Small Business

From hops to hospitality: How a Montana family opened a craft beer tap room in their hometown

May 23, 2024 | By Rachel King

Back in 2021, Dan Morano and his wife, Janet, decided to leave their hectic life behind in Washington State and return to his hometown of Great Falls, a small city of about 60,000 in central Montana that straddles the Missouri River. As they settled in and relished reconnecting with family, Dan could not help noticing something was missing: The town had few craft beer options.

Morano is no casual artisanal beer drinker. As someone who ran an agricultural business that sold inputs and trellis systems to wine, orchard and hop growers, he possesses both a deep appreciation for what goes into a good pint, as well as the knowledge and connections to get that beer to market.

So he decided to fill that void by opening Annie's Tap House, named in homage to Morano’s great-grandmother Annie, who was one of the first female homesteaders in this part of Montana.

The initial plan for Morano and his two business partners, his brother Steve Morano, and brother-in-law, Kevin Younkin, was to open a tap room and brewery, but the realities of COVID-19 and Montana's strict licensing laws — a significant obstacle due to historical quotas and high costs — forced them to scale back brewery plans and focus on the tap room. They purchased their license by securing a line of credit from the local bank, seeking seller financing and, like the vast majority of entrepreneurs, tapping into personal savings for necessities like a new fireplace.

“Money is expensive right now for capital expenditures,” Morano explains. “There are times when we've had to look at things a little differently and budget months ahead for expenditures.”

While they had to forego their original plan of primarily selling their own beer, they rotate a curated selection of craft beers on tap made by other breweries, with a few of their own brews available. And they subleased their space to a coffee shop, charcuterie, and event space to diversify their revenue stream. The result was that when Annie’s Tap House opened in 2022, experienced and curious beer drinkers entered into a welcoming environment.

Technology also proved to be a reliable partner. Accepting digital payments was a priority —  “We don't want a lot of cash just laying around,” Morano explains. “It's a temptation” — and the tap house’s contactless-enabled point-of-sale system can do everything from starting and closing a tab to crunching sales data.

“In today's world to compete, you must have that data to support what you put on tap, what sells well, and who is your audience, all those things,” he says. “So the more data you can get, the better you're able to say, ‘Are we catering to our core target audience?’”

The partners can even use the system to fine-tune expenses. For example, the system can measure beer pours, ensuring consistency and minimizing waste.

“We just want to get to a point where the challenge is no longer capital. It's just making sure that we're continuing to grow our audience, have a great product, and offer great service.”
Dan Morano

Despite the initial challenges, Morano is optimistic about Annie’s Tap House’s future, and he especially takes pride in their staff, pointing to the low turnover rate among the tap house’ staff.

“We just want to get to a point where the challenge is no longer capital,” he says. “It's just making sure that we're continuing to grow our audience, have a great product, and offer great service.”

Looking forward, Morano envisions implementing a loyalty program and potentially expanding their digital marketing efforts.

“In today’s local marketplace, you don't have to be exceptionally better than everybody or all the other bars in town,” Morano says. “We've always said, ‘We're not trying to put other bars out of business. We're trying to be Annie’s Tap House, and the most important thing is that our audience understands who we are and that what makes us different is our passion for craft beer. And data helps support that.”

Video and banner photo credit: Arsalan Danish

Rachel King, contributor