Seeking to expand, Charlie’s Plumbing taps beer market

“We started Draft Horse because basically, it’s like beer plumbing. It’s the delivery of fluids,” said President and CEO Merrill Crawford. “We thought this is a lot like what we already do.”

Founded by Charlie Crawford, Merrill Crawford’s late husband, in 1979, Charlie’s Plumbing concentrates almost exclusively on commercial and industrial projects, with about 5 percent of its work in residential plumbing.

“We focus heavily on school districts, government entities and a lot of commercial properties, chain restaurants — anything deemed commercial. The majority of our business is repeat business,” she said.

In addition to installing and maintaining plumbing systems, the company offers 24/7 emergency service.

“If you call us at 1o’clock in the morning and need two crews and backhoes to fix a broken pipe underground, we’ll be there in an hour. We work most nights and weekends,” Crawford said.

What is barley milk?: New plant milk in stores is made from upcycled Budweiser beer grains

When it came time for Charlie’s to expand, Crawford said, the company wanted to avoid getting into heating and cooling or sprinkler systems, the routes most commercial plumbers take. “That didn’t work for us,” she said. “We like to do more sanitary things.”

Hiring an expert

Since bars and restaurants already were a large part of Charlie’s customer base, Crawford saw a demand for installation and maintenance of beer tap systems.

Seeking to expand, Charlie’s Plumbing taps beer market

The company hired Aaron Hill, an expert in draft systems, and formed Draft Horse, a separate division that operates throughout southeast Texas, including Beaumont, Corpus Christi and San Antonio, and as far as the Texas Panhandle city of Lubbock.

In addition to installing, maintaining and repairing draft beer systems, the new division services those that dispense wine, cocktails and other drinks. The company also offers a regularly scheduled draft-line cleaning service, which Crawford said is key to ensuring that beer out of the tap tastes just the way the brewer intended.

“There’s a lot to the draft business that most people don’t understand,” Crawford said. “Most people don’t realize that draft beer system lines need to be cleaned and cleaned very well.” Poorly cleaned lines might result in foamy beer or breed bacteria.

Draft Horse struggled to gain its footing out of the gate, opening in March 2020, just as the coronavirus pandemic was sweeping the U.S. and forcing most restaurants and bars to close.

“Every bar in the world closed, so that made a huge difference,” Crawford said. “It’s like, OK, now what do we do? ”

First, the team helped idled bars turn off their systems and, when lockdowns eased, restart them.

The Draft Horse division also adapted quickly. “We had our draft system guys learn about plumbing,” she said. The move paid off as office building owners began replacing drinking fountains with touchless water-bottle filling stations.

Now, 18 months after opening at the beginning of a devastating pandemic, Draft Horse’s business has picked up and Crawford thinks the good times will continue to roll for the taps business.

Chance to be creative

Bars and restaurants that survived the pandemic are spending money to upgrade their systems to safeguard the health of their customers. They’re also trying new ideas, such as taps dedicated to pre-mixed cocktails and self-service beer taps.

After Texas changed laws to make it easier for bar patrons to serve their own beverages, some Draft Horse clients asked the company to install a pour-your-own beer system, where customers swipe their credit cards and serve themselves the drink of their choice, Crawford said.

“One of the things that’s cool for us about the draft business is there’s an opportunity to be a lot more creative that you can be on the plumbing side,” Crawford said. “There’re a lot of interesting things we can do with metals, faucets and towers and different designs that look beautiful. So far, we haven’t had to say, ‘No we can’t do that,’ to anybody.”