TAMPA — Four years ago, World of Beer was a small neighborhood pub in Westchase serving a clientele with an appreciation for quality beer. Today, it's a rapidly growing chain that has sold 116 franchises in 11 states.
"It's about partnering with the right people," said Matt LaFon, one of the original owners. "We started out in Westchase, but now we are going national."
The first pub opened in 2007 at 9524 W Linebaugh Ave., and co-founder Scott Zepp said the rapid growth of World of Beer can be attributed to "focusing on getting the first one right."
"We just worked as hard as we can to make sure people have a good time," Zepp said.
Each World of Beer has brick accents, black, high-back bar stools and a dark and shiny bar. Two-door coolers highlight the vast selection of brews. The pubs have 40 taps and more than 500 bottled beers from all over the world. Live music is a staple.
Word of Beer executives say their formula for rapid growth includes a focus on craft beer, intensive staff training and locating facilities in middle- to upper-class neighborhood centers heavy with young professionals.
Perhaps the most unusual attribute: World of Beer does not serve food; instead, each location fosters relationships with nearby restaurants that agree to deliver food to bar patrons.
"People drink in good times and bad times," said Jim Pollard, director of franchise relations and operations. "We are in places where a lot of people come to have a couple of beers and drinking has become localized. The neighborhood tavern is coming back."
A couple of Outback Steakhouse executives have helped drive World of Beer's growth.
In March 2010, LaFon and Zepp brought Ben Novello, a former Outback president, and a former vice president, Pollard, into the fold.
Novello, now World of Beer's chief executive officer, described the company's expansion as "robust growth."
"We are looking for more and more folks with industry experience. That can save you a tremendous amount of time. We want them to bring more than just money to the table. There's development experience, marketing, operation experience. This way, we just have to teach them the brand of World of Beer."
Currently, 13 World of Beer pubs are open in nine Florida cities. New pubs are going up in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Texas, Virginia, Ohio, Wisconsin, Arizona, Colorado and Alabama, as well as Florida.
Novello said the World of Beer concept attracts people who are changing careers and looking to invest in businesses that are growing but that have a smaller footprint.
"The key is, you don't want to have any deal where you are swimming upstream," Novello said. "The real estate (location) has to be right. This economy creates a lot of discipline because money is tight. If you can make business work in this environment, you have a business that's going 10 years from now. But you have to be disciplined."
World of Beer franchises cost $50,000 per location and pay a 5 percent royalty of net sales. A franchisee needs a minimum of $125,000 in liquid assets, a net worth of more than $750,000 and a minimum credit score of 680.
"This is what we wanted, an opportunity to grow the brand while creating jobs and opportunities with other people," Zepp said. "That's been the most rewarding part: to watch other people be able to create successful businesses."
Philippe Theodore and Jason Rappaport of Tampa were the first to buy in. Their pubs are up and running in New Tampa, Carrollwood, South Tampa and on Fourth Street N in St. Petersburg.
The pair also bought franchise rights for six to eight units in the Houston market and eight to 10 in California.
"I couldn't be happier," said Theodore, 33. "When we first signed on, we thought there was going to be potential to develop a market, but we never imagined we would get the type of experience and professionalism that we are getting. To be able to learn from people who have been in the industry for so long gives us so much experience, and that's why we have taken on the Houston and Southern California markets."
Evan Matz, 47, of Miami was an accountant who visited his first World of Beer in Coconut Creek. He now has the rights to build in several California locations.
"I thought it was a great concept," Matz said. "There's really nothing like it out there. The bars are Las Vegas styled, but there are not a lot of beer bars that offer the selection with the nice social environment."
World of Beer Franchising recently purchased a nearly 3,500-square-foot building at 10910 Sheldon Road that serves as the corporate headquarters. Inside the facility, there is a simulated World of Beer bar, where all training of new owners, managers and employees will be conducted.