By Patty Mamula
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Sometimes a great business idea hangs heavy in the air, just waiting for the right person to pluck it down and run with it. That’s what happened with Portland’s BREWVANA tour company and Ashley Rose Salvitti, a high-energy ambassador for Oregon’s craft beers.
The young entrepreneur started BREWVANA, an obvious nod to Beervana, six years ago with one bus and one employee. In April, Salvitti and friends celebrated the touring company’s anniversary at Breakside Brewery’s new Northwest Portland location.
Ashley, who added Rose to her first name because she liked it, established her LLC in November 2010. “My first tour was on April 8, 2011,” she said.
Today BREWVANA has grown to include public and private tours, bus and walking, with three small buses and one large one, for a total of nine weekly tours that include 26 breweries. And the excursions go beyond just bar hopping. For example, the “Behind the Scenes” tour provides a tutorial on the brewing process with stops at Breakside and Unicorn Brewing Company/Portland U-Brew. “Beers and Barrels” highlights breweries and a distillery where barrel aging takes place. There are now even walking tours where guides talk about neighborhoods and their histories in between brewery visits.
The seeds for Salvitti’s beer-related business took root in college when she started working at Liberty Steakhouse and Brewery in High Point, N. C. She was attending the nearby University of North Carolina at Greensboro and her dad, who was a mug club member at Liberty, suggested she should get a job there. Once she hit 21, she got behind the bar to serve.
Salvitti moved to Portland in 2007 after graduation. “I wanted to go where young people go to retire,” she said. Naturally, she gravitated to beer and her first job was at Laurelwood Brewing Co. Then she moved to Hopworks Urban Brewery when the brewpub opened in 2008. “Christian had a huge following then,” she said.
Salvitti’s sunny personality quickly made her a favorite with guests and those interactions helped her quickly fall in love with Portland’s craft beer industry. “I found that in Portland you would greet a table and people clearly wanted to drink beer and they were very knowledgeable about it,” she said.
The brew tour idea came together after a trip to Puerto Rico with her family. “We wasted a lot of money trying to find fun things to do. On our last night, we met a server at a bar who said she did tours on the side. She could have shown us all the places to go and things to do,” she said.
Salvitti had also encountered a few other local tours that didn’t seem to have a strong connection to the breweries.
“I thought I could do it better. I was optimistic and ready to take a risk with no husband, no kids, no big responsibilities,” she said.
Salvitti wrote up a business plan and took the Business Foundations course through Mercy Corps Northwest and participated in the nonprofit’s matching savings plan. Her initial investment was $20,000 — a $16,000 loan from her father and a $4,000 loan from her best friend’s parents. “That was enough to buy a buy a bus and get my website done,” she said. “I didn’t quit my day job.”
After her first tour, she was on an amazing high after experiencing the success of her idea. But she also worked very hard in the beginning since she was the one and only employee. After seven months, she hired her first tour guide, but continued to work full-time at Hopworks for two more years.
“BREWVANA was created to provide an all-inclusive VIP access fun and educational touring experience,” she said. “We’re working with the breweries. BREWVANA is nothing without the relationship we have with the breweries. It’s our mission to support them,” she said. Because of her background as a server, she is also very focused on the guest experience. You can’t board a BREWVANA bus without smiling—the vehicles are covered in beer-centric graphics both inside and out that beckon passengers to “come join the fun.”
Brewvana has three short 14-passenger buses for the public tours, named Angel, Georgie and Lil’ Johnny, and one standard large school bus, named Pam, that seats up to 44. That vehicle is also used to shuttle people to and from out-of-town festivals like Fort George Brewery’s Festival of the Dark Arts in Astoria.
Salvitti said they got “Pam” because they spent $14,000 during the last couple years to rent buses that arrived dirty, smelly and in unacceptable condition for hosting guests. She wanted a bus that represented the BREWVANA ethic. The buses are one of the company’s biggest challenges because of the constant maintenance needs and the fact that they are all used vehicles with some pre-existing conditions.
While the buses get much of the attention, the heart of the tours are the guides. Salvitti still hosts some tours, but she recently hired four guides. Her challenge with guides is finding the right people and making their jobs sustainable throughout the year. Guides must be multitasking masters, so the training process is lengthy and complex. In addition to studying the training manual, guides learn about local history, undergo bus driving training, and then shadow existing tours before assisting and practicing with an experienced guide.
On a recent “Pacific Northwest is Best Tour” that visits Baerlic Brewing Company, Hopworks, Migration Brewing and Scout Beer, 13 of us were entertained by guides Liz Shihadeh and Kelene Stinson. The easy-going duo had an engaging routine that went from the ridiculous (they gave us the no-vomiting-on-the-bus talk) to the educational when we tasted different malts and passed around samples of hops. In the space of four hours, we became friends — sharing pretzels from our pretzel necklaces and stories about our lives.
Business continues to grow and Salvitti said that demand for private tours is stronger than ever. She also has more responsibility now that there are 10 employees, a fleet of vehicles, a husband, a daughter, a house and a dog.
“We’re proud that we have many repeat customers. On one recent tour with 14 people, six had been on a tour before, and several had been on more than one.” Repeat customers can join the Brew Veteran program.
Salvitti was recently featured on “Start Up,” a series that tells the stories of entrepreneurs. You can watch her segment at pbs.org/video/2365903935/. For tour information, check out brewvana.com.
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.