"Sconnie Nation" keeps growing
In his career course since selling his stake in Sconnie, Fiechtner has done quite well. After spending a few years on the west coast, he knew he wanted to get back to the Midwest. "It was an awesome experience," Fiechtner says of his time in San Francisco. "I just knew it wasn't home." At his request, and to the relief of his fiancé, Fiechtner was transferred to Chicago where he was promoted to become GE Healthcare's MR Sales within the Chicago and Iowa regions.
In addition to overseeing the operations of Sconnie, Vosseller completed his JD/MBA and serves as a clinical instructor for the University of Wisconsin Law School's Law & Entrepreneurship Clinic where he helps other aspiring entrepreneurs with both legal services and business development.
After buying out Fiechtner, Vosseller grappled with figuring out how to most effectively broaden the Sconnie brand.
"Whenever we think about the company, I tell people it's about beer, brats, and cheese...That's the Wisconsin lifestyle," Vosseller says. "Anything that fits into that bucket is fair game." Using this broad umbrella as a framework for growth, the idea of opening a Sconnie bar was highly appealing.
Sconnie had previously licensed its trademark to Sconnie's Pub & Eatery, a watering hole four miles southeast of Green Bay. Opening in September of 2008, Sconnie's has since gone out of business but the idea stuck with Vosseller that a bar would be an excellent mechanism for expanding the Sconnie brand.
In 2010, Vosseller set about opening a bar in the Madison area, collaborating on plans and ownership with local restaurateur Daniel Swerdlik, a manager at Mia Za's, Underground Printing's neighbor on State Street. In attempting this, the pair knew that plans for the bar would be constrained by the Alcohol Licensing Density Ordinance (ALDO), a measure passed by Madison's Alcohol License Review Committee (ALRC) in 2007. Essentially, the ALDO stipulates that alcohol licenses for taverns (establishments that derive more than 50% of their revenue from alcohol sales) may only be granted in spaces that were most recently occupied by taverns. This means that the only way to open a new bar in the UW campus area would be if an existing one closes or is purchased. As the purpose of the ALDO is to cap the total amount of alcohol consumption in the downtown area, it constricts new bars to the occupancy limits of the previous tenants.
Given these restrictions, the only suitable area for the Sconnie bar to open was at 317 W. Gorham St., above a bar called Chaser's, in a vacant space that was previously occupied by a pool bar called Cue-nique. For this space, Vosseller and Swerdlik paid architects, made a floor plan, and, unable to find electronic records pertaining to Cue-nique's occupancy limit, presented their plan to the ALRC for the Sconnie bar to have an occupancy of 500.
The plan called for the Sconnie bar to be a multi-faceted entertainment venue, featuring live music, cover bands, DJs, and a dance floor. Despite all of these luxuries, the bar would of course "have a very much Wisconsin theme going on" according to Vosseller. Further, the bar would have been tailored to be a great place to watch sports. Although the plan for the Sconnie bar was appealing to some members of the ALRC, paper records were dug up during the application process that showed Cue-nique to have an occupancy limit of just 175 people. Even though Cue-nique was limited in the amount of people it could hold due to the substantial space that its pool tables occupied, the ALDO was non-negotiable and plans for the Sconnie bar had to be put on the back burner.
While the ALDO is rooted in noble intentions of preventing Madison from becoming oversaturated with drinking establishments that pose a liability for the community and prevent existing bar owners from earning an adequate return on investment, it has unintended consequences for situations like the Sconnie bar. In preventing any wiggle room in the ALDO, the ALRC has granted a de facto oligopoly to current tavern owners. As free market forces are inhibited, consumers are presented with higher prices, less options, and a group of bars that do not necessarily have to enact continuous improvements to stay in business: "These places do not really have competition forcing them to improve, so in some ways it becomes kind of a race to the bottom," Vosseller laments, diplomatically abstaining from naming names. "If I was a bar owner, I guess I would be happy with it but as an outsider looking in, it sucks."
Thinking about the bar scene in the downtown area, though, it is impossible for State Street Brats, a Madison institution and legendary tavern, not to come to mind in contrast with the ambitious plans for the Sconnie bar. Brats, which is a must-stop location for Wisconsin alumni, lags behind in contemporary technology for sports viewing. "The projection screens are not high definition and there is not a place in the entire bar where you can view more than a couple of games at once," Wisconsin alumnus and frequent Madison visitor Raffi Chowdhury complains. However, even though the Sconnie bar would have presented entertainment options and sports viewing capabilities above and beyond what consumers are currently privy to in the downtown Madison area, the rigidity of the ALDO prevented its entry.
Although Sconnie was dealt a blow when its plans to open a bar were put aside, it was able to benefit from the success of the Badgers and Packers this past football season. The teams played extremely well and demand for the t-shirts was high. Buoyed by the Badgers' Rose Bowl berth, Sconnie saw a 49% increase in sales in the 4th quarter of 2010 versus the corresponding months in 2009. This spike was nothing, however, compared to what transpired as the Packers made their Super Bowl run. During the 1st quarter of this year, Sconnie had a 300% increase in sales compared to those of 2010.
Ironically, Sconnie hit the map nationally with its Packers line during one of the darker episodes of the franchise's illustrious history. In 2008, a customer came into Underground Printing on State Street with a little bit of an odd request. Recently, Brett Favre had un-retired for the first time to become the quarterback of the New York Jets, a move that few Packers fans held a grudge about at the time: "I'm from Green Bay and I didn't care that he went to the Jets," store manager Isaac Lenz says. One customer, however, wanted a shirt made to read, "We'll Never Forget You Brent."
Lenz worked with the customer to create this shirt with an image of Favre's face in the middle of an outline of the state of Wisconsin (the design had previously been used for a Sconnie "Brett Favre is my Homeboy" shirt), reading, "WE'LL NEVER FORGET YOU BRENT" under Favre's collar. The customer told Lenz, "If you guys ever want to sell these, go ahead, I don't care." Lenz had 50 of these shirts printed, but as most Packers fans were more angry at this juncture with team management than with Favre for the legendary quarterback's departure, the shirt sold slowly.
The tables turned, however, when Favre un-retired for a second time the next year, this time to join the hated Vikings. Suddenly, Sconnie found its "We'll Never Forget You Brent" shirt going viral. It was featured on Deadspin, FoxSports.com, dozens of blogs, and countless Twitter and Facebook accounts. "People were sharing it like crazy," Vosseller says. Capitalizing on this frenzy, Sconnie made a Facebook page entitled "We'll Never Forget You Brent," which almost immediately reached 10,000 fans, and created a Packers blog BrentFavre.com.
Over the ensuing time period, Sconnie leveraged this prodigious social media following both to solicit feedback on new Packers-themed designs (ones with the most "likes" ultimately get produced) and to create a loyal customer base for the shirts. Building on this momentum, Sconnie introduced several clever new designs, including a shirt with a #21 football player silhouette that reads, "Water covers 70% of the Earth/Charles Woodson Covers the Rest," a shirt with a cartoon rendering of Clay Matthews toting a sledge hammer, a shirt boasting Aaron Rodgers with a wrestling title belt around his waist, and finally a shirt based on BJ Raji's wiggle celebration capping an interception returned for a touchdown in the NFC Championship game against the Bears that says, "TEACH ME HOW TO RAJI."
With these Packers shirts, Sconnie gained a national following. While the State Street storefront typically outsells the online store by a four-to-one ratio, online sales doubled in-store sales during the Packers' Super Bowl run.
With football in the offseason and the Sconnie Bar on the back burner, Vosseller is again looking for additional channels through which to expand the Sconnie brand. Right now, he is in the preliminary stages of developing a Sconnie beer that he hopes will hit shelves this fall. Currently, Vosseller plans to work with a local brewmaster to curate a recipe for Sconnie Beer and to contract brewing and packaging to a local microbrewery.
Sconnie Beer will be available in 16 oz. cans and on draft. As brands such as Pabst Blue Ribbon have had notable success with "tallboy" cans recently, there has been a movement towards cans as opposed to bottles recently. Cans are cheaper to produce and ship than bottles and provide a superior seal. "People would originally associate cans with leeching the flavor of the beer. It just looked less classy," Vosseller says. "But I think that's starting to change, especially in craft beer."
Vosseller plans for the beer to be priced somewhere in between mass-produced beers such as Budweiser, Miller Lite, and Coors Light and expensive craft brews made by New Glarus and Capitol Brewery. To minimize cost, Sconnie held a contest on 99designs.com to design its beer cans, paying $1,375 for 60 design concepts from 19 designers. Although Sconnie picked a winner from the contest, it has not yet finalized its can design; ideas and alterations are still being kicked around internally. Sconnie has narrowed it down to four designs that it is currently working on and has started a Sconnie Beer page on Facebook where fans can provide feedback on which design they like the best.
Moving forward, it will be interesting to see whether Sconnie beer catches on both in Madison and the rest of Wisconsin; with the company's growth and vision, it is hard to bet against. Fans should be on the lookout for new apparel designs that Vosseller and his team cook up and other uniquely-Wisconsin cultural phenomenons from Sconnie, which has its finger on the pulse of the great state.
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A good friend of mine has been using this term since the mid '80's. As a matter of fact, he is from Shaw, Sconnie! As he puts it. Not original at all, but good for them for capitalizing on it.
I disagree whole heartedly. It simply reinforces our laid back style and the fact that we don't take ourselves too seriously. I love all things Wisconsin. Especially our sense of humor.
I was born and raised in Wisconsin. I am 30 years old. I went to the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. I have a ton of friends that went to Madison, WI, live now in Madison, WI, and I have been to Madison a lot in my days. I lived in Downtown Milwaukee for 4 years. I live in the suburbs now. Not once have I ever heard the term "Sconnie," or would think of ever using it. Congrats to these guys for making money, but really?! This might be worse, and less popular, than the term "cheesehead." Does anyone want to make shirts with me? They will be all green, with big, yellow lettering, stating "BUBBLER." I'm sure we will make millions. Just page me.
Can I be the first one to say that the word "sconnie" is yet another reason people from out of state make fun of us. Putting Cheese on our heads is another. People that use the word Sconnie just makes us look even more backwards. Sconnie has to be one of the dumbest things I have ever seen come out of "Wisco" popular culture. Saying you're from 'Sconnie' just make you sound like a dork. I will never buy or even wear a shirt with Sconnie on it. Yes many here think it's cool to refer to Wisconsin as Sconnie but trust me, just spandex, the word sconnie should be banned.
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