Melissa Simon’s parents still cannot figure out what she does. This month marks eight years of work in the craft beer industry. Her career at Cinder Block Brewery has progressed from taproom bartender to sales manager to sales and marketing director. Rest assured, folks, she is using her degree in business management from the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC). And she has been instrumental in the growth of Cinder Block.
Simon hails from the Ozarks, specifically, Versailles (pop. 2,500) in Morgan County, Missouri. She arrived in Kansas City nearly a dozen years ago to attend UMKC. After graduating, she landed a corporate job. Simon also picked up part-time shifts in Cinder Block’s taproom. The brewery opened in September of 2013 in North Kansas City.
No Turning Back
Only a handful of breweries operated in the market at the time. Established in 1989, Boulevard Brewing Company represented the largest brewery in Kansas City by far. The Big Rip Brewing Company, a neighboring microbrewery and taproom, opened in May of 2013 mere months before Cinder Block. Kansas Citians were already familiar with brewpubs, such as the former 75th Street Brewery and McCoy’s Public House. Simon notes, “Craft beer taprooms were a new concept in Kansas City in 2013.”
Cinder Block signed with North Kansas City Beverage Company in 2015 to launch into beer keg distribution. Simon envisioned a role beyond serving taproom guests. She represented Cinder Block’s brand and brews at tap takeovers, festivals, and bar events. Simon began making sales calls on new accounts. She parlayed that first-hand market research and insight into a bigger opportunity. “That’s how the magic happened,” Simon says. “There’s been no turning back.”
Simon gathered feedback on Cinder Block’s beers from restaurant clients and retail craft beer buyers. Astutely, Simon recognized that bars and other accounts needed someone to call on them regularly. “I pitched [Cinder Block owner] Bryce Schaffter for a full-time sales manager job,” Simon says. “I created and developed it. It was so much extra work.”
“I love craft beer. It’s not corporate. People want to have a conversation about beer. You meet the best people in food and beverage.”
Pivot and Navigate
Later the brewery expanded distribution from kegs to canned beer. It extended its footprint from North Kansas City to the Kansas City metropolitan area. By mid-June of 2018, Cinder Block began distribution in the Johnson County, Kansas, market. The brewery increased production to meet sales growth. It also faced increased local and national craft beer competition. Further, Cinder Block adapted like other breweries to survive the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the service industry. Through it all, Simon worked closely with Schaffter and the rest of the Cinder Block team to navigate change.
Simon acknowledges that the growth was hard. A “laid-back industry” grew more sophisticated and challenging as the market matured. She says, “We went from a blossoming brewery to rapid growth to distribution in Kansas City to packaged beer to distribution in Missouri and Kansas.”
The pandemic in 2020 necessitated a pivot to establish a system for local beer delivery and curbside pickup. This year’s sales patterns via wholesale and at the taproom tentatively indicate a return to “normal,” so far. Logistically, Cinder Block’s transformation has been impressive for a light manufacturing company – a brewery with the service industry operations of a taproom – over a five-year span with ongoing disruption and change.
Managing and Moving Forward
Connecting with people at Cinder Block and throughout the industry has buoyed Simon through ups and downs. “I love craft beer. The people are nice. It’s not corporate,” Simon says. “People want to have a conversation about beer. You meet the best people in food and beverage.”
Learning the value of patience has been a key tool in her management role. Schaffter encouraged Simon to exercise patience and listen when communicating with others from production to wholesale. “People aren’t always ready to hear what you have to say,” Simon says. “You have to adjust to other people.”
Day to day, Simon juggles many duties as the sales and marketing director, and one of four full-time brewery employees. She oversees distribution in the market, and manages a sales representative. Other responsibilities include driving the brewery’s social media presence and creating the staff newsletter. Crucially, Simon also prepares seasonal beer sales forecasts that impact the brewhouse’s production planning. She meets with retail buyers and managers, nurturing business relationships and opportunities for large-scale growth that can move the business forward.
Currently, fifty percent of Cinder Block’s beer production ships to wholesale accounts. Accordingly, devising sales forecasts in a competitive industry during uncertain times is no small feat. “I like the pressure,” Simon says. “What I’m doing has a direct impact on the business and is rewarding, especially when it goes well.”
Cinder Block’s wholesale side of the business in Kansas appears poised for growth. Simon continues to capably shift gears as needed to help steer the brewery into the latter half of 2021 and beyond. Simon revels in her work even on the toughest days, and doesn’t flinch no matter what might happen next. “I always feel busy,” Simon says, “but I am lucky to get to be involved in every facet of the business.”
Pete Dulin is the founder and editor of kcaletrail.com. His most recent book is Expedition of Thirst: Exploring Breweries, Distilleries and Wineries Across Central Kansas and Missouri. Pete’s other books include Kansas City Beer: A History of Brewing in the Heartland, KC Ale Trail (out of print), and Last Bite: 100 Simple Recipes from Kansas City’s Best Chefs and Cooks.