Everyone knows Pagosa Springs for its hot springs - aka the deepest hot springs in the world. Not everyone knows however, that these hot springs also power some of the best beer around: Riff Raff Brewing Company. Riff Raff is one of only two direct thermal brewing companies in the world, and its beer is powered by the warmth of the hot springs. Colorado has over 400 brewing companies – which is the fourth most breweries per capita in the US. Some may claim it is a tough and crowded market to enter, but Riff Raff Brewing Company has shown that by focusing on local, passion and great beer there is room for success.
Six years ago, Jason & Shelly Cox started Riff Raff alongside another couple, with the concept and vision to produce high quality beer using geo-thermal brewing. Jason was already a serial entrepreneur running a tech business, and brewed beer as a hobby. Shelly was contemplating her own entrepreneurial idea of starting a children’s show store. Together, Jason & Shelly were able to combine their entrepreneurial spirits with their passion for brewing into a successful business. Despite initial skepticism that Pagosa Springs couldn’t support a second brew pub – Riff Raff has proved this wrong, going from strength to strength and recently opening its second location in Pagosa Springs – Riff Raff on the Rio. In peak seasons, Riff Raff employees 80 plus staff and continues to expand its line of original beers and flavors.
Sitting in the Riff Raff brewery, you would never know Jason and Shelly are not only business partners, but also partners in life. Starting a business with your significant other can be extremely challenging but is a common story for entrepreneurs especially in rural America. When asked about the the secret behind a successful partnership, both professionally and personally, Shelly advises: “Keep your private life separate. Don’t let the personal interfere with business and vis versa. We each have our set of roles – Jason is the public face and deals with investment, while I run operations and HR. Keeping roles very separate is essential!”Jason’s perspective echoes Shelly’s, “Shelly makes the thing go! Create boundaries between work and personal – having respect for each other as professionals and people.”
Jason and Shelly both still work 3-4 shifts a week behind the bar and on the floors. This is one of the many reasons they are so well-known and beloved by the Pagosa community, but it also keeps them grounded in their work; they both understand the importance of checking in with frontline staff and continually evaluating what’s working. Like many other rural businesses, staffing has been one of the biggest challenges they’ve had to overcome. Finding people who fit with their vision, and have the same passion for the company has been difficult, but they pride themselves on using local talent and never recruiting outside Pagosa for positions. Despite using specialized brewing systems, Jason and Shelly choose to work with local tradespeople and educate them rather than bringing in outside workers already trained in these systems. An additional challenge has been balancing the number of employees needed – with a business that relies on the tourism seasons in Pagosa Springs, revenue can go up 4X in peak seasons but slow significantly in off seasons. Planning for staffing and ordering can be especially difficult.
Funding was also a challenge for Jason and Shelly. Despite being a serial entrepreneur, Jason had never taken out a loan to start a business before. “First Southwest Community Fund’s programs fit right into our mission” explained Jason. “Our expansion created jobs, and this is how the loan programs worked. The program matched mission, which meant we didn’t change anything that we were doing. It fit right in and was affordable debt.” With a combination of loans from First Southwest Community Fund and First Southwest Bank, along with equity investments, Jason and Shelly were able to purchase Riff Raff’s first location, and expand to the second location.
With two thriving locations, a delicious beer menu (and food menu), and new brewing operating system, how did they get here and what is next for Jason and Shelly? “We want to continue our growth in terms of education, earth-friendly business, and training people on beer and understanding flavor profiles” said Shelly. “We were lucky to know who to contact and what the resources were to get Riff Raff started. I took the Small Business Development Center Leading Edge class where I learnt to write a business plan and do financial worksheets. This is what we used to start Riff Raff, and get our loans and investment.”
Check out Riff Raff Brewing Company at either of their locations in Pagosa Springs!