The path between the entrepreneurial spark and finding that first great business opportunity was long and winding for Oakwell Beer Spa owners Jessica French and Damien Zouaoui. In fact, it was 14 months long and 25 countries winding. After trying out experiences across the globe, they settled on their business concept—a beer spa—and have been brewing plans to expand the business since day one. Yelp user Jessica K. shares her experience at the business and what made it so review worthy.
On the Yelp Blog: Discover Oakwell Beer Spa’s 5 steps to building customer confidence that any business can use.
EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. Behind the Review features conversations with business owners and customers who wrote one of their Yelp reviews. In our discussions, we talk about lessons they’ve learned that can be used by other businesses to improve their own reviews…and their bottom line.
This week, I’m talking to the owners of a Colorado-based day spa that takes a unique approach to health and well-being. Jessica and Damien own Oakwell Beer Spa—you heard that right. It’s a beer spa. Not only do they have a wall of beer on tap, they invite guests to relax and unwind in a tub of beer.
It might sound unusual, but beer spas have been around for centuries. The first official record of a beer bath dates back to 921 and Bavarian King Wenceslas, who knew that a good soak in not quite fermented beer leads to smoother skin, reduces muscle soreness, and increases circulation. The hops in beer are rich in antioxidants and have an anti-inflammatory effect, and the yeast is rich in B vitamins that moisturize skin.
From their first meeting, Jessica and Damien knew they wanted to be partners in business as well as life.
JESSICA: Damien and I met when we were living in New York city. So we both were working corporate jobs. We met and fell in love. We got married. And we always knew we wanted to open a business together. So we’re both very entrepreneurial. Although we have very different areas in the corporate world that we were working.
I specialize more in HR and operations. Damien is our sales and marketing guru. And so we would always brainstorm business ideas after work. We’d have a glass of wine or a pint of beer, and just talk about interesting concepts that we could come up with. And we knew pretty quickly that we didn’t want to do something that’s been done before.
We didn’t want to do a coffee shop or a restaurant. We wanted to do something that was unique and different. And we knew that there was a lot of interesting concepts that exist out in the world that maybe just haven’t been brought to the United States yet. So right after getting married, we decided, if we’re ever going to do something bold and crazy, now’s the time.
So we both quit our jobs. We sold everything we owned, packed all of our belongings into two backpacks and hit the road on an indefinite round the world tour looking for interesting and unique business ideas. So we were just buying one way tickets. We ended up going to 25 countries over the span of 14 months and just trying all of the quirky, unique business ideas that we could find.
Japan had a lot of them. We went to a hedgehog cafe. You might’ve heard of cat cafes, but they have hedgehog cafes. We went Mario Kart racing in the streets of Tokyo in a full on Yoshi costume. We did RV sharing apps. So like Airbnbs, but for RVs and camper vans in England and Scotland. We did cooking classes. But really, we stumbled upon the idea of a beer spa about halfway into our trip when we were in the mountain town of Zakopane, Poland. So it’s in the Polish Alps. It was, I think in June. It was a very rainy day and we were looking for an indoor activity to do. And a beer spa popped up! Naturally that piqued our interest.
I mean, beers and spas sound like a pretty great combination. And thankfully they had an appointment right then and there. So we were able to go in and enjoy the experience.
DAMIEN: It was actually one of the most relaxing experience I ever had.
But the setting was actually very rustic and very different than what you would imagine today – what we’re doing. It’s a very small room with a tiny little tub. You jump into the tub. You’ve got a all you can drink tap next to you. It’s a bit more party oriented, but needless to say, that was one of the most relaxing experiences we ever had.
We had maybe a sip or two of beer and I actually fell asleep. Thanks to the hops and barley and all of those ingredients that really helps you to relax. There’s a bed of hay as well, on the other side of the room. And then there is a shower to rinse up afterwards.
And while I was falling asleep, you actually just were just going on and on and on, and how to be able to implement that into the US market. Because on the business side, Europe and the US are just so different. And you must always… tweak and adapt everything when you bring something back. And beer spas are very popular in Europe, as well as wine spas, actually. Originally from France and Spain, and there’s a lot of wine spas.
We leverage either way, hops, barley, or wine leaf to create wellness therapies into a vessel full of water and different ingredients. And then we went on our way to Asia, such as Japan, South Korea, the Hansons in Japan, the gingerbread man in South Korea.
And we actually pretty quickly realized that, wait a minute. Okay, so the definition of wellness outside of the U.S. is actually a place, a common place, where people from different walks of life are coming to have a relaxing experience and a good time together, and sometimes separately.
You go to Japan, you have a whole family on a Saturday morning working at 8am until 12pm to have a full session of soda bath, things that in the US, we’re so far away from. It’s very hot, you must be ready to sweat the whole, your whole body, and then you finish with a really Cold Asahi and a bowl of noodles.
So we realize very quickly, wait a minute, this is what is the definition of wellness outside the US. Same in France. Same in England. This is not just going to the gym every day and lifting and doing crossfit. I’m taking a shortcut, but that’s what we realized.
And in America, we realized as well that it is very transactional, and the spa industry is really focused on a specific audience. You need to be healthy. You need to be wealthy. You need to have some sort of budget to be able to go to those places. Unless you go to other competitors where you need to buy a membership and then it’s cheaper, but it might not be as relaxing for the person because she’s not going to relax and buy the works. She just wants a message.
So anyway, we took everything into consideration. And we’ve made a promise to ourselves that – all right, let’s make sure that we create an inclusive space where everyone is welcome. Let’s break the stigma that the day spa was meant to be for a specific audience, perhaps women, in America.
And in addition, it is important as well for us as business owners to really make an impact. Whenever we promise that you’re going to have the ultimate relaxation experience, we must deliver it. That’s the way Jessica and I had built our own careers. Whenever we say something, we do it. And we must deliver it. And here we go! That’s how Oakwell Beer Spa was born. On the promise to deliver one of the most relaxing experiences.
EMILY: I love that Jessica and Damien recognized the opportunity in the beer spa, but knew the concept needed to be adapted to a U.S. audience. That applies even on a microlevel, in that a business that works in one city might need to be tweaked for another city when the time comes for expansion.
Jessica and Damien were also very strategic when choosing a location inside the US, landing on Denver, CO for a few reasons—its affinity for craft beer, wellness, and adventure. That’s where our reviewer, Jessica K., found them.
JESSICA: The month of May was very busy.
It was filled with a bunch of graduations, birthdays, barbecues, and on top of that there was a memorial weekend, and also maintaining a full time job. So I just felt like at the moment I just needed a R&R session where I could decompress and relax. At the time, I was given a gift card, about two years ago, and so it was collecting dust in the corner of my desk, and I just thought, why not just give the spa a chance! And knowing the fact I was going through a lot of exhaustion and just being tired from the month of May, I just thought it was a perfect opportunity to visit
EMILY: It was a great experience, as it turns out. Jessica’s an Elite Yelp reviewer, which means she writes a lot of reviews! So she’s really good at it. She’s concise, clear, and paints a good picture of what the experience is like for potential customers. Let’s give her review a listen:
JESSICA: If you’re in search of the perfect date night, look no further. The minute that you walk into this establishment, you’re in awe with the beautiful interior design and greeted by the friendly staff. Before our spa, we enjoyed the complimentary snacks and made our way to the amazing self-serve beer wall.
The beers offered are local and if you’re not much of a beer drinker like I am, there are options of wine and rosé. Beer Spa is a unique concept and I loved every moment of it.
EMILY: A spa business is basically selling relaxation, so the atmosphere is critical. Jessica K even mentioned that the interior design choices at Oakwell Beer Spa were so nice, she took a few ideas home with her. But while many day spas consider women to be their primary customer, and create an atmosphere to reflect that, inclusivity is a priority for Jessica and Damien at Oakwell Beer Spa. That meant reconsidering typical day spa design and making it work for their concept.
JESSICA: It was important for us, especially because we’re targeting a lot of first time spa goers – we’re targeting men that maybe have not gone to spas before. And we didn’t want it to feel intimidating. We didn’t want it to feel like it’s this very, sometimes spas can feel very sterile. They’re very white and silent, and maybe there’s pink flowers everywhere. It’s just not something that’s inviting for all different types of people.
So we wanted to make sure that our guests felt comfortable coming and hanging out in the space, whether they were dressed up to go out for the night or they were showing up in their hiking boots after hiking a fourteener. We wanted everyone to feel comfortable in this space. So a big thing for Damien and I throughout the entire experience is we do not want to be pretentious. We don’t want to be stuffy. We want to be accessible in a place where everyone feels welcome and comfortable.
DAMIEN: We don’t call them customers. We call them guests. We changed the whole aspect of it, but 55% of our guests are women. And then mostly they’re coming with their significant other, and actually they’re making the reservations for their significant other.
And most of the men who are coming are first time spa goers, or they realize very early on that the Spa wasn’t for them. Some people might prefer wine, cocktails, and don’t realize, wait a minute, beer, I don’t want to soak into a whole bath of beer and smell beer. That is, that’s not what I want. And in the meantime, really working on making sure that the other side of the or perhaps the men feel extremely welcome and don’t feel intimidated by the whole spa environment.
EMILY: Reviews are a really great tool for getting the word out about the quality of your products and services. But if you have a truly unique concept like Oakwell Beer Spa, reviews can also serve to explain exactly what your business is, and what it isn’t. A well-written review helps manage expectations of customers before they arrive, and prepare them for a truly enjoyable experience.
That’s one of the reasons Jessica K. left her review.
JESSICA: So at first when I stopped at thought about this establishment, I was a little hesitant at first, because I didn’t really understand what a beer spa is. I imagined like a business with a tub filled with beer and I was like oh I don’t know if I want to smell like beer afterwards and I was a little hesitant at first. I was like ‘that just sounds a little weird.’ But once I got there, the minute that you walk in, the atmosphere is very chic. Very cozy. And it just brought a different insight of what I was expecting in my mind.
And walking into it I felt compelled to share my experience first, since I was hesitant at first, not really knowing what I was walking into. And I thought to share my experience so that if anyone else has the same thought in their mind, it’s not what they think.
EMILY: That’s the kind of information that’s crucial to owners Jessica and Damien. They understand that the right review is essentially marketing the business for them.
JESSICA: Reviews are extremely important to us. As we heard from the reviewer that you interviewed, most people are pretty apprehensive before coming to Oakwell Beer Spa. They have no idea what a beer spa is. You hear “beer spa,” the first thing that comes into people’s mind is you know, you’re in this log cabin type of place, and there’s a vat of beer that’s Coors or PBR that you’re just soaking in.
And it does not convey the image that we offer. So for us, reviews are an extremely important way for guests to know if this is an establishment that they want to visit or not, right? They look at pictures, they read reviews.
For us, it was really important to have these positive reviews from our guests as well as for them to take pictures and to share those online.
DAMIEN: Good, bad, this is not the point. The point here is to help us to do better and always improve services. I would always remember the first bad review is like, Okay, there’s two ways. Either way, we take it personally and answer personally, or we take it professionally with stepping back, so we usually actually never answer right away. Or review.
We investigate. We’ve got some tools to really try to find out what happened and then we usually call the guests and apologize on behalf of the team member or if something happened and then we ask actually for more feedback and how we could have met their expectations and that’s it.
We don’t ask them to remove their review, good or bad. We just make sure that we actually have a human interaction. Because it’s so easy to just be behind your computer typing all of this. But I think it’s important to actually give them the opportunity to voice their concerns or their happiness and always do better.
Now, the answering the reviews is very important. Bad and good. We’re true believers. There’s different tactics. Some people just answer the good ones, skip the bad ones. Some people only answer the bad ones, skip the good ones. We believe that answering reviews helps you educate the future guests that wonder what the heck is a beer spa.
We… want reviews, good, bad, mediocre, this helps to make ourselves stronger and better as a business owner because at the end of the day, we are a hospitality company and we should always strive to deliver the best hospitable experience to the guests.
EMILY: I will always tell business owners to respond to reviews. Always. It’s essential to acknowledge the review in the most professional way possible, and show that you care about your customer’s experience – and if they have a less than stellar one, that you want to make it right.
The first negative review always stings, and there’s no avoiding that. I like that Jessica and Damien put a lot of thought into their response, and also looked to competitors for the right—and wrong—way to handle that feedback.
JESSICA: So when we first opened and we got our first negative review, we took a lot of time thinking about how as a business, we want to respond to those types of reviews. So we read a lot of other popular spa chains as well as the independent spas, even restaurants. And read how as just a third party that wasn’t involved in the situation really reacted to how the business responds.
And I think often the business wants to prove that the guest was wrong or give more, shed more light on the situation. And maybe, ‘oh well, the guests didn’t follow our policies and that they did a B and C wrong and that you’re misleading in this review’ and it really does not look great.
It does not make the guest feel like I’m going to be heard if there is a complaint or an issue. It feels very aggressive and combative. And that’s something that was really important to us. That everyone’s feedback is valid, whether they were in the right or wrong. I don’t want to say that the customer is always right because we don’t believe in that.
But we believe that there’s a proper way to deal with situations like that. And so rather than getting into some online dispute with them, we would rather just take a very diplomatic ‘thank you so much. Like we’re so sorry that you had this experience.’ And as Damien mentioned, before we respond to anything that’s less than a five star we investigate.
So we look at the transaction. We look at exactly what happened. We’ll reach out to the guest. We’ll ask for their point of view. And then once we kind of resolve it with the guests, then we’ll respond. Sometimes that results in them, just wanting to change the review on their own. We, of course, never ask for that. Sometimes they leave it and that’s totally fine. Everyone is entitled to leave whatever review. Just how we respond to that publicly, I think, was something that was really important for us and something that we put a lot of thought into. We’re also pretty fortunate that we don’t get too many bad reviews.
EMILY: As we’ve heard before from other business owners, great customer service starts with hospitality, and great hospitality starts with training. A well-trained and knowledgeable staff makes guests feel confident in your business, something that Jessica and Damien instilled in their staff on Day One.
DAMIEN: We have a three weeks intense training every time we bring in someone. And it is extremely important for us that whenever a guest comes in, we actually don’t call it customers. It’s a guest. This is, I think, the DNA of hospitality.
We invite you into an environment where you’ll be spending quality time together, or a beer therapist is highly trained to make sure that you have the best experience. Our service side is not white gloves. It’s not stuffy. However, it is really focused on your needs.
We welcome you. We know your first name. We make sure that we confirm everything for your appointment, because this is a big deal. You might be celebrating your anniversary here. Your 10 years anniversary. We don’t want to mess up, so we confirm it. Then we escort you to the beer wall. We spend about five, six minutes going over all of the beer lineups because we do beer for a living. So we must convey all of our knowledge to the guests.
And then we invite them to ease them into the relaxation and help them to relax and make sure that we are always knowledgeable about all of our services. And this really to us is a part of a five stars standard service as actually every single employees when they come in needs to agree to and sign. On the business side, we have only full time employees, which makes a huge difference for us in order to make sure that we deliver the best service and the best experience.
EMILY: It’s not realistic for all small businesses to support only full-time employees, but it definitely has its advantages. The institutional knowledge a full-time employee has, added with the time on the job, is the perfect equation for great customer service.
Opening a new small business can seem overwhelming. Just trying to get the first location up and running is a daunting task. But growth can—and maybe should—be included in that very first business plan of yours. Jessica and Damien built the idea of expansion and franchising into their business from day one, and it’s served them well.
JESSICA: So we are really fortunate again, that we’ve been really at high occupancy. We have a big wait list. We have all of this demand and just not enough supply, not enough appointments for these guests that are maybe in town for a short amount of time or celebrating something special and they want to come.
It was always our plan from the beginning as well to build this with the intention to scale. We didn’t want to just run a mom and pop single location, a beer spa for the rest of our lives. When we chose this concept during our travels a lot of it was behind. We could see this as something `that we could bring across the United states. And that wasn’t just a one-off kind of gimmicky thing. So we have signed a lease for a second location in South Denver, it’s in the Highlands Ranch neighborhood. We have a lot of our guests that are already driving 45 minutes to come to our location here. But especially with people working from home there’s not a lot of need for them to drive to downtown. And a lot of our guests have communicated that if we were a little bit closer to them, more in the south suburbs of Denver, that they would come more frequently.
So we’re really excited to open that location. We’re projecting fall of next year. So fall of 2024. In addition to that, we’re really ramping up our franchising program. So pretty early on, Damien and I decided that in order to scale quickly, we would have to franchise. There’s only so many spas that Damien and I can individually open ourselves at one point in time.
It’s a process with financing and permitting and finding a location and construction. So the easiest way to scale quickly is through a franchise concept. So we’re building out our franchise program right now you know putting together all of the operating manuals and training manuals and the franchise agreements and everything that goes into that. And our plan is by the time that we open the location in South Denver, that we will have at least two or three franchisees signed up as well.
So we can begin that process with them because it takes some time to find the right space and then go through architectural plans and permitting. So for now, We’re focusing on opening the second location and building out our franchising program. And then we’ll probably continue to open company owned locations as well.
From a profit perspective, obviously company owned is a lot better than franchising. Franchising is great at scale. When you have 10, 20, 30 locations, it’s a great way for us to test new things as well. So being able to really test our new products, new services, new operational systems at the company on locations and they can push that out to our franchisees once we know what works and what doesn’t work.
With that we did our rebrand as well, so now we’re Oakwell Beer Spa instead of the Beer Spa. Again, just to give us a powerful brand that differentiates us from other beer spas that exist. When you say, I’m going to the beer spa this Saturday, who’s to say you’re not going to the one in, or Orlando or Prague, or anywhere else?
So with this new brand name, it really allows us to differentiate ourselves and gives our franchisees something to buy into as well.