As I sit across the table from Jim Watkins at a coffee shop a few blocks from his taproom, I get the eerie feeling that I’ve met this man before. That his life is one lived a few years ahead of mine. That in the next decade I might be a passionate biker, lover of my community and focused on the present while nurturing the future.
Jim is the co-owner and founder of Sociable Cider Werks in Northeast Minneapolis and a joy to talk to. He’s conversational, relaxed and innocuous in his beliefs towards what the cider industry has seen over the last 10 years and how he is a small contributor to it. In other words, Jim is sociable.
Being sociable is something far more than a business name to Jim. A dedication to what it feels like to be communal in all things is something I’m picking up on as he twirls his wedding ring on his finger with his right hand and explains how he always breaks the spokes on his bikes.
The business itself is an expertly crafted odyssey that started as a friendship, initiated a hobby that opened the doorway into a sustainable business and incorporated an undeniable culture on which to share it with people.
Jim and Wade Thompson (Sociable’s other co-owner) have been friends for years. Before Sociable was ever a thought, they both lived together in Hell’s Kitchen, New York where they got on as investment bankers. As people often do after a long work day in the city, they found themselves in a pub discussing what it would be like to start a business.
It was the first conversation of many and before long Wade had moved out of the city and back to Minneapolis.
Jim went on to Miami for a couple years after leaving New York in a Teach For America stint but found himself back in Minneapolis as well after his wife decided to start medical school in the cities.
As fate would have it, Jim and his wife were no more than two blocks away from Wade and his family. Jim pulls out his phone and leans his elbow on the coffee shop table to emphasize. He tells me about arriving back in the city and Wade sent him a location pin to his house, “which was right on top of the pin for where I was,” Jim says smiling.
And the second domino fell.
With proximity like this, Jim and Wade could be with each other as often as they liked and quickly took on a hobby of homebrewing beer in Wade’s garage. Weeknights and weekends were filled with chats about times in New York, how they liked Minneapolis, how their bikes were working and again, about possibly being business partners.
Within a few months and a couple of successful homebrew batches later, Jim and Wade got some tips from Wade’s father-in-law on making cider. So they gave it a shot. “We would drink some cider from Wade’s father-in-law and we thought to ourselves, like... this stuff is really good.” Continuing with homebrewing beer, Jim and Wade got started on making their own cider and were soon reaping the rewards of a crisp and dry finished product. “We were homebrewing a lot but what we went back to was the cider.”
Jim and Wade had their business idea. Why not hang up the tie and make brewing this stuff a full-time thing?
Financial planning began to make their version of the American Dream into a reality. With their previous history in investment banking, Jim and Wade knew not to rush into a business with a single plan. They drafted up upwards of 60 business plans Jim tells me, and all the while making numerous batches of cider in the garage.
During this time, Jim and Wade had a lot of friends getting married and offered to bring a five gallon keg of their finished product to the receptions. After previously telling Jim we, ourselves like to homebrew, he mentioned, “You know how all of your friends say ‘You should have your own brewery!’ and you can’t really take that to heart?” As I nod he explains that certainly happened, but at these weddings, complete strangers were asking about who made the cider and after being directed towards Jim and Wade, were telling them how much they loved it. “[Our keg] was always the first thing to go,” he explains with a wry smile.
A few more weddings, a few more empty kegs, some more business plans and whole lot of batches later, Jim and Wade had a choice to make. Both of them contemplating returning back to school or starting to business together.
“We ran the numbers and saw it was the same amount of money to do either, so we said ‘Let’s start a business.’”
The plan was in place but the identity of the business still needed deciding. So, as Jim and Wade often did, they went for a bike ride.
Now in the coffee shop, Jim takes a bite of a croissant, puts it back on the plate and leans back in his chair. “Now I’m a big guy,” he explains. And he is. Over six feet with a medium build, he lifts up his backwards hat to rub his scalp and places his hat back on again. “When I’m on my bike, I always break spokes,” he says. So out they are on a bike ride when the inevitable happened. With a broken spoke beyond repair, the bike ride was over. Jim walked back with his bike over his shoulder while Wade walked his bike alongside him.
It was this moment when Jim turned to Wade and thought about what about “broken spoke” as an idea for a name of a product? And soon the wheels were literally and figuratively turning on creating an entire model around a business that featured something they truly loved–biking.
But it wasn’t enough.
Sure bikes could be involved but it had to be more than just a theme, it had to be a culture around cider and the people who drink it. With a little research, Jim and Wade both settled on Sociable after finding a bike with that namesake–a two seater bike that has two wheels, two sets of handlebars, two seats and two sets of pedals.
Their passion for cycling and community melded together into a perfect hallmark. The bike and it’s name was exactly what they were looking for and plans were put in place to find a home for it.
Nordeast seemed like the place to be. Now over two years later, the hard cider that is “Decidedly Different and Delightfully Sociable” is still in its original location at 1500 Fillmore.
A few things about the place that you quickly understand is that it’s intimate. Every part of the layout has intentions of bringing people together and not just friends and family but strangers as well.
Jim tells me about the big tall top tables, as he spins his ring again and the purpose of them being decidedly larger than necessary. “A group of three can’t take up a whole table,” he says, “so it’s almost guaranteed that multiple groups will be on one table creating the sociable interaction we’re looking for.”
“Sociable is about being sociable,” he goes on. “We don’t have a line for drinks for a reason. It’s not sociable. Everyone is there tapping their foot because the person in front of them is taking so long. Whereas, you go to a bar, y’know, if you’re an anthropologist in a million years and you’re looking back on human beings interact with one another a thousand years ago, you’d sample the local watering hole. Now you can check out how people interact in a bar space. That’s what Sociable is about. We want people to belly up to the bar and interact with the person next to them.”
Lines are the worst in Jim’s eyes. The bane of his existence. Amongst those in the brewing industry with tap rooms, they advised he put in a beer line and Jim explained to them the same thing he did to me, it’s not interactive, it’s not fun and it definitely isn’t Sociable.
We could have a line to get people out the door but I love bellying up to the bar and that’s what I wanted for the taproom.
Now after a few years into the process, Jim, with his mind ever on the customer who visits the taproom, is also thinking of the future, what creating cider the old fashioned way with real apples and no artificial sugars is all about. To combat the lack of bitter apples (known as spitters), Jim and Wade resulted in adding hops and grains to their ciders to add body and the just right amount of dryness.
“Our goal now is to really help grow a category. Angry Orchard started the cider business but it’s not what we do. It’s very different. The cider category is robust and it’s growing fast. We have a responsibility in the Minneapolis market to make sure the category doesn’t go backwards. To educate people on fresh pressed versus juice concentrate” and so on.
Jim explains there is nothing wrong with the Angry Orchards and Strongbows of the world but “It’s not what we do.” he reiterates.
Reassured in the future of the cider industry, Jim hammers the point home once more. “I think a lot of the problem in the space is you see a lot of institutional money getting involved. None of those private equity people are long term investors. All they care about is profitability and a buyout or IPO or something. They aren’t invested in the product. You see decisions that are being made not for the health of the industry but for short term gains.”
It’s not an image Sociable Cider Werks has ever cared to own. The implicit understanding one gathers just from hearing Jim talk is that there is nothing special, communal or worth talking about if it isn’t with the consumer in mind first. Whether it’s the ingredients in the cider, to how they interact in the taproom to how the product is packaged and marketed, the only interest is in building a better knowledge and understanding of what cider can be and can mean to those who drink it.
Now both finishing our drinks, Jim gets a text message. It’s Wade. “We need more tap handles tonight,” Jim says and we shake hands and part ways. As we head in opposite directions, I see Jim grab his bike, pop his foot on one pedal and expertly straddle the seat all in one motion towards the taproom. It’s a perfect illustration of where Jim, Wade and Sociable Cider Werks is headed...forward.