like the beer is an afterthought. Working with increased capacity, brewer Manuel Mussen has been keeping up with the demand for the regulars while also introducing some new beers.
“On the beer side, Manuel did a couple of really good beers,” Ken said. “One of the best ones he did was his recent Imperial Stout, which is really good. Then we’ve played around with a lot of other things.
“I know that (customers have) liked a lot of the seasonals we’ve put on. I do enjoy having 10 beers on tap all the time.”
While the soul food market in Albuquerque is fairly limited beyond Nexus, the local brewing scene is booming. In such a competitive market, Ken said one simple key to not just surviving, but prospering, is to always keep the customer’s needs first.
“I think really listening to customers and once you do get open you really have to pay attention to what your customers are saying,” he said. “We find that we get comments about our IPA. We’ll have a lot of good comments and then we’ll have some people that say well, your IPA is not up to par with Marble and La Cumbre.”
To help with that beyond what is heard at the bar, Ken has created a small panel of loyal, knowledgeable customers to review and comment on the beer.
“I have a panel that we work with that comes in,” Ken said. “We haven’t met as many times as I’d like to show that it’s starting to work. Our panel is working at least once a month, going in and tasting the beer, looking at what we need to do to change or tweak or make things better. I’d like to be even more frequent, but with people’s schedules it’s kind of hard to bring outsiders in.
“But, we’ve learned some things and they’re independent of us and have no stake in it, other than just to help us. We are conscientious about that. It’s a program that we’re going to try to rev up and make even stronger next year to see what we can do to keep improving our beer. You can’t just sit back and say we’ve reached the limit and can’t do any better.”
Preparing for big things in 2014
The coming year could be an even busier and bigger one for Nexus. That would stem mostly from the possibility of a second Nexus location.
“In the middle of the year, I decided I was going to go ahead and go for it,” Ken said. “But I kind of pulled back because I wanted to get some systems together. Looking at another location right now, there’s nothing firm, but the plan is to be full-service with a restaurant. If everything works out this would have a lounge and it would give us an ability to really separate the food from the beer, but yet still have the food. One side would be more bar-like than the other side. I’ll just leave it at we’re looking at multiple locations right now.”
Ken said he would probably resurrect one of his early plans for the first Nexus, where they would have served a different type of food.
“If we do open another location, if it is conducive, we probably will do barbecue and add that to our list using our red chile barbecue sauce,” he said.
A new location would also mean the addition of at least one 15-barrel fermenter and one or two storage tanks in the brewery to keep up with the increase in demand.
Still, as a businessman with a background in banking, Ken said he won’t rush into a second location just for the sake of having one.
“As a former banker I was watching my customers expand too quickly before your systems are together can be devastating,” he said. “But on the other hand, sitting and waiting around for perfection is also not going to work, either. So what you do is you stick your neck out to a certain point. I think surprisingly without any restaurant experience we’ve done quite well. We have our internal systems problems, but generally speaking we’re able to keep it together.”
Beyond the possibility of a second location, Nexus might get into bottling its own beer, though not in the way some might expect.
“I am interested in that, not so much for getting into distribution, it’s for convenience for my customers,” Ken said. “A growler is nice to have at home, but maybe a couple of cases, you don’t have to drink it all in the next few days. That’s what I’d be looking for. Distribution, that’s almost another business separate from the restaurant and the food. I’m just not interested in diversifying into distribution. I took on two businesses, restaurant and brewery. Luckily the brewery kind of handles itself.”
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Thanks again to Ken, who has been a busy, busy man lately, for taking a few minutes out of his day. And thank you to the kitchen staff, for the extra big pieces of fried chicken to go with my waffle (of course that’s what I ordered after the interview).
After taking a day off to celebrate Christmas with the family, I will resume the series with Il Vicino on Thursday and Turtle Mountain on Friday. And again, hopefully we will eventually track down the folks at Back Alley, Cazuela’s, and Chama River so they can be included, too.
Until then, may you all have a Merry Christmas. Don’t forget to fill those growlers and pick up those six-packs, but please, be responsible Wednesday. Let’s make sure everyone has a safe and happy holiday!