Indie Awards: ‘We hire nice people’

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Winner: Washtenaw Soul

Sponsored by: Big George’s

Arbor Brewing Company

  • Owners: Matt and Rene Greff
  • Founded: 1995
  • Full-time employees: 70
  • Website: arborbrewing.com
Matt and Rene Greff | Photo by Benjamin Weatherston

Matt and Rene Greff | Photo by Benjamin Weatherston

Arbor Brewing Company does lots of cool things. In 1995, it was the first brewpub in Washtenaw County. In 2006, it became the first brewpub in the state to move into distribution with the opening of the Arbor Brewing Company Microbrewery (aka Corner Brewery) in Ypsilanti. In 2012, it became Michigan’s first solar brewery. It utilizes local, natural, sustainable sourcing, and has gotten rid of all processed food on the menu. The list goes on.

Despite those achievements, Rene Greff, who co-owns ABC with her husband Matt, said, “Our favorite part of owning our business is our staff. We see them as family. They’re challenging, exciting and fun. Customers pick up on that.”

And what’s the secret to developing such a staff? “We hire nice people,” Rene said.

She’s serious. Work experience and expertise are secondary to niceness during the application process, and thereafter. “If we hire you and discover you’re not a nice person, you can’t continue to work here,” Rene says.

This staff of nice people is expected to communicate with each other and customers. To make sure that happens, ABC has a training program that focuses on “right speech” or “Zen speech,” with four main components: complain to someone who can do something about it; say things that are true and helpful; compassionate critique is the best thing you can do for co-workers and managers; and consider the goals of your communication before you open your mouth.

Of course, it’s easier to be nice when your bosses treat you well, and that’s a big goal of the Greffs. They say they pay their non-tipped positions more than comparable businesses in town, but Rene quickly adds, “Pay isn’t the motivator people assume. Work-life balance is something we’re committed to.” For example, no salaried employee at ABC works more than 45 hours a week, and whenever possible they always get two days off in a row.

Malley Cahoon, who’s worked at ABC for two years and is currently the afternoon floor manager, says she loves the Greffs’ style. “My parents own a restaurant,” she said. “It has a family feel. We all get along here like a family. Everybody is good to each other here. Everyone is friends as well as co-workers.”

As for that communication training, Cahoon says, “We all follow it. It’s not forced, it’s understood, engrained.” She said she occasionally takes management tips she picks up at ABC back to her parents, to see if they can use it in their restaurant.

Word’s getting out about the Greffs’ successful style. Rene was invited to give a seminar at the Craft Brewers Conference in Denver in April. Her speech was entitled, “Zen and the Art of Brewpub Management.”

And now they’ve gone global. A former U-M grad student and former ABC regular took the Greff’s brewpub model back to his native India last year, and “It’s going amazingly well,” Rene says proudly. “It’s one of the top five spots in Bangalore.”

Predictably, the Greffs have high goals for their international offering. Rene says they hope to break India’s gender and caste barriers in their brewpub and reduce the staff’s work week from 60 hours to 50. They’ve already instituted American-style service, with a focus on personality, “and that’s one of the reasons the place is so popular.”

At this point, the Greffs are spending about two months a year in India and looking for an additional location.

But they’ll never get too far from their Ann Arbor roots. “We feel like we’re so fortunate to be part of this remarkable business climate,” Rene says.

She and Matt remember being a tad intimidated when first opening their brewpub in town. “It’s a very discerning clientele here,” Rene says. “It attracted us, and scared us. They know what they want.

“It worked out that that’s what we wanted to do, as business owners. Ann Arbor makes it easy for us to do what we do.”

Kyle Poplin

Kyle Poplin is co-founder and editor of The Ann magazine.

1 Comment

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    Amy Laukhuf-fitch

    June 30, 2016 at 4:42 pm


    If it’s ok with you I’m sharing parts is this article with my students because communication is a concept I teach and so necessary in life, and leaving how to communicate effectively is so vital for success.

    We need to drive up and see you this summer.

    Amy and Gary