It’s not hard to see the appeal of entrepreneurship. As much a lifestyle as career choice, pursuing an original idea offers potential profit, a shot at recognition and autonomy not provided by traditional employment. But entrepreneurship is also super risky—that’s why most people don’t quit their jobs to drive taco trucks and launch tech startups. Fortune once claimed that nine out of 10 startups are doomed to fail, so it takes a special kind of person to cash out, dive into debt and go for their dreams.
Higher Gravity Crafthaus’ Jason Parnes (‘08) and Nick Belleman (‘10) really shouldn’t be those kind of people. In fact, with accounting backgrounds in risk assessment, the reality that they both walked away from successful careers at Big Four accounting firm Ernst & Young to open a retail venture in Northside seems pretty improbable. Whatever could have prompted the jump?
The answer is beer. At the root of so many actionable ideas over the years, it’s also the source of inspiration for Parnes and Bellman’s craft beer bar and bottle shop concept. And though, statistically, most suds-inspired deeds fall into the “bad idea” category, the two intrepid entrepreneurs are confident they’ve got something good brewing at Higher Gravity.
Which isn’t to say they’re blind to the risk.
“It’s definitely scary leaving one of the largest accounting firms, where we had a steady paycheck and a path to consistent promotions,” says Parnes. “And being an accountant and a risk advisor, I have that constant mindset where I’m always worried and looking out”
To be fair, the pair’s professional backgrounds give the business a much better shot at that 10 percent success than most. “I understand what the risks are and have a lot of experience working with supply chains and vendors,” says Parnes. “Then our backgrounds in finance and accounting have helped us understand the numbers and do that end work without needing to go to an expert.”
Plus, the owners possess a passion for their product that goes far beyond casual, six-pack-on-the-weekend interest. Initially disposed toward harder libations, Parnes credits his undergraduate friends at Northern Kentucky University, where he majored in accounting (Belleman earned his Master of Accountancy from NKU), for moving him toward cans of suds. Appreciation of craft beer came later for both him and Belleman, when, traveling extensively for work, they were exposed to beers from different areas and developed sophisticated palettes, sparking deep interest in the fashion behind the flavors.
“It was just such a cool, unique experience to do at a pretty young age,” says Belleman, whose travel was largely international. “Looking back now, it was kind of wild that I was doing that. I got to experience some different food cultures and try new things, which I really enjoyed.”
“I was traveling all over the country, and it seemed like every city I went to there were 10 more cool breweries that I’d never heard of, or I’d heard of and wanted to check out,” says Parnes. “That’s where it started.”
But while travel introduced them to regional brews, being away from home so often eventually took a toll.
“Traveling every week is unique and cool, but it’s also tiresome and you don’t have a life,” says Belleman. “You pop in and out of people’s lives every few weeks. I had friends who were like, ‘I didn’t know you still lived here,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I do. Just haven’t been around.’”
“I spent two years in Chicago—that’s where we got to be really close, when we were working on the same project—and I started dating my girlfriend,” says Parnes. “One of the years I was up there, I spent 350 nights in a hotel and didn’t get back to see her very often.”
When Parnes and his girlfriend had their now-3-year-old son, he realized he needed a line of work that could keep him in town. Knowing his friend was also feeling drained by the demands of the job, he approached Belleman with a pitch to strike out on their own.
“For a while I was just sending him ideas,” says Parnes. “I knew he was burnt out, and I was ready to do something for ourselves. With our love for craft beer, this was one of the ideas that we’d talked about. Finally, we were just like, let’s go, let’s try this out. We started building a business plan—it took us 18 months from the day we started writing the business plan to the day that we opened.”
The end result is last year's launch of a Northside bar and bottle shop (4106 Hamilton Ave., Cincinnati) stocked with 500 craft beers, 14 on tap, and more than 100 wines designed with accessibility in mind. iPads are available with a sortable and searchable inventory list paired with Untappd beer reviews, and a mobile-friendly site makes browsing a breeze. And Higher Gravity’s staff has been trained to be uncommonly approachable—important for an industry with a daunting reputation.
“I look back at our product wall here and, if you’re not super into beer, it can be extremely overwhelming,” says Parnes. “So our bartenders are trained to not be judgmental, to not push anyone toward a product but to kind of soft sell and have people experience something that’s similar but different.”
“It’s funny, now everyone has a certain style,” adds Belleman, “and you can just talk to them for two minutes and be like, alright, this is what you normally drink. I have six or seven beers that I already know I can give to you and you’re going to probably like. That’s actually one of my favorite games.”
The duo’s outreach extends beyond well-informed bartending, too, with a YouTube channel that explores beers for viewers all over the world. Additionally, Parnes is a brewer in his own right, and Higher Gravity has partnered with other breweries on collaborations and “gypsy brews” (produced in third-party facilities). And the pair have consistently engaged their alma mater since leaving NKU—while at Ernst & Young, Parnes recruited at the university and spoke to accounting classrooms, and now he and Belleman are back on campus with their new venture.
“Neither of us is a marketing or branding expert by any means,” he says, “so we’ve actually gone into one of the management classes that sends students out to complete projects small business owners need help with. I presented to that class about having them help us build out a plan to increase our daytime traffic. As much as this project can help us, it can also give back to some of those students.”
Parnes mentions that they’re working on ideas to create a “third space” perception, where people can bring in laptops and connect in their cool, comfortable digs. Or just hang out and drink beer.
“We try to make sure every customer gets a full experience,” says Parnes, “whatever that experience might need to be.”