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Crystal Yarnell founded 417 Brewery Bus Tours in 2019.
Jym Wilson | SBJ
Crystal Yarnell founded 417 Brewery Bus Tours in 2019.

Business Spotlight: Next Stop: Craft Brewery

417 Brewery Bus Tours takes its own journey to transport customers to area breweries

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There are many legitimate reasons why Crystal Yarnell could have just called it quits on 417 Brewery Bus Tours LLC.

The first and most painful is that her husband, Jerry, died in February 2020, just a few short months after launching the business in September 2019.

And, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic blew into the Ozarks just a month later.

Yet Crystal Yarnell remained determined to persevere.

Today, 417 Brewery Bus Tours is rolling again. The business takes as many as 18 people at a time on a 3.5-hour tour of three breweries. The cost is $35 per person and includes a half-price pint of beer at each location.

Yarnell selects the breweries visited on the public tours and works with private parties on their individual interests.

“I try to hit the ones that are all-indoor during winter. Those with lots of patio stuff, I hit them in the nice-weather months,” Yarnell says of the now dozen craft breweries operating in and around the city.

She says patrons get more than the opportunity to sample new beers. Those who are more interested in how the brews are crafted are given a tour of the brewery and a deeper explanation of how the craft beers are developed.

Yarnell says private tours are popular for birthday parties, girls’ nights out or anniversaries, but the private tours also have become popular with businesses for team-building excursions or staff parties.

An imported idea
Yarnell says she got the idea while vacationing in Oregon.

“I was visiting friends, and we took the baby and the toddler,” she says. “There were kids running around outside and parents enjoying beer and listening to music.”

She and her friends went brewery hopping, but she got to thinking there must be a better way, one that could be capitalized on.

When Yarnell returned from Oregon, she began looking for other businesses that offer bus tours. She found an outfit in Nashville, Tennessee, that was doing what she was considering: An adults-only bus tour of breweries.

The next logical step was finding a bus.

“We started looking for a bus and found one in Kansas,” Yarnell says. “It was in great shape. It was a U shape inside, set up kind of limo stye, so people could sit next to each other.”

Acquiring the bus was a $30,000 investment, according to 417 Brewery Bus Tours’ website.

She developed her logo, got the bus wrapped – then ran into a roadblock with the city.

“What do you mean random people are going to get on a single bus?” she recalls being asked. “The only thing they could classify me as was a taxi or limo. I didn’t accept either one of those.”

The problem with those designations is only one person pays. Whoever calls the taxi or orders the limo picks up the tab. In Yarnell’s case, she might have nine unrelated couples or two couples and 14 strangers taking the same tour and paying independently.

So Yarnell wrote a business plan to present to a Springfield City Council member who thought she was on to a great idea. That process began in May 2019. By the end of September, the city had written a statute to allow such a business, and Yarnell was on her way.

“It did great. It really took off,” she says, then the tours came to a screeching halt. “In winter, we had a few cancellations, then COVID completely shut us down.”

She says getting through the pandemic required “a leap of faith, I guess. We just had to be patient. We were able to get a county grant to get through that year we were completely shut down.”

Up ahead
Yarnell says since COVID restrictions have relaxed, business is booming and proved to be popular regardless of the season. Declining to disclose revenues, she says the business runs five or six tours a month.

“In December, we do Lights and Flights and stop to look at Christmas lights along the way,” she says. Even February, March and the hot summer months stay popular.

After a chance run-in with longtime acquaintance Steve Coller, Yarnell brought him on board as one of two part-time drivers. Coller says the side gig has been a treat for him.

“It’s the people,” Coller says. “That’s why I do it. I like to be around fun, like-minded people, and curious people who want to check out what’s new to the beer scene.”

Derek Shimeall, co-owner of 4 By 4 Brewing Co. LLC in Galloway Village, says partnering with 417 Brewery Bus Tours was a smart move for his business and great for the overall industry. He says it helps build a sense of community in the local craft beer community.

“I think something that we’ve always strived for is trying to get more of a craft-beer community, a collective of sorts, so it’s not as competitive. It builds the market, or demand, for all of us,” Shimeall says.

Shimeall says he’s seen this sort of tour be successful in other communities, and it’s worked especially well for his business.

“We can have a conversation with our patrons, a tasting tour or a Q&A. It helps us make a better connection with the customer overall, and it increases sales,” Shimeall says.

Yarnell, who also is managing partner of Whiskey Tango restaurant and bar, says she takes guests to about a half dozen breweries but would like to see that number grow. There’s no fee for breweries to join the roster.

“I want people to see (the business) as more of a ‘hey, this isn’t something we do once and don’t do it again,’ because it’s always changing,” Yarnell says.

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