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Students Run Research Project From The Bottoms Up

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FARGO, N.D. (AP) — A group of Columbia University MBA students touring the country this summer to help small businesses improve their products chose a Fargo company partly because they liked the brand and partly because they could do their research in a tap room.

Nothing says more about a city than its craft beer, said Elizabeth Pfieffer, one of four researchers who spent the last week at the Fargo Brewing Co., named for North Dakota’s largest city.

“It is something that people who are from out of town want to experience and do, to get to know a place,” Pfieffer said. “There’s a huge part of this product that is about lifestyle.”

The perks for the project have included samples of Wood Chipper IPA (named after the famous “Fargo” movie scene), Stone’s Throw Scottish Ale, Sod-Buster Porter and Iron Horse Pale Ale, among others. The quality of the product is not an issue, said Guillaume Cazalaa, the group’s craft beer aficionado.

“Fargo has some really good stuff,” he said. “I’m really taken aback.”

The company was founded in 2011 by four Fargo natives who learned how to make beer in a garage. Brothers Chris and John Anderson, Jared Hardy and Aaron Hill contracted with an out-of-state brewery for the first two years and last year began making it themselves in a mammoth warehouse near downtown Fargo.

Cazalaa equates the size of the building with the potential of the business.

“It’s good testimony to their ambition,” he said.

Cazalaa, Pfieffer and fellow students Jasmine Ainetchian and Atif Qadir are among several groups traveling the U.S. as part of the MBAs Across America Program. They had previous stops in Louisiana, Arkansas, New Mexico and Colorado. They’ll wind up the tour next week in Detroit.

The students are helping Fargo Brewing fine-tune its marketing plans, gauge interest in a pub and restaurant, and explore possible expansion into the Minneapolis and St. Paul market. The company is moving in that direction, having recently signed a contract with a distributor in the St. Cloud, Minnesota, area.

Qadir said geographic expansion is difficult for any product, but especially in the food and beverage industry and even more so for goods that are tied to a community. He said a company needs to show it has good materials and ingredients, a careful and conscientious manufacturing process, and smart advertising.

“There are a lot of positives for the business in terms of what they feel about the brand here, and we think there may be a lot of transferring qualities to a competitive city like Minneapolis,” Qadir said.

Hardy, one of the owners, said he’s grateful not only for the free technical assistance from the Master of Business Administration students but also an unbiased opinion on the beer. The company already has developed a loyal following of customers whose feedback is naturally positive.

“And because we’re in the industry, we’re going to make certain assumptions … assumptions that maybe we should challenge,” he said. “Having someone look at it from the outside will help.”

While the researchers have not finished their final report, they’re predicting continued success no matter what the company decides on expansion.

“It’s not about taking over the U.S. and going international, it’s about making a company and a beer and a place that speaks to what Fargo is all about,” Ainetchian said. “Whether it’s huge in five years or whether it’s in strategic places they choose, I think it will all come down to what they want.”

In addition to its success on paper, Pfieffer said, Fargo Brewing is a fun place to work.

“Walking in, you can see that people are happy to be here,” Pfieffer said. “There’s an excitement about what they’re doing. They’re playing music, they’re canning, they’re running back and forth between doing business operations and working the floor.

“That brings a level of ownership and excitement to working here. There’s an element of seeing that in everyone who’s in Fargo and how people really feel that they own this city. I’m not sure if everyone feels that way across the U.S.”

(© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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