Leah Huelsebusch and her husband Nathan took an interesting road to owning their three locations of Taxman Brewing Company, including one at CityWay in downtown Indianapolis. We chatted with her about how a stint in Belgium helped forge a love of craft beer, her best advice for being a woman in a male-dominated industry, and how they are managing through the COVID-19 crisis.
Tell us a little about your career path and how you came to be where you are today.
My husband, Nathan, and I met while I was finishing my degree at the University of Cincinnati and he was working in the International Tax group at Deloitte. A few months into our relationship, Deloitte offered Nathan an assignment in the Brussels office. He asked if I wanted to move to Belgium and the answer was an emphatic “Yes!” We got married September 1st and moved to Belgium September 22nd of 2008. Craft beer was already something we both enjoyed, but our time in Europe inspired our love for Belgian-styles.
After almost three years in Belgium, Nathan was offered a Tax Director position at Cummins in Columbus, Indiana. I soon found a position in the Corporate Communication group in Cummins’ Indy office. Nathan and I decided to start Taxman Brewing Company in 2013.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but every part of my career path to this point would set me up for my position as the Chief Operating Officer for Taxman. My role has continually evolved based on the needs of the company—but in the start-up phase, my focus was on branding and marketing. I knew marketing a Belgian-style brewery in Bargersville, Indiana wasn’t going to be easy but I also knew there was a specific void in the craft market for Belgian beers. Creating a cohesive voice and a brand that could grow as we grew was very important.
As we began naming our beers, it was imperative (to me) that we had a distinct naming convention; I wanted people to immediately know it was a Taxman beer. Once we had beer in kegs, I was our first sales representative and sold our first beer to Twenty Tap in SoBro. As we grew, so did our sales team. Clay Robinson, co-owner of Sun King Brewing, once said to me, “If someone else can do something 80% as well as you, pass it on.” This has been an important mantra for me as we’ve expanded our business. I’ve realized that more often than not, the person taking on the process or role has more time and attention to devote to it, meaning they end up doing the job better. With less on my plate, I’m able to focus my efforts on strategies that continue to grow the business. As we’ve opened each new restaurant—in addition to the brewery, we now have three gastropubs: Bargersville, Fortville and CityWay (downtown Indy). I’ve been able to put all of my energy into those locations, from the interior and exterior design to actually executing their openings. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, building and growing our private event business at all three locations had become my baby.
What do you think makes Taxman a special place?
Taxman is special because of the people. Our staff care as much as ownership does and our regulars happily tell the story of Taxman to anyone who happens to sit in the open seat next to them. Building a place for the community to come together was our founding mission and it certainly sounded nice in our business plan. But in the current crisis, we have seen it in action. As we’ve hosted pop-up sales during our shutdown, the community has rallied to support us— we need them and they need us. The generosity we’ve experienced has been humbling.
We’re not living in normal times at the moment, but back when we were (and will again!), what’s your day-to-day like?
Every day is different but most recently, a typical day looked like this: Wake up around 7:30am—sleeping in is one of my favorite parts of self-employment! Coffee, pourover, likely Tinker Nicaragua beans. Knock out calls and emails until about 10 am. Head to Taxman CityWay’s Board Room, our 14-person private event space overlooking Delaware St., for meetings with front-of-house and back-of-house teams. Meet with potential private event hosts, marketing partners (i.e. Pacers, Visit Indy, CityWay Residences team). More emails, more calls. Quick dinner at the Taxman bar (I’ve been on a Buffalo Wings and Frites kick for a couple of months!) and then head to whatever event is on the calendar for that evening—sometimes overseeing our private events team at one of our locations, beer dinner at an outside account, a fundraising event we’re involved in, etc. If the evening is free, Nathan and I might head to Southwest Way for a hike, make dinner, and watch Netflix, preferably a wine documentary or something on BBC. Bed by 10:30pm. Rinse and repeat!
How has all of that changed given the current public health crisis? What have been the biggest challenges for you and your business and what has this crisis taught you about yourself and your team?
We have really had to go back to the basics. I’m reminded of how difficult Taxman was in the beginning when we personally worked every event and festival. Now we’re cleaning kitchens and monitoring the constantly changing way we have to do business. Office hours are spent innovating how we best execute pop-up beer sales at each location based on these changes and with the health and safety of staff and customers in mind.
We’re also devoting a lot of time on financial modeling as a means of damage control. We’re still very busy, but what we’re spending our time on each day is completely different. It’s been a great reminder of how important each person on our team is. We’ve been amazed by how positive our staff have remained throughout the process—they’re messaging us to ask if we’re okay, they’re offering to come in and work for free and sending encouraging messages to one another via our scheduling app. We’ve realized how much of a family we’ve become, and that everyone just wants to be back together again.
“As a little sister in a male-dominated family, I learned early on that if you want to be heard, you have to be relevant. If you’re passionate and knowledgeable, it’s hard for people to ignore you. I try to always assume someone’s intent isn’t to offend—by doing so, you’re setting yourself up for success and it’s much more difficult for anyone, male or female, to discount you.”
How can the Indy Maven community help support you during this time?
Supporting our pop-up beer sales is the best way to support us until we’re open again; we post these on our Taxman Brewing Facebook page as well as on each location’s social media. Once we’re open, I know that all small businesses in Indy will need the community to rally around them. Like many local businesses, we are committed to working with other local businesses as much as possible. That means that by supporting us, you’re also supporting local farmers, artisans, wineries, distilleries, and suppliers.
I can imagine that the world of breweries/bars/beer is still fairly male-dominated. Has that been something you’ve had to confront and how so?
As a little sister in a male-dominated family, I learned early on that if you want to be heard, you have to be relevant. If you’re passionate and knowledgeable, it’s hard for people to ignore you. I try to always assume someone’s intent isn’t to offend—by doing so, you’re setting yourself up for success and it’s much more difficult for anyone, male or female, to discount you.
What advice would you give women looking to break into the restaurant/hospitality business?
Exactly that: Don’t be afraid to ask others for advice or help. When I want to take on something new, I look to whomever is doing it best, whether it be locally or globally. If I can get one-on-one time with them, I do my research and ask specific questions that will help me take the next steps toward achieving whatever goal I’ve set.
Do you remember your first beer experience? What was that like?
I first fell in love with craft beer while working at Dewey’s Pizza (Cincinnati) in college. And the beer that really did it for me? Rogue Dead Guy! It was malty with just the right amount of hoppy bitterness. I rarely drink Maibocks now and actually tend to avoid styles that are overtly malt-forward, but there was something about it at that time in my life that just clicked.
What are your current favorite brews and what can people hopefully look forward to on tap this summer?
Given the beautiful weather we’ve been having, you can’t go wrong with a Belgian wit or white ale. We recently released a fruited version of our Belgian-style white ale, Wit-held, called Tropical Wit-held that features passion fruit, orange and guava. To me, it’s the quintessential beer as we head into patio weather.
What do you love about your CityWay location? It’s such a great downtown spot.
Our downtown location has a fantastic vibe. The daytime crowd is a mix of work-from-home types and business lunchers. We were able to re-purpose the large garage opening as a window so there’s great natural light during the day. At night, we see a mix of larger groups, couples out for date night, as well as pre and post-event diners. I also love the upstairs private event space because it is totally unique and rustic. The CityWay community is incredibly supportive of its businesses and are always reaching out to find fun ways to partner.
What is the most fun thing about your job? The most challenging?
The most fun and the most challenging part are one and the same: working with my husband, Nathan! Part of the reason we wanted to start Taxman was so that we could spend more time together, and we certainly do. We commute to work together, sit at a desk across from each other and often lead meetings together. We’re both natural leaders so we’ve had to learn to yield to one another’s strengths and stay in our own lanes. It’s not always easy but it is by far the best part of owning a business together.
Check out a recent Taxman Brewing Company tasting with Leah and her husband, Nathan from our Facebook Live.
Abby Gardner, Indy Maven’s executive editor, is very much looking forward to the day she can partake in some ale at Taxman once again.