When Paul Fichter started Taphandles in July 1999, he figured he would be making standard wood handles for home breweries. “Then one [brewing company] asked for a surfboard, and I said, ‘I guess I can do that.’ Then, Alaskan [Brewing] wanted a whale.”
Today, Seattle-based Taphandles has more than 50 percent of the global tap handle market and a unique niche for designing and building a variety of products that help brewers build their brands. The company has more than 500 employees around the world and $20 million in annual revenue.
The key to his success, Fichter says, is figuring out how to make distinctive tap handles that reflect the values of individual breweries and resonate with the brewery’s customers.
“When people walk up to a bar or beer counter, the only thing they have to go on is what they see,” Fichter says. Since few bars let customers taste the beer before ordering, he says tap handles end up being “the second most powerful way [after the server] of helping people choose” a beer.
“Customers are looking for something that grabs their attention,” Fichter says. Whatever that something is, it should make the customer connect with the brand and feel as if the beer is his or her sort of beer. Taphandles designs its handles in the Seattle area, where it employs 50 people, and has them manufactured in China, where it employs 400. The company also has a factory in Woodinville where it makes lighted beer signs and A-frame signs, and another factory in Chicago dedicated to branded glassware. It has evolved into a complete beer marketing company, from websites and logo design to point-of-sale products and promotional merchandise.
For future expansion, Fichter says Taphandles will remain focused on marketing beer. “If it has a beer logo,” he says, “that’s [an area for] growth.”