By GREGORY ZELLER //
Before everyone and their brother was offering bus tours of Long Island’s brew pubs and vineyards, there was Tapped Enterprises.
The Ronkonkoma-based brainchild of President Kevin Bowker actually launched in 2008, first as a purveyor of what the founder called “dorm décor” – posters, flags and other beer-themed accouterments for the college set.
But by 2012, still years before leave-the-driving-to-us tours of Long Island’s craft-beverage scene were in vogue, the enterprise had tapped a whole new vertical.
Bowker, a Bryant University graduate and avid beer lover who himself became a homebrewer, shifted corporate gears after attending a Nassau Coliseum beer festival sponsored by Bay Shore event producer Starfish Junction Productions.
Tapped Enterprises Inc. had rolled to a modest start in the back of a beat-up van, which Bowker and a business partner lived in as they toured upstate New York colleges, pushing their posters and other trimmings. Back on Long Island, they continued to peddle Tapped Enterprises products at festivals, like that beer-soaked 2012 event in Uniondale.
But when a bunch of Bowker’s buddies piled into the van to join him at the Nassau Coliseum event, he had his “a-ha moment.”
“Transportation wasn’t a bad idea,” he said.
With Long Island’s craft-brew scene in its embryonic stages, the entrepreneur started small, chartering third-party buses and organizing trips to the Island’s earliest microbrew innovators.
He also tested various ideas: making pretzel necklaces on the bus, serving cheese and crackers, wheeling-dealing with transporters and brewers to incorporate cover charges into bus fares. An annual Halloween-themed tour proved popular.
For a while, Bowker “went legit,” taking a 9-to-5 at Chase Bank to pay the bills. But the deeper he got into the brewing culture – he formed friendships with several early Long Island microbrewers, including some of today’s most popular – the more he knew where Tapped Enterprises needed to go.
“They were all kind of just coming into the scene at that time,” he told Innovate LI. “And I was trying to start a transportation business with no capital.”
Step No. 1 was to stop relying on third-party transportation. Dealing with limousine companies and other transportation providers “wasn’t always easy,” Bowker noted, and operating his own vehicles “was an opportunity to be more hands-on and event-focused.”
After learning the ropes by planning bachelor and bachelorette parties and working with different establishments to set reservations and drink specials, Bowker bought first vehicle in 2012: Betty Sue, a well-used, 14-passenger minibus he renovated and retrofitted with two working taps (ideal for lease by ambitious microbrewers or for tailgating customers who bring their own kegs).
Flash forward: Tapped Enterprises now boasts five vehicles, including the long-in-the-tooth Betty Sue, which will finally be retired within the next month (to be replaced next spring by another minibus or perhaps a larger vehicle, Bowker says, stay tuned).
But for the remainder of the company’s busy season – things slow considerably in the winter, the entrepreneur noted – Betty Sue rolls on, part of a fleet that also includes the 17-passenger Barbara Anne and the 27-passenber Billie Jean, the only Tapped Enterprises vehicle boasting its own bathroom.
Rounding out the fleet: The 15-passenger Donna Jo – aka Lil’ Miss Sunshine, a secondary nickname Bowker bestowed when he drove the new find back from Florida last summer – and the 20-passenger Lucy Goosey, a renovated, leather-trimmed beauty that for years served as a charter vessel for Patchogue’s Dublin Deck Tiki Bar & Grill.
Bowker built up slowly, carefully selecting his vehicles and routes – not just Long Island breweries and vineyards but fishing parties, corporate outings and destination events at Greater New York sports stadiums and other venues, as far afield as Atlantic City.
“As much as I love beer, I realized very quickly I am a bus operator, not a brewery-tour operator,” the entrepreneur noted. “I am in transportation.”
The staff of Tapped Enterprises has grown also, at least regarding part-time drivers: Bowker is one of only two full-time employees, but as many as eight part-time drivers take the wheel every week, depending on the time of year.
October is a busy time for the startup. This week, Tapped Enterprise has 13 jobs on the books, according to its president, including a Wednesday gig shuttling around golfers participating in the Second Annual Golf Outing sponsored by The Village Idiot Pub in Patchogue and a Friday wedding party out east, plus a weekend packed with the usual assortment of private birthday parties and craft-beverage tours.
With a large cross-section of events involving drinkers of various skill levels, safety is always a priority for Tapped Enterprises. Bowker noted “numerous safety meetings for our drivers across the board,” often focusing on “the little things people don’t always realize,” beyond simply requiring passengers to remain seated when the bus is in motion.
“Like, when we’re dropping off people on a crowded street in Patchogue,” Bowker said. “We always make sure the bus is on the right side of the street, so people aren’t crossing the street after they get off the bus.”
Maximized safety protocols help Tapped Enterprises deal with the legions of insurance company representatives always in the mix – by far, the least-enjoyable part of the business, according to Bowker.
“Regulations are there for a reason,” he noted. “But the insurance companies … at times, it really feels like robbery. The first couple of years, I was paying the insurance company more than I was paying myself.”
Safety also registers in an industry where the competition is “pretty fierce,” according to Bowker, and every advantage counts – including his insider’s familiarity with a regional industry that’s grown to include more than 40 Long Island microbreweries.
“There’s a lot of competition out there, a lot of brew tours,” Bowker said. “But do I think any operator on the Island has more knowledge of craft beer? Has cider fermenting in the basement right now?
“I don’t think so.”
And that, according to the entrepreneur, is Tapped Enterprises’ biggest advantage: There are many beer-bus companies now, Bowker noted, but only one was first.
“We grew up with this community,” he said. “I had a lot of these brewers at my wedding last month.
“It’s more of a community thing for me, then for some of these operators who are jumping in and trying to make a buck because they see craft beer booming.”
What’s It? Chartered and scheduled tours of Long Island brew pubs and wineries, plus other regional venues
Brought To You By: Gear-shifting beer nut Kevin Bowker
All In: $10,000, self-funded, for a van and materials, and later $18,000 for sweet Betty Sue
Status: All aboard