Kayaks and kegs? Feelfree Kayaks diversifies
Jim Hager started cleaning out the downstairs space of his kayak distribution company in Swannanoa a few weeks ago to make room.
He’s not bringing in more boats.
He isn’t closing down or expanding.
He’s making room for beer — cold beer. To be specific, a product that will keep beer kegs and their contents at a cool 39 degrees.
In an effort to diversify beyond the thousands of fishing and recreational kayaks shipped out of the Feelfree US warehouse each year for Feelfree Kayaks, Hager decided to add Chilart keg dispensers to the mix. He said they should be arriving by the end of the month.
Around the back of the warehouse, changes have already begun.
“We’ll most likely switch this part over and keep using the rest of the warehouse facilities for the kayaks,” Hager said of the 4,000 square feet he’s setting aside for the new products arriving at the end of July. “Up until recently, kayaking has been a very cyclical business, where we see big business from February until August and then after that we’re basically regrouping and getting ready for next year.”
Ed Wright, associate professor of global management and strategy and director of Western Carolina University’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, said diversification can be a strategic move for small business success.
“Generally speaking, businesses diversify for two or three reasons. They can diversify just to increase sales. If they add a new product to an existing product line, it gives them more to sell to their current customers. That’s called product development strategy. If they add a totally new product, they are often able to attract new customers with what’s called market development strategy,” Wright said. “It can reduce the overall risk of a downturn — not putting all of your eggs in one basket, so to speak.”
However, not all types of product diversity are created equally. Wright said sometimes diversification can be a distraction and could hurt existing business if people are not careful.
“This is more of an art than a science,” he said. “The marketing gurus usually advise a small business to look for adjacency in their product category. However, I have seen small businesses take on products that were in no way related to what they were doing and still made more profit just because it was a great product line to add.”
Living in Beer City USA, Hager said he is banking on breweries that will need cold kegs at events year round — from festivals to private parties. He’s also hoping that, eventually, festivals nationwide will see the value in Chilart.
That’s part of the reason he decided to debut Chilart at the Craft Brewers Conference in Portland, Oregon. The national event attracted more than 11,500 brewing industry professionals and some 600 exhibitors from 11 countries.
“People were really freaking out about it. They were into it,” Hager said.
The concepts of a keg dispenser and keg cooler are not new. Kegerators — a modified refrigerator or freezer for beer kegs — have been around for years. But the interest around how to keep kegs cool, especially outdoors in the summer months, has not waned. A crowdfunding campaign for Hank the Beer Tank, billed as the first portable beer dispenser, launched on Kickstarter June 16. Since its launch, Hank the Beer Tank has received national media exposure.
Despite a somewhat crowded market, Hager is hopeful Chilart will stand out from the pack.
“It’s not like we’re reinventing the wheel here with Chilart. It’s more like we’re putting the wheel together differently and packaging it in a new way,” he said.
Unlike Hank the Tank, which must be plugged into a power source to work, Chilart does not need electricity to run.
Instead, it depends on 131 feet of stainless steel coil inside its insulated and sealed 30- or 35-pound ice bin to keep the keg cold. With two Chilart models — the Ice Bar and the Woodstock — the unit type determines the size of the ice bin. Hager said he is planning to sell the Chilart for $1,600, with breweries and festivals being his target market.
“It may not look like it, but these units complement what we are already doing on the kayak side,” Hager said, noting the same technology Feelfree Kayaks uses to manufacture kayaks is being used to make the keg dispensers.
Hager saw a keg dispenser being made for a brewer in Thailand on a trip to see the kayaks being made at their manufacturing facility in Thailand.
“Over there, ice tubs are going to be inefficient. It just isn’t the answer with their climate. I saw the potential for it here in the U.S. market,” Hager said. “It was kind of good luck, good faith, karma — I don’t know what you call it.”
From there, Feelfree Kayaks began manufacturing the Chilart for the United States. A few years later, and Chilart is on its way to the states.
“We took our time and reshaped things and resized things, and then officially kicked it off at the Craft Brewers Conference. We’ve applied for patent. We’ve got the website and Facebook page, T-shirts, hats, pamphlets. We’re ready,” he said.
To make sure Chilart wasn’t going to be a one-hit-wonder, Hager brought it to the French Broad River Festival in Hot Springs, North Carolina, two months ago.
Doug Riley, head brewer at Asheville Brewing Company, was the first local to put it to the test.
Temperature, he explained, is crucial when it comes to drinking beer.
“If it’s a warm beer, it’s going to come out foamy and you’re going to lose carbonation. You’ll lose part of the beer experience there,” Riley said. “That’s where these are nice because it comes out cold every time — no matter how many pints you’re pouring.”
Riley said Asheville Brewing Company already plans to use Chilart when it holds events on its properties or at events in remote locations.
Though Chilart was a product years in the making, Hager said it was when he told Riley about it that he knew he had something special.
“I could see the potential when I talked to Doug about it. I could see the sparkle in his eye,” he said.
For more information about Chilart, visit www.chilart.cool.