Campeau is the founder of Brew Donkey, the delivery service turned tour operator that’s helped Ottawans get their craft brew fix for the last 3 years. I caught up with Campeau a few blocks from his new(ish) storefront in Hintonburg to discuss the evolution of his business and how he learned from past mistakes.
Up until 2012 Campeau could be found inside his food truck – B. Goods Bakery – slinging cookies and other pastries at festivals around the city. It was a hectic job, highly dependent on weather and hard on his body. He calls B. Goods his “practice business”, one that allowed him to make mistakes.
After a number of years, he called it quits and traveled to the West Coast. Seeing how easy it was to get craft beer in Vancouver and Victoria – where local, independent beer stores abound and breweries are easy to reach – gave him an idea for his hometown. At that time in Ottawa, if you didn’t have a car, you couldn’t get a growler.
“That initial brainstorm, 3 years ago, was the most brilliant I idea I had in 4-5 years: helping people get local craft beer to their house.”
He created what he hoped would be an amazing delivery service, adding an occasional tour so that customers would be able to discover new beers to order.
The first tour included eight freeloading friends and two paid customers. The second tour grew to four paid customers and six giveaways. After the fourth or fifth one, the tours began selling out. People loved them and so did the local breweries. The decision to do weekly tours meant Campeau had to be much more organized. He began curating them by geography: east, west, way west, way east, etc. Then the business of it really set it. At that point, he realized that the tours were not just an extension of the delivery service but a business line onto themselves.
Several organizations began to take notice, for the better and the worse. Ottawa Tourism nominated them for best new business, only a year and a half into Brew Donkey’s life. A bit later, the Travel Industry Council of Ontario (TICO) notified him that they believed that Brew Donkey was running a travel service and was not in compliance of relevant laws. Although TICO was mistaken, the incident caused Campeau a lot of stress.
“Without folks supporting us through that time, I may have just given up or stopped. The support was both financial and emotional.” The business is now back to normal and Campeau is more focused than ever.
“Our hope and intent has always been that each brewery develops a relationship with the group – a witty rapport, something they can’t get anywhere else, sample folks through the beer.” Some breweries have better stories than others, others have better beers, but that’s all part of the fun and allows for comparison from one place to the other.
Campeau clearly values the partnership he’s established with local breweries.
“Breweries are always expected to prop up other businesses. You open a bar and you expect breweries to pay you to have one of their taps. Breweries are always approached to give free stuff. I didn’t want to do that.”
Brew Donkey pays all the breweries it visits to ensure that even if a brewery doesn’t sell beer or swag on a tour visit that it’s still worth their while.
Some big plans Campeau shared for the upcoming year is expanding to other cities. Brew Donkey has already been up and running in Kitchener-Waterloo for a few months and the hope, if all goes well, is to expand to other cities in Ontario. Toronto is an obvious target but Campeau is cautious. Kitchener-Waterloo is a city where the risk of failing is way lower than Toronto. “I wanted to figure out how to run the business at a distance first, see what works and what doesn’t before going in Toronto, which could be a boon if I go at the right way.”
For the last few months Brew Donkey has been collocated at Makerhouse, an artisan furniture store on Wellington Street in Hintonburg. It’s given Campeau the opportunity to have a storefront, something he’d wanted for a long time and allows him to host events, like their recent Head of the Glass educational series. If you’re ever in the hood, Campeau will always be up for a chat.