At Emporia’s Bourbon Cowboy Bar, a Woman Who Stayed Ahead of the Herd
Susan Brinkman became the first certified female entrepreneur bar owner in Kansas when she bought an old JCPenney’s building, got a 160-year-old prohibition rule overturned and opened Bourbon Cowboy in downtown Emporia.
When the Kansas Department of Commerce started a certification program for women entrepreneurs, they mostly attracted applicants in traditional female businesses such as cleaning, hospitality or catering, or non-traditional fields such as construction.
They hadn’t seen anyone with a plan like Susan Brinkman, who wanted to open a bar in the heart of downtown Emporia, a college town of 25,000 at the northern tip of the Kansas Flint Hills. While she was at it, she’d also go on to bring about the end of prohibition still lingering in small pockets of Emporia. But more on that later.
Today Susan Brinkman, the owner of the Bourbon Cowboy, is the first, and still only, female entrepreneur certified as a Kansas Women Business Enterprise by opening a bar.
Rhonda Harris, director of the Office of Minority and Women Business Development, explains that at the time, certification was required in order to qualify for a certain loan.
“Now the loan program through Network Kansas has evolved and no longer requires the certification, but we have many women-owned businesses who like to have the credential because it gives them more credibility and a sense of pride to have that designation,” Harris says.
Brinkman wants women to realize that even if their business dreams are non-traditional, there is still support for them in her native state.
“As Kansans, we don’t do as well as we could at shouting from rooftops, that women have all kinds of ideas,” she said. “I’m not just crazy 50-year-old who wanted to own a bar.”
Brinkman is a fifth-generation Kansan who grew up in suburban Johnson County, near Kansas City. She spent time each summer on a Kansas wheat farm helping with harvest. “Helping” might not be what the adults would have called it, but she still remembers the dirt streets, the grape Nehi soda and being “mesmerized” by it all.
After high school Brinkman didn’t want more time in a classroom right away, thinking it would be “much smarter” to simply work three jobs in Kansas City. After a while that started to seem less smart, so in 1989 she headed for college at Emporia State University (ESU). As intently as she pursued her psychology studies, she still found herself thinking, “I’ve got to find a bar and start bartending.”
Brinkman explains her life-long love for the bar business this way. “I don’t walk into a bar and see 100 strangers, but 100 potential new friends. There is something to learn in that industry as much as in any classroom.”
After graduation Brinkman pursued professional opportunities working with women, children and families. She earned a master’s degree and then a second bachelor’s in art, and then she lived in Minneapolis for a few years photographing re-enactments for the Minnesota State Historical Society.
“This Kansas girl was not happy with the cold and snow,” she admits. So she returned to Emporia and balanced working in public mental health with various bartending jobs. She came to realize that working in those fields, “customers can start to overlap” and that was not the best thing. She left bartending in 2000 to work as director of admissions at ESU. She left that job to start a family and was later elected to the school board. In 2007 she took a part-time job as assistant director of the Center for Great Plains Studies at ESU.
Time flying as it does, her son grew up quickly, so she decided not to seek a third term on the school board. Suddenly, she was facing life with only one part-time job, summers off. For some, that would seem like heaven. For Brinkman, not so much.
“I’m about the people I meet and the things I create with them. When my husband asked what I wanted to do next, I said there is no job better than at a bar.” It was Thanksgiving 2014 when she sat with her family around the table and announced her plans to open her own place. “They all laughed, and said, ‘yeah right, let us know how that works out.'”
But Brinkman knew the bar business, she and her husband Jason understood marketing and design, and she was used to overseeing a staff from her days at ESU. She had no experience with business plans or book keeping, however. Her first step moving this plan beyond “one of Susan’s crazy ideas” was to take a class through the Small Business Development Center on campus. Through this process she learned about the Kansas certification program and realized her business was atypical.
“I thought it was important as woman business owner to complete the paperwork.” It wasn’t until her site visit from the state that she learned she was the only bar/nightclub in Kansas applying for certification.
The process also helped her understand what sort of financial packages were available. “I used every type of gap funding. I was the poster child for loans and grants. I didn’t start with much savings, just sheer determination.” For example, she got a Small Business Association 7A loan and a tax credit because of being in a historic district of downtown Emporia.
Brinkman wants potential women entrepreneurs to know they don’t have to have hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings. “But you do need to have the will and determination and be patient.”
It was a “slugfest” to get through it all, but on April 15, 2016, the doors opened on the Bourbon Cowboy. “Right away we were serving beer and helping celebrate graduations, retirements, milestones in between.”
The Bourbon Cowboy is a 6,000 square foot two-level building at the intersection of two major streets in town, six blocks from the university. It offers live music, weekly jam sessions and a dance floor. Sometimes a mechanical bull wheels in for an evening; some afternoons dogs are invited in for “Yappy Hour” on the patio.
The building was platted in 1880 and built in 1901. Over the years it had been a boarding house, a dry good store, a JC Penney and a carpet store. It had been vacant for 15 years when she bought it. Neighboring business owners were excited it had been purchased but not so excited it was going to be a bar. In addition, some people were surprised that a school board member was at the helm.
“Not everyone is supportive of someone who is a mom, wife, educator and member of the school board who is also working in the alcohol industry,” she said. But she remembered her certification, and that hers was a legitimate business that the state recognizes.
Additionally, “We are respectful of the retail section of town and want to be good stewards,” she said.
To that end, she wanted the exterior to be attractive, not just blacked out windows and beer signs like a typical small-town bar. She’s covered the front of the brick building with murals depicting scenes of the “Wild West” and Emporia history.
The Bourbon Cowboy has 22 employees whom Brinkman says are the best part about the bar. “I couldn’t have opened the doors without them. They create crazy cool promotions, make cupcakes for regular customers’ birthdays, and just on their own I see them give customers rides to appointments.”
As to be expected in a college town, most of the employees are in their 20s or early 30s. Brinkman says her faith is “totally renewed” in millennials because of them. “I’m excited they’ll be taking care of me in the rest home one day. They aren’t worried about what my generation is, like the right car, house and money. When we have a promotion, they ask what charity we’re giving the profits to.”
As Brinkman notes, “It is so hard to make a dollar we’re grateful for every person who comes through our door who wants to spend a dollar in our business. Anyone can tap a keg and pour a frosty mug, but it’s our employees that make it work.”
Actually, it almost didn’t work at all, thanks to a long-forgotten Emporia prohibition law. About 30 minutes after Brinkman placed an offer on the building, the real estate agent called to say there was a “big problem.” The building had an alcohol prohibition attached, stating no spirits or liquor could be consumed on the premises. Accounts of Emporia history say the town charter from 1857 prohibited gambling and liquor sales, the penalty being the forfeiture of the property on which the misdemeanor took place. Thus, Emporia’s founders are believed to have established the first prohibition town in the world, 23 years ahead of the state prohibition amendment and 61 years ahead of the 18th Amendment.
To solve this dilemma, it was suggested that Brinkman simply place the cash register in a section of the multi-bay building that didn’t have that restriction. She wanted to solve the problem in a more lasting way. She advertised for four consecutive weeks in the legal notice section of the Emporia Gazette that they wanted to remove the prohibition. Any descendants of the original title could come forward and protest. No one did.
Recalling her family’s earlier skepticism, Brinkman laughs, “Of course, I chose one of the few buildings you couldn’t sell alcohol in.” But by being a certified Kansas woman entrepreneur, Brinkman has cleared the path for others who want to enter what she calls the “happiest profession in the world.”
Julianne Couch is the author of The Small Town Midwest: Resilience and Hope in the Twenty-first Century, and Jukeboxes & Jackalopes: A Wyoming Bar Journey.