Brandon Felce remembers when his best friend Tyler Koxlien became his business partner. It was when they were selling comic books as kids, just earning some extra cash.
Since then, it’s been a fruitful partnership and friendship.
“A lot of people will say don’t partner in business with your best friend, but it’s really where all my business started,” Felce said.
The duo has now moved past the superheroes and are instead focusing on marketing craft breweries, wineries and distilleries in the Chippewa Valley with the creation of their own tourism service, Eau Claire Brew Hop. The business, under their marketing firm, Entelechy Marketing and Media, offers patrons the opportunity to tour and drink from multiple local alcohol establishments in one day via a bus tour, creating a safe option for enjoying local concoctions.
The idea began humbly over a glass of local beer and a simple discussion with visiting friends. The area had plenty to offer as far as craft, local alcohol options, but how do tourists safely visit more than one a day? And how did they know where to go?
Felce had an idea of how to fill these gaps, and the hop was born. He pitched the idea of a bus service to Koxlien, and the duo got started right away on refining their business.
The pair brought on another high school friend, Vince Susa, whose father who has been brewing his own beer for the past 10 years. Susa has served as the craft alcohol expert of the team, providing feedback and advice to the business partners.
Their service began in early 2017, and the group started giving tours nearly a month ago.
Felce said their tour is designed to safely and efficiently transport tourists to the different locations, while also providing them with a background and history on the location. For public or private parties, customers board the bus to tour several breweries, wineries or distilleries within the Chippewa Valley.
Those who reserve the bus for private events, such as bachelor and bachelorette parties or birthdays, get to choose their locations from a pre-determined list of the service’s partners, while public tour riders have to trust the expertise of Felce and Koxlien, as the tour drives them around a pre-set tour of breweries, wineries or distilleries.
A ticket onto the bus takes care of the local tasting essentials: a tasting or flight at each stop and water and snacks aboard the bus. Guests are allowed to bring on their own snacks and beverages, but with the complimentary food and water on the bus, the worry of having to is erased, Felce said.
“We really take all the hard part out of it when you buy the ticket for the bus,” Felce said.
The tour also includes a commemorative glass from Eau Claire Brew Hop, serving as a reminder of their trip around the valley’s wineries, breweries or distilleries.
Felce said they try to design each trip based on what each party seems to be interested in. They have had groups who are more of a party, while others are more interested in the craft, background and tasting. Each ride is essentially a little different than the next.
Since starting, the group has provided trips for various parties and even recently hosted a group of tourists from Arizona, Felce said. He said he believes tourists and locals are more likely to visit multiple places in the area because they do not have the hassle of navigating and driving through the area.
“It’s an attraction,” Felce said. “It can help bring people in.”
Jackie Boos, tourism director with the Chippewa Valley Area Chamber of Commerce, said the success of local breweries, distilleries and wineries has been fruitful for the local economy.
Boos said current legislation musings that could prohibit these local establishments from selling their own brew on-site has been worrisome for these establishments, especially given their growing popularity.
“It’s a huge economic impact for us to have these types attractions,” Boos said.
In particular, Boos said younger visitors are interested in the brewery, winery or distillery entertainment, and there are plenty of options available in tourism guides.
As for Eau Claire Brew Hop’s role in servicing local tourism, Felce said their rides also provide marketing for the local breweries, wineries and distilleries by getting the word out about their products to the different groups.
As an added bonus, Felce said he believes his business can make sure those tourists can visit these destinations safely and avoid possible drinking and driving in the pursuit of the next great local brew.
“We’re keeping people safe on the road ... putting them all together like that,” Felce said.
As the group gets more involved and known in the area, Felce said the business will continue to grow. They have recently started to add more partners to their list of available tour spots, such as Sand Creek Brewing Company in Black River Falls, and their wine tours are a recent addition.
“The real goal is to become one of the top attractions in Eau Claire,” Felce said. “The whole area is becoming something special.”
And after a month in, it’s safe to say his friendship with Koxlien is still intact and always ready for their next business endeavor—even if it that takes them to selling comic books again.