Niki Fields was 25 when she and husband Travis launched FH Beerworks, and 30 when they opened their new Eastside expansion three weeks ago — and she’s not one to let obstacles win.
When the couple fronted the Downtown Review Board for approval of their downtown brewery, then known as Fieldhouse Brewing, Niki was nine months pregnant with their second son.
“He was born less than 24 hours later,” she recalls. “I went into labor that afternoon — after getting approval. It was a roller coaster.”
At the time, Niki was a veterinary technician and Travis was an electrician with a passion for home brewing. Neither of them had any business experience, but they didn’t see that as a problem either.
Now, fresh off the opening of the FH Beerworks East location — two buildings covering 7,700 square feet, a 6,000-square-foot beer garden and a resident food truck — Niki talks with the Business Journal about building community, pushing through trauma, and knowing when things are “meant to be.”
How did you get started?
My husband started home brewing about eight years ago and fell in love with it. We’d always had this entrepreneurial spirit of ‘We want something that’s our own and we want something that’s going to make a difference’ — all those things that you hear from every entrepreneur — and we just hadn’t found that thing yet. He kind of stumbled into brewing, coming back from a fishing trip, talking with a buddy. He didn’t even know it was a thing, let alone this whole incredible community and culture. So they started homebrewing and I was three months pregnant and super sick and they brewed in the house and they put the hops in and I was like, ‘You’re never brewing in the house again!’ It was crazy. But he fell in love with it.
I have celiac disease so I cannot do gluten — and not just because I don’t want to, but because it makes me really, really sick. So I was like, ‘Great, if you’re going to make beer for a living, I’m all about that — let’s chase dreams — but you’ve got to make a beer I can have, that isn’t awful.’ Because gluten-free beer up until recently [was awful]. … But he said, ‘Great, let’s do it,’ so we started planning. It was about 3½ years of planning. We had a 2-year-old and a 3-day-old when we started construction, and then we opened up here at our 521 S. Tejon [St.] location four years ago, in June of 2014. We have a five-barrel brewhouse with 10-barrel fermentation and we have now expanded to an almost 5-acre property for our second location on the east side of town, just south of Constitution [Avenue] and Powers [Boulevard]… At that location we will have a 20-barrel brewhouse with 40-barrel fermentation. It’s significantly bigger.
Why did you choose that location?
We’ve got the most amazing regulars and a great community that identifies with Fieldhouse here, and we want to be able to do that on the Eastside. That was very intentional. It seems like people don’t really cross Union [Boulevard] — it’s like there’s this dividing line: ‘Oh we’ll come to your grand opening, but we live over here.’ And that makes sense, that you do life where you live. But we live on the Eastside and there’s very much a lacking of culture; we call it Convenienceville. Not that I don’t like that also, sometimes. When you’re redoing a house it’s nice to be able to run to Lowe’s right down the street — 20 times in a day. … But if we want a variety of locally owned really cool culture, community businesses, we’re usually driving downtown or Old Colorado City. We wanted to rock the boat a little bit over there. We wanted to do something that’s not being done in this area in the brewery community yet.
How did you know the time was right?
I was out running errands one day and Travis sent me a screenshot of a sponsored Facebook post that [previous owners] Timberline Landscaping had put up about this property. We’d been keeping our eyes open for the next step, because the demand is there — we’re self-distributing, we’ve got about 25 liquor stores and a couple of great tap accounts, but we can’t expand more than that [downtown]. … It’s hard, because we have such limited cold storage and dry storage here; we can’t make more because we have nowhere to put it. In order to expand we’ve got to be able to make more, but we can’t. So it’s this Catch-22, chasing our tail, rock-and-a-hard-place situation where we’re like, we really need to expand but we simply logistically cannot. …
So this ad comes up and Travis says, tongue-in-cheek, ‘What about putting a brewery on 5 acres!’ And I was like, ‘Huh. That’s really interesting, actually. I really can see —’
And he was like, ‘OK crazy lady, did you see the price tag?’ And I was like, ‘No, I know. I know. But it’s really interesting to me.’ And then an investment opportunity came up where [a local investment group] wanted to partner with us for expansion … and they had another property in mind. … So we ended up with this amazing investment deal that just was meant to be. Everything has aligned and it’s totally been right.
When we went to look at the property the investment group had in mind, we said, ‘Well, since we’re talking about properties we can’t really afford anyway, what about this other property?’ And we walked on to that 5 acres and fell in love. It was this dirty, greasy big mechanic shop. Now you’d never know. It’s this beautiful high-end tap room with custom light fixtures and a custom bar; it’s just lovely. We just knew it was the right time, and I’m a firm believer in things being meant to be. All of the doors were open, so we walked through them.
Ask any of our staff: when we hire people, we tell them is our main goal here is to love people well. And we believe you can do this in any industry, whether you’re making beer or selling shoes. That starts from us to our staff — it’s just a proven fact, if you take care of your people, your people take care of your customers, and your customers take care of the bottom line. … Our team is really a family. We want to be bosses that we didn’t have; we want to take care of our crew and our team. We share the same end goal of loving people well — we want to love our city well, and to do that we love the individuals. Empathy is one of our core values. So we meet every situation across the bar — you have a bad interaction with a customer, Well, maybe they just need a hug and a beer today. …
What quality do you think helped you pull all this off?
I tend to be naturally driven, and I tend to be somebody who’s like, ‘Tell me I can’t.’ Some back story that’s important is — building [the downtown location] out was hard, and then 10 weeks after we opened, Travis’ brother passed away unexpectedly. He was an investor in this project. So 10 weeks after we opened, we closed for 10 days. So we’ve had to overcome grief and depression and, I really believe, some postpartum depression in all that for me. I had a newborn and a new business and at that point we were doing everything. Travis would come in and brew, I would come in with two babies and we would switch, and he’d leave his truck here and take the car home with the kids, and I would open up and bartend, then come home. So we had this high-five marriage anyway, and two little ones, brand-new baby — and then to have that blow to your life. Travis and his brother were super close, best friends, worked together. To have that kind of trauma happen — it was either do or die. Either we close down and we go back to the old life because we can’t handle the hardship, or we push through and we show that it’s possible anyway, in spite of what happened in our lives.
Once you go through something like that, once you’ve experienced grief and loss, ‘hard’ is really relative. It’s ‘Yeah this is hard, but it isn’t that hard.’ And if we could keep the business open somehow through that — I don’t even understand why people kept coming in and giving us their money, but I’m so thankful for it. We didn’t know what we were doing. We were absent, and depressed, and it was hard. And to fight our way through that and keep our heads above water — maybe barely, some days — but above water, and now within five years of being open we have this new amazing location that somebody believed in us enough to partner on. Now it’s ‘OK, we can do this. We’re capable of more than we think.’
When trial enters your life like that and you choose to push through, despite how hard it is, the sky’s the limit at this point. I have this attitude of ‘What if?’ A lot of people say, ‘What if it doesn’t work?’ I say, ‘Well, what if it does?’ And — what if it doesn’t? So what? We go back to doing what we were doing before? It’s not the worst thing ever. What if, worst case scenario, we go bankrupt and lose our house? So what? We’ve built something from nothing before; we can do it again. You go through something like that, and it builds a tenacity that you didn’t really have before.